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Decolonize Your Mind: Listen to Esperanza Spalding

Disclaimer: Article contains content that may be offensive or unsuitable for minors. 

While this column normally discusses my experiences with negativity on campus and in our world, I’ve decided to try something new. Each month, I’ll write a profile that highlights someone I feel actively works to decolonize our minds and world. Don’t worry, you’ll still read my irate rants each month, too. This column’s going:

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Anyway, the first profile will feature a talented, fearless jazz artist named Esperanza Spalding.

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First, let’s establish how fucking amazing this woman is.

She started writing music before she started school, and she played all sorts of instruments at a young age. She joined her local symphony playing the violin and became concertmaster of the Chamber Music Society of Oregon at age 15. If that’s not enough, she started college at age 16, graduated, and became the youngest faculty member ever hired at Berklee College of Music at age 23.

Since then, Spalding has played with world-renowned artists like McCoy Tyner, who played in John Coltrane’s Quartet, Prince, who needs no introduction, and many more. In 2011, she pissed off teenage girls worldwide when she beat Justin Bieber for a Grammy in the category of Best New Artist (although she had been making music professionally since 2006).

Here’s a really great article in the New Yorker all about her badassery.

Now that we’ve sufficiently established that she’s incredible, we can talk about a few of my favorite songs written and performed by Spalding.

“Black Gold” is an anthem dedicated to young black boys and men which becomes clear in her lyrics. “Hold your head as high as you can… Little man,” begins the song and the singers repeat this line throughout the song as a reminder. She even admits that this may be hard because “not necessarily everyone will know your worth.” This message is SO SO important when our country witnesses the hateful rhetoric and violence directed towards black people daily. She affirms young black men with the repetition of the phrase “you are black gold.” Listen to the inspirational song below! The music video is great too! I like to imagine Spalding singing this song to Tamir Rice before he died.

Although “Black Gold” is my favorite upbeat, sing-in-the-shower song, “Land of the Free” sends an equally powerful and bold message. The opening lyrics, “Finally, we’ve exonerated Dupree” refer to the wrongful conviction and eventual exoneration of a black man named Cornelius Dupree, who spent 31 years in prison after being wrongly accused and imprisoned for crimes he did not commit.

She sings “Five fifths an innocent man but the court only saw three” which refer to the 3/5th’s Compromise in 1787 where black people only counted as a fraction of a person in terms of civil rights, and less than that in human rights. This song is basically her musical question that asks how this country can even call itself “free” when its justice system steals a man’s life like that. Spalding brings our attention to such serious issues in her music, actively working against the narrative that is fed to us from many news outlets and people.

Spalding has so many more incredible songs that address important issues like self-worth, being mixed race, her woman-ness and more, but alas, I will only discuss one more song.

“Endangered Species” discusses, as you may have gathered from the title, the pressing issue of climate change and how humans have led to the destruction of animal habitats and species. Spalding personifies Mother Nature literally as a maternal figure with whom we haven’t spoken in a long time, and speaks of the threat we pose to her when she sings “she’s in danger too.” It’s a pretty dark song, but again, politically engaged and so important.

Esperanza Spalding actively works to decolonize and desocialize us from the Eurocentric false narrative that the rest of the world feeds us, and she does this work through music. Here’s a playlist with some of her live performances, but not all of them! Be sure to do your own YouTube searching to find more.

Check out her website to keep up with her incredible music!

The idea of “decolonizing our minds” comes from writings of the author, feminist and social activist bell hooks. She encourages us to critically examine every thought and action, free ourselves from the coercive ideologies, and overcome the impacts of structural oppression. This bimonthly column will analyze spaces and times where and when we can pause and make strides in this arduous process, and also highlight figures who are helping us to decolonize ourselves. 

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