Sister Rosetta Thorpe (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture); Lil Baby (Wikimedia Commons); C. & M. A. Gospel Singers and Quintette (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture)

Raised voices: the complex musical messages of Juneteenth

June 13, 2023


According to University of Richmond sociology professor Matthew Oware, the songs of today’s hip-hop artists reflect a continuum with spirituals and gospel music that were embraced by their Black enslaved ancestors, expressing themes around freedom from oppression.

Recognizing Juneteenth provides an outlet for both joy and hope but also anger, grief, pain, and sorrow at the societal forces that denied Black people freedom — even when they legally could claim it, Oware said.

Juneteenth celebrates the June 19, 1865 date when the last enslaved Black Americans in Texas were made aware they were free, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Oware emphasized that his comments about the musical connections between Juneteenth and Black joy are simply his own thoughts and observations rather than those of a researcher.

“I have not specifically published or written about it,” he said. Yet, Oware’s 2018 book, I Got Something to Say: Gender, Race, and Social Consciousness in Rap Music, explores what millennial rappers articulate in their music and reveals how emcees perpetuate and challenge gendered and racialized constructions of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality.

Listening to hip-hop artists during his youth sparked Oware’s interest in exploring how rap music intersects with masculinity and racial identity.

“I started writing on the topic fresh out of graduate school,” he said when explaining his research and scholarly focus.

Regarding Juneteenth, Oware is intrigued by the notion of identifying underlying themes seen in the music of today’s youth and that of their ancestors.

Africans relied on “negro spirituals” and what would become Gospel music to verbalize their love, joy, and pain, he said. “These musical genres were the hope of these early Blacks. It is likely that these forefathers and foremothers could not have imagined a new genre called hip-hop representing these same themes for their descendants.

“Yet, I argue, it does. Through all its contradictions oscillating between messages of empowerment and opposition, the music stands as a representation of the Black youth culture, one that inspires many African Americans to continue to resist, protest, and verbalize their desire for freedom in all its forms, including race, gender, sexuality, and class.”

Oware cites as an example hip-hop artist Lil Baby, who criticizes police brutality in songs such as “The Bigger Picture.”  In the song, Lil Baby raps “I see blue lights I get scared and start running.”

These words connect to the lineage of institutional racism that still exists, Oware said. “We can see our ancestors wanting to free themselves from white supremacists and slave owners.”



Photos: Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture); Lil Baby (Wikimedia Commons); C. & M. A. Gospel Singers and Quintette (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture)