Musician Charlton Singleton Talks About Music’s Response to Social Unrest
At a time when much of the nation reels in outrage and heartbreak at more lives lost to unjust violence, I — as Artistic Fuel’s editorial director — wanted to hear from artists who know social injustice first hand.
A month ago, I interviewed Charlton Singleton about the music scene in Charleston, South Carolina. The Grammy Award winning trumpet player has played around the world with multiple bands. And, in our first interview, we talked about his livestream performances and how the health pandemic will impact live music in the long run.
But this week, the conversation was different. Well, it felt different for one of us anyway. In the first few minutes of our call, I asked Charlton how he was doing and whether the current unrest is reflected in the music he’s working on.
Charlton said graciously, “You mean, has any of this stoked the fire on creativity? Honestly, no. It hasn’t changed for me. I told a friend earlier this week, this might be new to y’all. This isn’t new to us. So it’s kind of been business as usual.”
He pointed to songs his band Ranky Tanky wrote in recent years. Although there are countless songs birthed from centuries of social injustice, he said these three are a good start: “Freedom,” “Beat ’Em Down,” and “Been in the Storm.”
The songs honor the culture of slave descendants from Gullah, a region of coastal islands that stretches from the Carolinas to northern Florida. But Charlton said everyone can pull something from the lyrics.
“Everybody wants to have some sort of freedom in their life,” he said of Ranky Tanky’s song “Freedom.” “Freedom from an abusive relationship. Freedom from being stared at any time I walk into a store. Everybody wants freedom.”
Here are other words of wisdom Charlton had for me, and anyone else willing to listen.
Artistic Fuel: What’s the conversation been like in your house this week?
Singleton: This is a conversation that has been had many times in our home. My wife is white, so she’s experienced a few run-ins that I’ve had firsthand. She doesn’t say it often, but she gets a little afraid for the times I go out, even if it’s just to go around the corner. And a lot of times being in smaller cities, where we come in as this band — Ranky Tanky — and it’s five African American people and one Caucasian man, and the crowd is predominately white. Sometimes that gets under people’s skin. And she’ll say, be careful out there. She’s seen it, she’s dealt with it in her own way. That’s tone of our house. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.
I was telling a friend the other day, it’s just like Thomas in the Bible. He didn’t believe Jesus came back to life until he saw the nail holes in his hands. Black folks have been telling people about this for a long time and the people who seem the most surprised are the ones you honestly gotta look out for. They turn a blind eye to it. They refuse to believe it.
I have so many friends, who I don’t consider to be racist in any sense of the word. And they’ve called and said, has anything like this happen to you? Of course it has. And I guess that’s shocking for them when its someone they know. No one believes that the virus is that deadly until someone they know dies from it. Nobody believes police brutality is that much of a problem until a friend of theirs actually experiences it. And even still, so many have a hard time believing that this is actually happening.
A|F: As a father, what advice would you offer parents who want to talk to their kids about ongoing social injustice?
Singleton: The number one thing is to actually have a conversation about it. People say ‘we’ve got to have a conversation about this. Ok, let’s talk.’ … I was part of a race relations meeting that our mayor here in Charleston held, and one of the gentlemen who spoke said, why do we have to experience a tragedy in order for it to trigger the conversation? Why do we have to go through some sort of agony. Why is it that you don’t take my word as good as my word has been for all these other situations? This is something that could potentially kill me.
Understanding that part of it, helps. Understanding that its not cool to say certain things, helps. Understanding that when you hear your friends that are black saying they go through daily struggles because racism happens — understanding that helps. Hearing and listening to them helps. That’s a start.
A|F: What do you think music’s role is in this conversation?
Singleton: Music’s been part of this conversation for years. You want to know how long this has been going on, go listen to Duke Ellington recordings. Go listen to Stevie Wonder, Prince, Michael Jackson. I heard someone driving down the street this week playing Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us.”
Artists talk from experience. They’re always painting the picture of what’s happening now. It’s a shame that the majority of white Americans will go nuts about black culture — music, art, dance, or whatever — but don’t give a shit about the person. How can you love the NBA and NFL and go all out for your team, and the majority of them are African American. And you have racist thoughts. They want the culture, not the person.
A|F: A few Ranky Tanky songs come to mind, especially ‘Freedom.’
Singleton: Oh yeah, Clay (Ross) and Quiana (Parler) wrote the lyrics for “Freedom.” Quiana got off the phone and was frustrated about something and said, Lord, I need freedom. Almost like a joke. And me, being a person who finds rhythm everywhere — in the windshield wiper or in the sound of my tires rolling — I started harmonizing with her. Then Clay jumped in with his guitar. So that’s how “Freedom” was born. … The lyrics are universal and have been true for a long time. Whether it’s theft of identity, theft of land, brutality, discrimination — all of those things — you can find in that song.
And everybody wants to have some sort of freedom in their life. Freedom from drinking a six pack of sugary 7up a day. Freedom from an abusive relationship. Freedom from being stared at any time I walk into a store. Everybody wants some sort of freedom. With that song, you can pull your own sort of thing from it.
More Artistic Fuel:
Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.