Donald J. Trump (2021): You know what woke means? It means you're a loser. Everything woke turns to shit, okay?
Nikki Haley (2023): Wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.
Kevin McCarthy (2021): This movement in this country about wokeness has got to stop.
Lauren Boebert (2023): Drag shows, gender ideology, critical race theory, and all this other woke BS.
Vivek Ramaswamy (2021): That new disease is called woke culture. It's the new secular religion in America, and its belief system centers on the idea that your identity is based on your race, your gender, and your sexual orientation, full stop.
Lauren Boebert (2023): When you go woke, you go broke.
Ron DeSantis (2022): We fight the woke in the legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright coming to you from the stage of the world-famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York.
Kai Wright: This is a special broadcast of Notes from America to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day produced in partnership with WNYC and the Apollo Theater and broadcast to public radio stations all across the country. You know what? Is anybody here in this crowd woke?
Kai Wright: We're going to talk in this show about what that word really means. It's a funny moment in our political culture. One in which simply being aware, being awake to the world around you, that's a dire threat to some people. Honestly, it's not all that new, and nobody can tell you that better than the person who coined the phrase, "stay woke".
Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was a pioneering folk musician in the early 20th century. He lived a challenging life. He spent his early years in Louisiana and Texas, mainly sharecropping and singing and finding his way through some of the most violently racist years in American history.
He may have been a violent man himself, he served a couple prison sentences before he began recording songs in the '30s, but his impact on the culture is undeniable. He found and wrote many folk songs that would become part of the American songbook, as it were, and he loved to engage the conversation. He even had a show on WNYC for about a year.
In 1938, Lead Belly wrote a song about the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenage boys falsely accused of sexually assaulting two white women on a freight train in Alabama. The boys spent a collective 100 years in prison as their cases were tried and became one of the catalysts, at least, for the Civil Rights Movement. Lead Belly, he connected with their story and he wrote this song. Now, he's a gravely mouth southern man and the words can be hard to make out, but here's a little bit of it.
[MUSIC - Lead Belly: Scottsboro Boys]
Go to Alabama and ya better watch out
The landlord'll get ya, gonna jump and shout
Scottsboro Scottsboro boys
Tell ya all about
I'm gonna tell all the colored people
Even in Harlem Swing
Don't ya ever go to Alabama
And try to sing
Go to Alabama and ya better watch out
The landlord'll get ya, gonna jump and shout
Scottsboro Scottsboro boys
Tell ya all about
Go to Alabama and ya better watch out
Kai Wright: Go to Alabama and you better watch out. I'm going to tell all the colored people living in Harlem Swing, don't you ever go to Alabama, just try to sing. We'll hear a special performance of that whole song in a bit, but first, let's learn more about Lead Belly and the context in which he first told Black people, stay woke. I'm joined by his great nephew, Alvin Singh. He's the lead archivist. Let's hear it for Alvin.
Kai Wright: He's the lead archivist for Lead Belly's estate and he's made a documentary about his life. It's called Lead Belly: The Man Who Invented Rock And Roll. Alvin, welcome to Notes for America.
Alvin Singh: Welcome. It's an honor to be here. How you doing?
Kai Wright: Lead Belly was your great uncle?
Alvin Singh: Yes.
Kai Wright: When did you become aware of him and your relation to him?
Alvin Singh: My first, actually, awareness of him was around the age of 11 or 12, and it was a huge certificate in my grandmother's house. I asked her, "When did Granddad go to college?" She said, "That's not a college certificate. It's a prison pardon?" I said, "When did Granddad go to prison?" Then that's when the story is.--To her, her uncle as well, my great uncle. Three years later, he was on the US Postal Stamp.
Kai Wright: Wow.
Alvin Singh: That's my connection with Lead Belly.
Kai Wright: Before he ever started recording songs, as we said, he was basically an itinerant farmer traveling around, singing, performing in between farming. What was his early life like?
Alvin Singh: He was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. It was sharecropping, but he started early as a musician. He would travel throughout Dallas, Texas, and Texarkana area with Blind Lemon Jefferson. Back then they were doing something called Hoboing, which would jump on trains and play music and go to the next town. He started from that background.
Kai Wright: He landed in prison a couple times for fights that got near deadly.
Alvin Singh: Yes. Remind you, this is Jim Crow America, so this is in the early '30 and '40s of fair trials, mistrials, and all of that took place. The way my grandmother told the story, and I shared it in the documentary, is this was a time where you didn't have a DJ and you didn't have things like that, so him as the disc jockey for the party, there was a jealousy that was there, and those fights did break out.
He ended up in Sugarland Prison, which is in Texas. He wrote a song on the spot for the Governor of Texas, and said, "If I had you like you had me, I'll wake up in the morning and set you free." This was a governor who ran this whole election saying that he would never set pardon on anybody. Sure enough, I think at 25, he did do the pardon.
Kai Wright: Sang himself out of prison for the first time.
Alvin Singh: Twice actually.
Kai Wright: Twice. Being in prison was an important part of his story too because it was there where he found and wrote a lot of the folk songs that would become--
Alvin Singh: There was a father and son team, the Lomaxs, John and Alan Lomax who worked for the Library of Congress and Smithsonian to a lot of these recordings of folk songs in America. What Lead Belly would do is travel throughout the prisons and start it off of what kind of songs that they were looking for, and so ended up being 500-something repertoire songs.
Kai Wright: Wow. 500-something songs.
Alvin Singh: Yes.
Kai Wright: He was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, which means he's one of the first people inducted.
Alvin Singh: Yes, that was the first class.
Kai Wright: A lot of famous musicians inspired him. You've interviewed some of them. How would you summarize his musical legacy?
Alvin Singh: Oh, we don't have enough time for that.
Kai Wright: Give it a shot.
Alvin Singh: We did the documentary over a span of 15 years, and I started it with my grandmother's address book. Who were the people on it? Odetta, Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, these kind of people, Joan Baez, B.B. King. They all had just great words to say on how he inspired them from whether there was the blues connection or the rock and roll connection, but his music was authenticity, is what I would hear often a lot.
For example, Pete Seeger expressed to me that while him and Woody Guthrie would dress up as a common man with jeans and flannel shirts, Lead Belly showed up at Christmas and children's parties with a tuxedo.
Kai Wright: That's right.
Alvin Singh: He took his performance very serious.
Kai Wright: That's right. What he's less known for is, as I said, coining the phrase, "stay woke". That story starts with his 1938 song called Scottsboro Boys. As I said, these are 9 boys, 19-aged boys falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama. What was Lead Belly's relationship to them, quickly? He met them, right?
Alvin Singh: Yes. In the song, he actually mentions that he met the lawyer and four of the boys. Four of them were released, and five of them were convicted and ended up doing time. He met the four of them when he came to New York.
Kai Wright: That inspired him. In his recording of the Scottsboro Boys song, he speaks with an interviewer at the end, and this is where he uses the phrase for what we believe is the first time. This is an old record. It's hard to make out, but I still want you to hear his voice.
Lead Belly: I made this little song about Don there, so I advise everybody to be a little careful when they go along through that, but stay woke. Keep your eyes open.
Kai Wright: Again, hard to hear, but he says, "Stay woke. Keep your eyes open."
Kai Wright: That's right. What do you think he meant by it in that time, Alvin?
Alvin Singh: Wow. I think it was similar. I used the reference of analogy of the Green Book. The Green Book was something that if you were traveling in the south, which hotels to stay, which restaurants to go to, which places to go to. His reference, from what I'm hearing, is a warning. It's a warning. He does mention Harlem a lot in that song.
Kai Wright: He does.
Alvin Singh: That to me represented the youth. Not so much of New York City, but maybe the youth. As we know, so if he said that in 1948, 1955 was the Emmett Till case, and he was a Chicago boy as a 14-year-old in similar cases. I believe in his perspective, it was a warning and it was also for you to stay aware of causes wherever you are. If you don't have a cause, then you got to fight for something.
Kai Wright: Alvin Singh, thanks for introducing us to your great uncle and his work.
Alvin Singh: Absolutely.
Kai Wright: We need to take a break. That's right. Thank you, Alvin.
We need to take a break, and when we come back, we'll get into how and why this word, woke, has been distorted and weaponized against racial and social justice movements, and put this whole moment in the context of history. First, let's actually hear Lead Belly's song. Mumu Fresh is with us. She's a Grammy-nominated Afro-indigenous singer-songwriter, and she's created an original arrangement of the 1938 song, the Scottsboro Boys for this Notes from America Special. I'm so honored to give you Mumu Fresh.
[MUSIC - Mumu Fresh: Scottsboro Boys]
If you woke up to Alabama
And ya better watch out
'Cause the landlord'll get ya
They're gonna make you jump and shout
Don't believe me, ask the Scottsboro boys
They'll tell ya what it's all about
Going to Alabama, you better watch out
The landlord'll get ya, gonna jump and shout
They'll tell you what it's all about
I'm gonna talk to Joe Louis
And it all angered me
Don't you ever try to think about it
In Alabama ree, Alabama
Kai Wright: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright, and this is a special broadcast of Notes from America celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the world-famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. What's up, Apollo?
All right, I'm joined now by Juliet Hooker. She's a political scientist at Brown University to specializes in Black political thought. Last year, she published a book called Black Grief/White Grievance: The Politics of Loss. It's got a lot to tell us about the current political moment, as well as some of the roots of this argument over the word woke. Juliet, welcome to Notes from America.
Juliet Hooker: Thanks for having me.
Kai Wright: We just heard a rendition of the song Lead Belly wrote about the Scottsboro boys, which, as I said, is the context in which he said stay woke for the first time. We believe that's where he coined the phrase. Can you put the Scottsboro boys case into a little more context for us? Why is it so important?
Juliet Hooker: As you mentioned earlier, of course, it went through many trials and retrials. One of the things that it did was that it ended up enshrining a lot of rights for criminal defendants, especially Black defendants because it led to the outlawing of defacto exclusion of African-Americans from juries, which was happening in Alabama at the time because they were based on voter rolls, and as we know, African-Americans were disenfranchised after reconstruction.
It was also something that galvanized African-American communities in the South, and people formed local committees to help defend the Scottsboro boys. Rosa Parks, for example, gets her first foray into activism working on the defense of the Scottsboro boys.
Kai Wright: It's this catalyst event in so many ways that I think a lot of people don't know about. How much do you think people are aware of these boys' case?
Juliet Hooker: There are these iconic events. There's the funeral of Emmett Till, there's the Scottsboro boys case that really lead up to the Civil Rights Movement, but I feel like you're right that the Scottsboro boys case has fallen a bit off the radar in comparison to some of these others.
Kai Wright: In one of Dr. King's last published works, it's called Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, he grapples with the state of the Civil Rights Movement and his aftermath. Talk to me about his mindset before his death and what you think was on his mind thinking about the [unintelligible 00:15:50] struggle?
Juliet Hooker: That is a fascinating text. He writes it after the Watts uprisings and all of the critiques of Black rioting and Black violence that is happening at the time. He's also spending half of his time living in Chicago and leading protest marches there to protest racism in the North, school segregation, poverty. He writes about how one year ago after the Civil Rights Act went into law, the same activists were marching in Chicago and getting pelted with bottles, jeered by thousands who are carrying Nazi signs.
He's trying to grapple with like, what is this moment in US history and what is happening? There is a narrative that's forming that the Watts uprisings are leading to racist backlash. But he's like, "No, the backlash started before it started, as soon as people saw that there was going to be Black advancement and then there's white resistance."
Kai Wright: Right. Which is to say, the grievance came first. This is a question that may irritate you as a scholar and somebody who cares about history, but in the modern context, would you call Dr. King woke?
Juliet Hooker: Oh, great question. If by woke we mean aware of and critical of racism, definitely. As we know, he was a southern preacher, so not in terms of perhaps some of the things related to openness to sexuality, gender that we might associate with it, but certainly I think in terms of a radical vision of what racial justice would require in the United States. I mean, the later King is the king of the poor people's campaign who's focused on economic inequality. It's also the King who's denouncing US militarism. He's definitely much more radical I think than he's often portrayed as being.
Kai Wright: Romanticized as being [unintelligible 00:18:03] It's okay to clap.
You point out in your book that there is often this criticism of how Black people protest, experience rage, and that it comes from a romanticization of the civil rights movement in the first place. Can you say more about that?
Juliet Hooker: Absolutely. We now have this narrative of the civil rights movement. You have these well-dressed, well-spoken protesters. They protested peacefully, and so their demands were somehow immediately met. We know that's not what happened. One of the things that that, of course, leads to is this critiques of current protesters saying, "You're not following the model civil rights movement. You're making people uncomfortable. You're engaging in looting or violence or this or the other."
What that doesn't take into account is that the whole point of the civil rights movement was to make people uncomfortable. It was to create conflict. I mean, they responded peacefully, but the point was-
Kai Wright: Was disruption.
Juliet Hooker: -was disruption.
Kai Wright: That romanticization you feel like is a core hindrance to organizing today, or maybe not to organizing today, but for people hearing what organizers have to say today?
Juliet Hooker: I don't think to organizing, but to how people respond to organizing. In the sense that people are often critical of contemporary activists saying 'You're not following the model, the civil rights movement." But then that doesn't take into account the fact that even when people protest peacefully, that doesn't mean that their protests are somehow responded to correctly. If you think about athletes kneeling, the most peaceful protest you can make, and people were still-
Kai Wright: Being on a knee.
Juliet Hooker: -and people were still super critical of those.
Kai Wright: Your book argues that there's these two big forces that divide politics in the United States today; Black grief and white grievance. Just to lay it out, let's talk about those two buckets first. Let's start with Black grief.
Juliet Hooker: By Black grief, I mean the way in which Black people have suffered losses continually over the course of US history, and they've had to respond to those losses often by mobilizing to gain justice for their loved ones who were killed by violence. This has meant that there's this tradition in Black politics of grief, death being this catalyst for activism. If you think about the funeral of Emmett Till, if you think about the movement for Black Lives, it was these moments of outpouring of grief and anger that people then channel into politics in order to try to create change.
Kai Wright: Right. Then for the white grievance part of it.
Juliet Hooker: White grievance I think of as a form of anticipatory loss. The other side of Black people facing disproportionate loss is that white people have not, as a group, had to face as much. They often respond to gains by other groups by feeling displaced. If you think about the response- [applause] Some people agree with that sentiment. -of All Lives Matter as a response to Black Lives Matter.
That's because, oh, this isn't about me. This sense of displacement of being displaced by other people seeking to have their rights upheld, I think is what leads people to see themselves as victims and mobilize in terms of these rhetorics of resentment, grievance.
Kai Wright: You opened the book talking about January 6th as a classic example of these two things, Black grief and white grievance playing out. Just spell out how you see these two things on that day.
Juliet Hooker: Well, one thing that many people pointed to on that day is the kid glove treatment that was accorded to the January 6th insurrectionist [applause] in comparison to how Black Lives Matter protestors had been treated in Washington DC. [applause] We see this now with people trying to whitewash what happened. An actual insurrection and calling it, oh, people were just being tourists visiting the capitol.
On the other hand, there are also people who will say things like, Black Lives Matter protests are about looting, they're about violence. It doesn't matter what happened in the protest, there's this assumption that there's something illegitimate about trying to get justice for Black people.
Kai Wright: We typically take calls as part of our show. We've asked our audience here at the Apollo to submit questions instead of our callers. Julius here asks, two part question, but one I want to ask you about, is it possible to be too woke, too consumed, and paranoid? As a student of Black political thought, I do wonder this que-- you've studied the Marcus Garvey Movement, you've studied some of the-- taking that question seriously, is there a place where it becomes a problem for a racial justice or a social justice movement?
Juliet Hooker: That's an interesting question. I think one thing that I would say is, it depends on what we're talking about. If you mean in terms of the personal consequences of feeling like you're always aware of the ways in which you are experiencing racism, sexism, all these things. Part of the problem is you can't really turn that off. Some people do respond by saying, "I'm just going to try to block it out," and then they realize, no, I can't, because you suffer some incidents of racism or sexism.
I think as a movement, I think if we're talking in terms of movements, I think often for movements, it's used to say you're trying to go too far too fast. MLK used to say, racial justice is always untimely. There's never a right time to be trying to [applause] fight for your rights.
Kai Wright: It's always an inconvenient thing to think about justice. I also gather, you're saying that you want to move us out of this binary, Black grief, white grievance, that both of them are narrowing of the imagination. What do you mean about that?
Juliet Hooker: I think on the white grievance side of it, I think that there is the sense that it leads to a zero-sum thinking. Not all white people, but some white people feel like if other groups are gaining rights, that's taking something away from them. They always have to be opposed to that, even when they might gain from the same policies. If you think about something like [applause] expanding Medicare, which people end up opposing because they see it as somehow benefiting other groups more than whites.
The other thing, on the Black side, I think there's a tradition in Black political thought where I think Black thinkers and activists have taken on the sense that it is incumbent on them to try to change US democracy, to try to take on this burden. [unintelligible 00:25:52], for example, talked about, after the death of her son, about feeling called by God to become an activist. It was heroic what she did, and we can celebrate the heroism of people who take on these roles while also thinking about the cost of that activism.
You think about somebody like Erica Garner who ends up dying young of a heart attack after taking on this role of activist after the death of her father. We can also ask, what obligations do we have towards people who are grieving whom we are asking to become activists?
Kai Wright: I want to turn to the current battleground over wokeness which is higher education. The most recent news is surrounding Claudine Gay, the former president of Harvard. She recently resigned her position following a congressional hearing about free speech on college campuses, but specifically surrounding the debate over Israel's bombardment of Gaza. The details of her story are winding, and I think, well trot at this point, we won't go back over them, but they include accusations that she was not tough enough on antisemitism and some attacks on her scholarship, which I think notably focuses on racial representation and positions of power.
What does all of this moment around Claudine Gay tell you as someone who is sitting in higher education studying racial justice? What does this tell you about the culture war in higher education right now?
Juliet Hooker: It's extremely disappointing. I think what we're seeing is people really weaponizing these concerns about antisemitism and about plagiarism, but it's not really about that. They're using it, I think, in order to really attack higher education.
Kai Wright: Higher education itself?
Juliet Hooker: Higher education itself, because it started with the public universities where a lot of states were making all of these-- state legislatures were really trying to clamp down on what was happening in public education, and now they're going after private education. I think one of the reasons that that's happening is because higher education teaches people critical thinking skills and it teaches you accurate history.
Kai Wright: Did you see this coming? From inside academia, is this moment a surprise to folks who do the kind of work you do?
Juliet Hooker: I don't think it's a surprise. I think we're in a moment where there is greater visibility of scholars of color on college campuses. I think that's seen as a threat by people who feel like particularly elite institutions should be dominated by white straight men. I think it's also the case that we've seen these attacks on higher education for a while now. They're really about taking away the ability of people to really identify misinformation, to really respond to some of the wave of lies and misinformation that we're awash in right now.
Kai Wright: We have to go to break in a minute, but has it had a chilling effect, you think?
Juliet Hooker: I think so. I think people are very concerned about what they can say. People are saying very clearly that donors want to, at private institutions, want to be able to have a same faculty hiring. They want to have a same promotion. This tells you, tow the line, or we're going to come after you.
Kai Wright: We need to take a break. This is a special edition of Notes From America. We're celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York.
I'm talking with Brown University political scientist, Juliet Hooker, who is author of the book, Black Grief/White Grievance: The Politics of Loss. Coming up, Grammy-nominated artist and activist, Mumu Fresh takes the stage again. She's going to join the conversation and talk about how we do, in fact, stay woke.
Speaker 10: We are at a moment where the idea of staying woke, the idea of being woke, the idea of getting woke is necessary. It's necessary because the world would rather have us asleep.
Speaker 11: I can tell you what woke means. It just means being aware, being in alignment with nature because if you're in alignment with that, you're aware of everything that's going on.
Speaker 12: There will come a time when Black people wake up.
Speaker 13: Wake up.
Speaker 14: The world woke up. Finally they are so open to what we already knew. Stay woke.
Kai Wright: I'm Kai Wright. Stay with us.
[MUSIC - Mumu Fresh: State Of Emergency]
It's coming quick
And We can't wait on the government
This is a state of emergency
Don't scroll by
Show some urgency
If we don't act now
It will be too late
We gon' let these bald heads determine our fate
This is a state of emergency
Kai Wright: From the Apollo Theater in Harlem New York, it's Notes from America. [applause] I'm Kai Wright. What we just heard is a bit of the song State of Emergency by Mumu Fresh one of my guests for this special Martin Luther King Jr. Day broadcast. Harlem one more time, say hello.
Mumu Fresh joins our conversation now, though, I have to say that your real name is Maimouna Youssef. Mumu Fresh is your stage name, and it's got a cool origin story. Will you share that with us?
Mumu Fresh: My stage name?
Kai Wright: Yes.
Mumu Fresh: It comes from being on the road with The Roots. Mumu was like a pet name, my mother will call me Mumusha, Mumuye. When I started touring with The Roots, maybe in 2005, Rahzel had left and Scratch had left, and so I was trying to fill in with my beatbox, my early beatbox skills. I was beatboxing one day and just adlibing to the floor what Black Thought was doing and he just looked back and was like, "Mumu Fresh." I was like, "Oh, I like that. That works."
Kai Wright: It has a meaning in Nigeria, right?
Mumu Fresh: Oh my god. All over the world, Mumu has different-- [chuckles] are you sure you want me to tell that story? [laughs]
Kai Wright: Well, tell it in a way that's safe for public radio discussions.
Mumu Fresh: Mumu has many names in many different countries. Everywhere I travel, people tell me it has a different name. In Nigeria, it means the fool, stupid. I was like, "Well, I'm stupid fresh," I feel like it still works. [laughter] Many readers, many names.
Kai Wright: Indeed. We just heard a bit of your song, State of Emergency. It's from 2023. I have to point out some of the lyrics. You write, "The world is waking up. No time for the politricks cuz we can't lose focus feeling so hopeless. All that's been broken needs to be fixed. Sign of the times, it's coming quick and We can't wait on the government. This is a state of emergency"
This is beautiful lyrics.
Mumu Fresh: Thank you.
Kai Wright: This is a song about climate change, though.
Mumu Fresh: It is.
Kai Wright: Tell me about that.
Mumu Fresh: Well, it's something that affects all of us. All my life, climate change has been a niche cause. If you have the luxury to worry about climate change, if you're in this crunchy granola group and you worry about climate change because you have extra time. It has not been something that in the Black and brown communities that we have taken the lead on as we should as stewards of the earth, as indigenous people of the land, as traditionally we come from the earth. My family's from Mississippi, and anybody who has-- I'm sure lots of people in here are from New York.
I just read Dapper Dan's book and he talks about so many people who settled in Harlem actually came from North and South Carolina, and they kept their communities very tight-knit and they understood how to farm. They understood how to live in balance with nature and not to harm the nature, and that's something that we've lost sight of. We have lost feeling like the environment is ours, Mother Nature is ours and our responsibility, our mother.
It is something that I feel like we need to be in the forefront of, making sure that we're preserving this relationship with Mother Earth and caring for her in the deep way that I believe we were assigned to do.
Kai Wright: That's right.
That's something you want us all to be more woke about.
Mumu Fresh: Absolutely.
Kai Wright: One of the things we've asked our audience here is to tell us things they want to be more woke about. They're going to stand in as our callers in this week's show. I'm going to get to some of our audience's questions and comments. One of them, Juliet Hooker, we got a number of questions actually in our last conversation about Israel and Palestine today. Rachel asks, "How does MLK's message connect with the ongoing crisis in Palestine and Israel today?"
Juliet Hooker: Well, I mean, most clearly we know that he would oppose the war because he espoused non-violence. I think it's pretty clear that he would see war not as the solution to the conflict.
Kai Wright: To anyone's problem.
Juliet Hooker: Anyone's problems, and that there need to be political and diplomatic solutions to the crisis in Palestine and Israel and trying to find a way, I think, for people to live together in the territory that they find themselves sharing.
Kai Wright: Why do you feel like you have to engage? This is now for you Maimouna. Why do you feel like you have to engage politically in your songs? Why is that part of your work?
Mumu Fresh: I don't feel like I have to. I feel called to. I feel like being involved-- because people always ask me, "How did you get involved in social justice?" I said, "I was born into it." I have a choice.
Kai Wright: It's who you are.
Mumu Fresh: Yes. It's just I feel it on my heart, and I write about what I feel spiritually called to sing about and to talk about when I'm moved to things that-- I consult with God like, "Is this something you want me to speak on? When should I speak on it? How should I speak on it?" That is something that, among many other things, I feel strongly about doing, standing right, the resistance at standing right when we were processing these pipelines. That was a cause that I really felt strongly about getting the hip-hop community to evolve in because a lot of people felt like, "Oh, that's an Indian issue, that's a Native American issue." Water is a everybody issue.
We do not have forever to figure this thing out. You understand what I'm saying? This is not somewhere far in the future. Maybe we'll let future generations figure it out. We don't have that kind of time. I wanted people to feel the urgency of it. If the government isn't doing it, every last one of us can make a choice every single day to protect the environment, to stop using fossil fuels. All of us can make that choice, and we have the power to push this thing forward even if the big companies don't want it. We have the ability to force their hand to save all of us.
Kai Wright: We've talked about the climate, we've talked about non-violence and war. Here's a question from Lenly that I think connects some of these ideas, "I wish people were more aware of things happening in other countries and understood systems that work abroad like health care. How do we get beyond American exceptionalism and learn from other communities and societies?"
Mumu Fresh: That's big.
Kai Wright: In our wokeness, how do we think globally? You want to take that, Juliet?
Juliet Hooker: I think this is something that is a real problem in the US that because of this narrative of American exceptionalism, everybody is so focused on what's happening here, as opposed to thinking, how can the US learn from other places? I think one way in which we can think about this is, there are all these things that are actually not going well in the United States that are wrong, and maybe we have something to learn from other people.
Kai Wright: You want to talk about that?
Mumu Fresh: Yes, absolutely. I feel like we need to travel more. I see people make comments about comparing other countries to this country and they haven't traveled anywhere. How would you know? How do you know what's going on? Also seeing ourselves--
Kai Wright: You cannot be aware if literally you do not know.
Mumu Fresh: Seriously. Seeing ourselves connected, everything impacts the other. We're not some island. Given the conflict, I've heard many Black people saying, "Well, why are we worried about what's going on in Palestine? How can we not worry about what's going on in Congo and in Niger and in Nigeria?" We absolutely should be worried about all those things, but those things are connected. The more you travel, the smaller the world gets. These things are not isolated.
Financially, they're connected. Politically, they're connected. You see that South Africa is leading this charge [applause] in this lawsuit. We are connected. We have to see ourselves that way. We cannot keep seeing ourselves as isolated, even by race. To me, we are connected by thought, by intention, by where your heart is, by your morals. That is where we are connected and aligned.
Kai Wright: On this point about where is our attention, I really would love-- We're talking about woke today, but I've always wanted to wage a campaign against the words either/or in any political conversation, and get us to use the words both, and as often as we can. Sheryl asks, "How do you make MLK's messages of Black liberation and the end of oppression relevant to immigrant communities?" This is something I think both of you would have something to say about. Juliet, do you want to chime in?
Juliet Hooker: I think this is where your point about thinking an and/or is really important. There are ways in which this is not simply-- we need to think about how all our struggles are connected, thinking about things like immigrant detention or the separation of children from their families at the border, that this is connected to mass incarceration. It's connected to the way in which we think about policing as a way out of problems, as opposed to thinking more creatively about how we might solve certain kinds of problems.
Also, if you think about the rhetoric around, there's an immigrant invasion and the sense that people are feeling being displaced, that's connected also to people who are already here who are also not seen as full citizens. These things aren't disconnected because they're all part of what do we want the US to look like? What do we want it to be like? How do we want to treat its citizens? What kind of state do we want to have? Do we want to have a state that polices, that is oppressive, or a state that takes care of people?
Mumu Fresh: I think it's aligned with MLK's message, in particular, because he was trying to get the workers' unions created. On that level, we are very much in this same economic struggle. You see a lot of the tensions have to do with economics. It has to do with people's fear about not having enough, and there not being systems in place that make sure that everyone has enough because there is enough for everyone if it's distributed properly. [applause]
Then I also think there's something to be said about our elected officials, foreign policy, destabilizing governments that make it unsuitable for those individuals to live in their own countries. [applause] There's something to be said about that.
Kai Wright: Alan asks, "How do we remember the experiences of people over the age of 60, such as segregation?" As somebody who studied so much of that era, Juliet, I think it's a good question. In a media and political environment that is necessarily so future and youth-focused, how do we remember what we could have learned from folks who actually lived through some of the segregation that we're talking about?
Juliet Hooker: That is a really good question. I think this question of memory, of how we remember and what we remember is so central because even thinking about the civil rights movement and that romantic narrative that's become the official memory of it, we misremember so many things, and then we also choose to remember some and not others. I think going back to those folks and trying to preserve the memory of that time, but also thinking about how it connects to the present.
Not to be present, [unintelligible 00:44:07] to say the only reason to preserve it is because of what we can learn from it, but also to think about why it's important if you look at debates today about things like teaching the 1619 Project, or how did they teach US history, that having an accurate memory of that history is so central, and teaching it and passing it on is absolutely essential.
Kai Wright: Maimouna, earlier in the show, we heard your incredible rendition of the Scottsboro Boys, Lead Belly's Song.
Mumu Fresh: Thank you.
Kai Wright: Were you familiar with the song before this?
Mumu Fresh: I was not. I was also interested that he used the word woke in the track. I was like, "Why did say this? This is a bad thing."
Kai Wright: You had just come to him. What are your reflections on him now that he's come to you?
Mumu Fresh: Well, I love that he was a political activist in making music about what could have been a possibly dangerous topic at that time. He was really stepping out on faith and singing about things that could have gotten him harmed at that time. It was very brave of him to do that and to lift up the story of the Scottsboro Boys. That was very courageous.
Kai Wright: Your rendition was wonderful. You also have a song called Say My Name that is a tribute to Sandra Bland. Sandra Bland was, of course, the 28-year-old Black woman who was found hanged in a jail cell in Texas in 2015. Can you tell us about that song?
Mumu Fresh: Yes. I remember watching on YouTube, I watched her be pulled over and handcuffed and arrested. When we found out that she had been hanged in prison. I just remember seeing so many of the comments just having so little remorse for this woman, saying things like, "Well, she was probably talking too much. Black women are real mouthy."
It just vexed my spirit so much that I wanted to write a tribute to her so that you could empathize with her humanity, that she wasn't just a mouthy Black woman who asked for it, but that you could really, really feel her humanity and put yourself in her shoes. What would you want to have been said about you? Would you have wanted someone to empathize and see your humanity and to give you a second chance or a first chance or to not have seen you as a criminal off rip?
I wrote it in a DO-OP style as a tribute. We tribute our ancestors with the DO-OP style. It just was really important for me to tribute her, and I ended up meeting her mom. Her mom, actually, I don't even know how she got my number. She just called me at 5:00 in the morning. Like "Are you Mumu Fresh?" I could tell she was an older woman, and I was raised right, so I said, "Yes, ma'am." [laughter] She said, "I'm Sandy's mom," and I just broke out in tears. We just built a very beautiful connection around that. I told her I would make sure I will always lift her daughter up and tell her story and embody her humanity.
Kai Wright: That is a lovely thought for us to close on. We are going to have to leave it there. Before we go, Mumu Fresh is going to give us one more performance. Let me get some business out of the way for her while she gets ready to do that. I want to thank Juliet Hooker. She's a political scientist [applause] at Brown University and author of the book, Black Grief/White Grievance: The Politics of Loss. Thank you so much for being with us today, Juliet.
Juliet Hooker: Thanks for having me.
Kai Wright: Notes from America is a production of WNYC Studios. Check out our podcast for any episode you may have missed or want to revisit. We're on Instagram @Noteswithkai. A big, big thanks to our partners at the Apollo Theater and to our incredible live audience here in Harlem. [applause] Thanks to the Grammy-nominated recording artist and activist, Mumu Fresh, who is ready to sing for us. I'm Kai Wright. This is Notes from America, and here is Mumu Fresh with North Star.
Mumu Fresh: I had planned to do North Star, but I think I'm going to go ahead and do Say My Name for you All since [unintelligible 00:48:47] [applause]
[MUSIC - Mumu Fresh: Say My Name]
[Humming] Oh, if I should die tomorrow
At the hands of the policeman.
Kai Wright: This episode was produced by Regina de Heer. Our theme music and sound design is by Jared Paul, mixing this week by Mike Kutchman. Special thanks for live engineering to Ed Haber, Irene Trudell, and George Wellington. Our team also includes Karen Frillman, Suzanne Gabber, Felice Leon, and Lindsey Foster Thomas. Hey, remember you can always talk to us by going to notesfromamerica.org and leaving a voice note right there on the site. Thanks for listening.
Why would you shake your head
Think this ain't right
Would you do your best to forget about me
Please don't forget about me
Say my name, say my name
Say my name, say my name, say my name.
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