At the time of the Civil Rights Movement, many artists such as Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, and Nina Simone made their voices known and heard through the art of Jazz Music. Because of this surge in artists speaking and singing about the racial inequalities that they faced during this time period, many still ask the question, “Should musicians be political? Does being political do anything?” By looking at the cases of Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, and Nina Simone, let’s look at just how effective being political was.
Louis Armstrong, even though criticized by fellow black musicians for playing into the notorious “Uncle Tom” stereotype, had a hidden and soft way of dealing with racial issues. For example, with his song, “(What Did I o To Be So) Black and Blue?”, includes the phrases
“My only skin/ Is in my skin/ What did I do/To be so black and blue?”
Even with this criticism, Armstrong became a cultural ambassador for the U.S during the Cold War and performed his jazz talents all around the world. But with the rise of the Little Rock Crisis, which involved the national guard preventing nine black children entering from high school, he canceled his tour to the Soviet Union with the phrase “The way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”
Charles Mingus and the release of his 1959 album Mingus Ah Um contains a song meant to condemn the acts of the Arkansas governor and his treatment of the Little Rock Nine. Columbia Records, who he was signed with at the time, thought the song was too pointed and refused to release the song. As a result, he released the song under another label (Candid Records) to make his voice heard.
Simone’s inspiration to participate in Civil Rights Movements stemmed from her early childhood. Even though she took part in many Civil Rights marches, she addressed racial inequality in her song “Mississippi Goddam”. Because of this release, many southern states boycotted this song and it was made a crime to play it in public. “Old Jim Crow”, which talks about the Jim Crow Laws, is also featured on the same album.