The history of rock music is, in essence, a history of appropriation.
It’s a fairly well-known story, particularly for those with any interest in history or music. The genre that we call “rock,” although often associated with white musicians by a white audience, originated in the early 20th century as a Black art form, building off the tradition of gospel, jazz and blues music. In fact, the term “rock ‘n’ roll” as it relates to music comes from a 1922 blues song by a Black musician, Trixie Smith, who incorporated a commonly used sexual innuendo into her song title: “My Man Rocks Me (with One Steady Roll).”
As the 20th century moved on, white musicians began to appropriate this music style with increasing success, starting with the likes of Elvis Presley in the 1950s and building to the “classic rock” legends of the ‘70s and ‘80s. And while many influential Black artists were popular and beloved throughout these decades — Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few — their names have become eclipsed in popular culture by exalted figures such as Elvis or The Beatles. This lengthy process has brought us to what rock music is today: a genre that is created by predominately white men with the assumption that it will be listened to by predominately white men.
It’s a well-known story, and yet at the same time, it’s one that most white musicians fail to acknowledge in the course of their work. And when the subject of race isn’t openly and frequently acknowledged by popular white musicians, the story of appropriation continues.
But how does one go about addressing this difficult issue? We can look to the popular Irish musician Hozier, who released his new EP Nina Cried Power on Sept. 6, 2018. The EP comprises four songs, including the titular track, “Nina Cried Power,” which gets its name from a reference to the Black singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone. With “Nina Cried Power,” Hozier does something that should be done by all white artists: He acknowledges the narrative of musical appropriation and turns it into one of appreciation.
Hozier’s appreciation for the work of Black musicians shapes the entire track, including the lyrics, the gospel-inspired chorus and, most importantly, the involvement of a prominent civil rights singer, Mavis Staples, who sings alongside him. Although known for his poignant lyricism, here Hozier opts for a simple yet rousing chorus in which he and Staples cry the word “power” — a tribute to Simone’s song “Sinnerman.”
In addition to Simone, Staples and Hozier also call upon the names of other protest singers who “cried power,” including Black artists such as Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown, and white artists such as Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. The importance of naming these artists is clear — it’s a way of giving credit to those who had an impact on American music and society. For Hozier, this song is all about “crediting the legacy and the result of protest,” according to a recent interview with Billboard. “It is a thank-you note to the spirit of protest,” Hozier said.
Hozier’s efforts to give credit and recognition to these singers goes beyond the track itself. In the same Billboard interview, Hozier had no reservations about addressing the appropriation of rock music. “There is absolutely no rock and roll without blues music,” he said. “There is no blues music without one of the most horrendous atrocities of human trafficking in the last few centuries. It is, of course, a really difficult subject. Everything that’s popular music swings off the work and the achievements and the legacy of Black artistry.” By opening up these types of conversations about race, Hozier presents the music world with an important example of how to appreciate, rather than appropriate, art forms created by people of color.
Moreover, when considering today’s political and artistic climate, “Nina Cried Power” has even wider implications. The past year has seen an ongoing debate as to whether art can be separated from ideology, whether it can stand alone from controversial creators or problematic messages.
A song like “Nina Cried Power,” along with the legacy of all the great Black artists that it honors, serves to remind us that art is never just art. Everything that we choose to read and watch and listen to carries a message with it, and those messages have a profound impact on our society. Art is power, as the song’s title suggests. So, perhaps the real question that we should be discussing is: What do you do with this power?
In the song’s slowly simmering bridge, Mavis Staples sings, “And I could cry power / Power has been cried by those stronger than me / Straight into the face that tells you / To rattle your chains if you love being free.” And that in itself is our answer.
With this, Hozier and Staples have challenged us as artists and as consumers to follow the lead of Dylan and Curtis, of Holiday and Woody, and of Simone — they have challenged us to use our voices and to cry power.