Legendary ensemble leads charge for social justice

Submitted photo Gary Hines

Since the 2020 murder of George Floyd, all eyes have been cast upon Minneapolis as the city has remained a hotbed of attention throughout the trial and conviction of former MPD officer Derek Chauvin. Amid the fight for equality has emerged a wave of music that has captured the mood of Black America. 

2020’s “Sick and Tired,” a song released by the Twin Cities-based ensemble Sounds of Blackness, is a direct reflection of the pent-up frustrations experienced by both Black Minnesotans and the Black community at large.

Inspired by the proclamation of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, “Sick and Tired” is a modern composition of Hamer’s declarative statement as told through the music of the legendary ensemble.

For original Sounds of Blackness member and longtime musical director Gary Hines it also represents a greater social responsibility and an adherence to historical tradition.

“Music, especially in the tradition of African people and African Americans, is more than art, it’s a form of life,” said Hines.

“Through the transatlantic slave trade and 350 years of the most brutal form of slavery, music was at the core of our sanity and a source of inspiration. It was also a guidance for us during the darkest of times. So, as the Sounds of Blackness, it is important we carry on this tradition.”

The driving force behind “Sick and Tired” according to Hines, were the murders of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbury. While the song’s message and genuine intent has been positively received, it has struggled to gain the full support of radio that has been apprehensive to play the record.

“The response for the song has been very overwhelming. Many people have said it’s one of our best records to date based on its impact and overall message,” explained Hines.

“But on the business side of things, radio has been very hesitant to play the record. Many stations agree that the message is good and that the sound is contemporary. Yet they’re also more concerned with offending people, and by people, I mean the corporate conglomerates that now control Black radio.

“KMOJ and WBLS in New York are among the few stations that have played and supported the record. Again, nothing is wrong with the record, it’s just that radio stations are more concerned with offending sponsors these days.” 

Outside of music, Hines and other group members have remained actively involved in various rallies, protests, and other stances against social injustice. Floyd’s murder and Chauvin’s trial has only deepened their commitment.

“I live eight blocks from the courthouse, right on the edge of downtown, so all of this affects me daily. George Floyd was also killed five blocks from where the Sounds of Blackness rehearses at the Sabathani Community Center. There’s a closeness all around. In fact, the day he was killed, which was on a Monday, we cancelled rehearsals and joined in on the protests.

“There were thousands of people protesting. But one of the things that stood out was hearing people play our song ‘Black Lives Matter.’ This reinforced that music is always at the heart of every movement.”

For every celebratory moment and momentous occasion, the Sounds of Blackness has amplified Black excellence through their rich catalog of songs. Known largely for their timeless classics such as “Optimistic” and “Soul Holidays,” the renowned ensemble will celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, a quiet accomplishment for a group that is recognized for their international prominence.

“We started out in January 1971 at Macalester College,” Hines recalled. “Many people don’t know this, but we were originally called the ‘Macalester Black Voices.’ That group was founded by a guy out of Beaumont, Texas named Russell Knighton. We wanted to carry on the tradition of Duke Ellington, who most people associate with jazz, but made music in every sound of Blackness.

“So, the name change was inspired by Duke Ellington. In fact, many people would see the name ‘Sounds of Blackness’ and would think that the group was based out of Detroit, Atlanta, New York, or L.A., and not Minneapolis. But we wanted people to know about the amazing sound we were creating in the Twin Cities.”

Celebrations across the Twin Cities are on tap throughout the year to commemorate the group’s 50th anniversary. Also, scheduled to be released is a song called “Reparations,” which aims to carry on the tradition of empowering Black anthems.

While Hines and the Sounds of Blackness have been more than willing to lend their gifts to causes related to social justice, they recognize that a collective effort is needed to evoke change. With this, Hines is quick to offer advice to artists that may be hesitant to utilize their voice during this trying time.

“I’d encourage all artists, especially younger artists, to donate and designate at least a portion of their artistry to the movement and to the struggle. Nobody’s asking today’s artists to be the Sounds of Blackness or to forsake your groove and identity. But what you can do is find ways to incorporate a portion of our struggle and consciousness into what you do as an artist.

“Marvin Gaye made songs like ‘Sexual Healing’ along with ‘Inner City Blues’ and ‘What’s Going On,’ which spoke about current issues. So, artists today can at least incorporate some of the things that are going on into their music.”

“Sick and Tired” is available for streaming on all platforms. For more information on the Sounds of Blackness, visit their official website: www.soundsofblackness.org.