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I’m a firm believer in the power of music to build and destroy, to inspire and incite, to chronicle and change. Technically, I’ve been making music for most of my life (since I was at least 5 years old) growing up in rural North Carolina surrounded by so much love and Blackness, that I was oblivious to the area’s inherent poverty. I grew up in a house packed at any given point with nearly 20 people–aunts, uncles, cousins, sister, Momma, and Grandma–and no running water. In the 1980s, in the region of North Carolina called “down east,” the historical residue of sharecropping peppered the working class. Black families were still beholden to white farmers who dangled the carrot of field work, a staple for hirelings stigmatized as ‘unskilled laborers.’
As I grew up and began working in the tobacco fields, the abject poverty around me became more visible. Equally, I began identifying the caregiving of my momma and my six aunts as resilience and strength. I realized how fly and independent-yet-selfless they were to raise a motley crew of Black kids (whose fathers were predominantly ghosts) in the boondocks of North Carolina. They committed long hours to the grueling work of tobacco farming and factory assembly lines, and heading to the juke joint on Saturday night to dance off the weight of low-wage, country living.
There was a joint simply and generically called The Store, lined with a few pool tables and a jukebox that remains unrivaled some 20 years later. Black men with their front teeth golden lusted after my aunts with a palpable fever, and that jukebox along with a stiff kick of clear moonshine egged them on. My twin sister and I mingled with the other kids while a soundtrack of “Shackles,” and “Outstanding” connected each one of us, no matter our age, in a single pursuit of happiness. I recall sitting atop the jukebox, incubated by its sounds, feeling electrified and, unknowingly, getting free.
Often when we talk about the power of music to affect and inspire change, we oppositionally look to the extremities of the systemic pain inflicted upon us for those examples, neglecting those moments where music simply does what it does best–it offers us license to let loose with coded commands like “get your back up off the wall,” and “got to give it up,” and “tell me something good.” In this sense, music is a common rebellion that slow-releases its necessity over a lifetime of tireless, working days when the realities of injustice can only be silenced by a soundtrack of Black Love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shirlette Ammons is a Mt. Olive-native and Durham, NC- based poet and musician who also directs a youth arts program. Her most recent projects include Matching Skin (feat. the John Anonymous EP), a collection of poetry published by Carolina Wren Press and And Lovers Like, a collaborative album with the Dynamite Brothers.
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