Beats of Optimism
The music of an early 20th-century composer and that of a modern rapper seem worlds apart, but they are linked in how they convey the Black American experience.
The composer William Grant Still was born in 1895; the rapper Sir Bryson Hall II—better known by the stage name “Logic”—was born in 1990. Separated by almost a hundred years, these two artists stand at opposite ends of a century and, arguably, a musical spectrum. Yet classical music and hip-hop are both as American as apple pie, precisely because both are deeply entwined with the Black experience in the United States—even if American classical music has suffered from a certain degree of Eurocentrism while hip-hop has had to fight to be taken seriously as an art form worthy of respect.
Despite differences of circumstance and style, Still and Logic share a curious set of parallels. Both came of age in eras of social, political, and technological transformation. Both produced works that challenged conventions of their genres while maintaining popular appeal. Both faced unforgiving critics. And both used their work to grapple with difficult questions of race and belonging in a multicultural, multi-ethnic society. Even so, Still’s compositions and Logic’s verses are less interested in generating heat for specific political agendas than they are in using art to remedy pressing social divisions. Some would call this naive idealism; but, as we continue to struggle with mutual understanding today, perhaps a dose of idealism is just what we need.
Although Still’s childhood in Mississippi and Arkansas was marred by the loss of his father and the rise of Jim Crow, his early life was fortunate in many ways. His mother was a well-educated, well-connected schoolteacher and his stepfather was a loving surrogate parent who introduced Still to his expansive collection of opera records. Still’s parents gave their son a thorough artistic education, taking him to performances by Black artists from a wide range of musical and theatrical traditions. His formerly enslaved grandmother offered a different kind of education, sharing stories from the final days of the Civil War and passing down spirituals and hymns from the Black folk music of her youth.
As Joseph Horowitz notes in his forthcoming Dvořák’s Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music, these Black “sorrow songs” inspired the Czech nationalist composer Antonín Dvořák to predict that “negro melodies” would be the foundation of an American school of classical music. In his own way, Still took up Dvořák’s challenge. He studied composition part-time at Oberlin. When America entered World War I, he joined the Navy—where, because of segregationist policies, he served as a mess attendant. After his discharge, Still moved to New York City, where he worked as an arranger for “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy while playing oboe in pit orchestras and studying with the modernist composer Edgard Varèse. He also immersed himself in Black cultural circles, forming relationships with Harlem Renaissance luminaries like Langston Hughes and Alain Locke.
While he simmered in this mélange of musical mentorship and racial consciousness, Still began his prolific career as a composer. In 1931 his Symphony No. 1 in A flat major, known as Afro-American Symphony, opened with Howard Hanson’s Rochester Philharmonic, making him the first African-American composer of a symphony performed by a major orchestra. Still conceived the work as part of a musical trilogy depicting the Black experience in the United States. He grounded the composition in a blues idiom of his own creation to evoke the emotional evolution of a newly emancipated Black community from “longing” to “sorrow” to “humor” to “aspiration.”
In a 1960s interview, Still explained how he had realized that through the blues, the “American Negro had made an unrecognized contribution of great value to American music … [representing] the yearning of a people who were reaching out for something that they’d been denied.… I wanted to dignify it through using it in major symphonic composition.” As the orchestra builds to a crescendo in the final vivace section of the symphony’s fourth movement, the sharply syncopated rhythms in a richly layered major key underscore the determination, anxiety, pain, and hope of a previously subjugated people finally taking charge of their own destiny.
Logic’s upbringing in Gaithersburg, Maryland, was far more troubled than Still’s, defined by neglect and dependency at the height of the crack epidemic. His white mother was an alcoholic, his Black father a cocaine addict. His brothers dealt drugs; his sister became a teen mother. As a biracial child, Logic was bullied by adults and peers for not being Black or white enough. He did well in his English classes but by tenth grade had dropped out of high school.
Growing up in this chaotic environment could easily have set Logic on the same path as his siblings. But chaos alone did not define his circumstances—art was there, too. Like Still, Logic imbibed the millennial equivalent of a heterogenous cultural education, one fueled by globalization, television, and internet geekdom. He studied albums by jazz rap and hip-hop legends like A Tribe Called Quest, Nujabes, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole. He became a fan of anime classics like “Cowboy Bebop” and “Samurai Champloo” and films by Quentin Tarantino. After watching black-and white movies from the 1940s and 1950s with his mother, he found a muse in the boyish yet self-assured cool of Frank Sinatra.
Determined to escape the cycle of poverty that ensnared his family, Logic took menial jobs like washing dishes and stocking supermarket shelves to support himself as he spent his nights creating music in a friend’s basement. Beginning in 2010, he released a series of mix tapes—many of which sampled Sinatra’s music—under the stage name “Psychological.” They won him growing acclaim in the underground rap scene. By 2014 he had shortened “Psychological” to “Logic” and completed Under Pressure, his debut studio album.
Rapping over beats that fuse the power of a horn-filled Kanye West instrumental with the unconventional chillhop of an Adult Swim commercial bump, Under Pressure explores the victories and vulnerabilities that shaped Logic’s difficult past. In “Soul Food,” Logic paints a disturbing picture of a home defined by “crack, cooking where my sister be frying soul food” and “welfare, food stamps, and stealing from the store / Come home and see an eviction notice taped to my door.” Instead of following hip-hop’s proclivity for glorifying gangster lifestyles, Logic uses the track “Gang-Related“ to speak, from the perspective of one of his brothers, on the stultifying violence and paranoia endemic to the drug game. In the album’s title track, Logic transcribes voicemails from his family members into verses that both celebrate his success and lament the distance it has created from the imperfect people he still loves.
Despite these dark themes, Under Pressure maintains a throughline of gratitude for having overcome these difficulties, rubbing against our culture’s penchant for ironic detachment or pessimistic rage. “As I look in the crowd and see thousands of different faces / Compiled of different races gathering from different places,” Logic joyfully raps in the album’s “Intro,” he concludes repeatedly, “You can really do anything.” It’s an infectious kind of optimism.
American art has always ping-ponged between extremes of realism and idealism, but lately it feels as if our cultural sensibilities are a bit too enamored with work that is “gritty” and bleak, trained on the cracks in the foundations of our civic life to the exclusion of the light filtering in through the windows. Still and Logic are dreamers at heart. While their music does not shy away from tragedy, they draw from their diversified environs to produce bodies of work suggesting that a better future is possible, in not just the worlds they inhabit, but those they imagine as well.
Although Still’s conservative disposition led him to eschew political activism, he used music to make his own statements against the oppressive social conditions African Americans faced in the 20th century. As segregated units were sent to the front lines in World War II, Still produced an elegiac piece pointedly titled, In Memoriam: The Colored Soldier Who Died for Democracy. Like many of Still’s previous works, the piece employs a mournful, blues-inspired melody line, set against muted trumpets and rumbling timpani. Still described it as a tribute to the patriotism and loyalty of Black G.I.s, although he observed in a New York Times interview that the best tribute to those who died would be “to make the democracy for which they fought greater and broader than it has ever been before.”
At the request of Alain Locke, Still also used his compositional skill to turn a racial justice poem by Katherine Garrison Chapin into a choral ballad to try to increase public support for a federal anti-lynching bill. The harrowing result was And They Lynched Him on a Tree, which depicts the hanging of a young Black man convicted of murder. Still’s musical choices here are emotionally devastating: pulsating strings underscore the menace of a white mob as its participants chant in a sharp staccato that they’ve “swung him higher than the highest pine.” The victim’s mother, a mezzo soprano, sings a Marian lament: “Sorrow … you’ve taken my hand.” The chorus warns of the “dark shadow” of racist violence falling across America; then, the piece abruptly ends on an unresolved chord, evoking the unfinished work needed to correct this horrifying abuse.
The conductor Leopold Stokowski praised And They Lynched Him on a Tree as one of Still’s greatest works. But Still himself seemed to view it as a kind of artistic sacrifice. He preferred to celebrate the African-American community’s achievements, not cede artistic space to depictions of their oppressors. His 1935 Three Visions piano suite expresses this sensibility. It is a theosophic meditation on a soul’s journey through the afterlife, where, in the words of Still’s daughter, “noble persons, who achieve in spite of obstacles and bigotry, find blessings and advancement in the realm of the spirit.” The sharp and ominous beats of “Dark Horsemen,” the first movement’s judgment scene, give way to the poignantly undulating notes of “Summerland,” Still’s moving musical illustration of heaven. The suite concludes with the tremorous runs and atonal chords of “Radiant Pinnacle,” suggesting the possibility of reincarnation until a soul has gleaned all the lessons it needs from the mortal plane to reach enlightenment in the eternal one.
Logic’s succeeding studio works—both concept albums—also play with themes of race, odyssey, and reincarnation. 2015’s The Incredible True Story tells the tale of two astronauts—one white, one Black—on a post-apocalyptic quest for a planet capable of sustaining life. In between skits of the two protagonists trading riffs with a sentient A.I. on whether art serves any purpose for a civilization on the verge of extinction, Logic defends the value of seizing the day to create in defiance of death’s inevitability and the distraction of human conflict. As he raps in “Fade Away:”
Livin’ my life, no inhibition, life or death with no intermission
Now the good book said we all the same, and we kill each other but it’s all in vain
And we all to blame, can’t see the picture when inside the frame
Logic fleshes out this thesis of the tragedy of blinkered perspectives in Everybody, released in 2017. Inspired by “The Egg,” a 2009 science fiction short story by Andy Weir, Everybody follows a man who is killed in a car accident and learns upon entering the afterlife that he is in fact the only human in existence, destined to reincarnate through the countless lives comprising the breadth and depth of human history until he reaches the understanding necessary to become a divine being. Using this story as a framing device, Logic then raps from multiple viewpoints throughout the album: a single mother; a Black man being sent to prison; a teen fighting depression; his own warring biracial identity (“In my blood is the slave and the master / It’s like the devil playin’ spades with the pastor”).
Although some critics found Everybody confusing and overloaded with treacly platitudes on love and acceptance (Logic raps so frequently about being mixed race that it’s become a well-established meme), there is something admirable in the way his effort to embrace his complicated heritage fuels his desire to understand the unique circumstances of others as well. It is a counterpoint to modern identity politics, which confines individuals to the limits of their “lived experience” and rejects the role of imagination in fostering the empathy necessary to sustain an integrated community.
The American Experience, Remixed
Despite achieving commercial success and critical acclaim (Everybody’s anti-suicide anthem “1-800-273-8255“ earned a Grammy nomination in 2018), Logic’s prodigious output suffered a marked decline in quality over time. His succeeding albums and mixtapes showed less originality; a half-baked novel titled Supermarket and its accompanying soundtrack were justifiably derided by reviewers. “Peace, love, and positivity” had been Logic’s mantra from the start, but its inspiring effervescence dissipated to pop platitudes the more his star rose and filtered out into the mainstream.
Still also received criticism in his own time, but it was far less warranted. Despite his early training with Varèse, Still turned against modernism in his major works, believing it incompatible with the African-American musical tradition he was using as the foundation for his classical compositions. As a result, contemporaries like Aaron Copland sneered at Still’s symphonies as being too “sweetly saccharine” and “popular in tone.” Troubled Island, a stirring opera on the Haitian Revolution that Still composed to a libretto by Langston Hughes, received a standing ovation upon its premiere but closed early after critics panned it. The failure nearly crushed Still, who believed he was being persecuted by both bigoted white music critics determined to quash a rising Black composer and leftist partisans opposed to his outspoken anti-communism.
Yet Still did not stop creating art that aimed to reconcile and unify. Two of his last symphonies were celebrations of the peoples and territories of not just the United States but its neighbors to the north and south. Symphony No. 4 (“Autochthonous”) a bold, richly textured composition, uses a fusion of musical styles to describe the unique character that has germinated in American soil: determined, energetic, humorous, and spiritual. Symphony No. 5 (“Western Hemisphere”), completed just after the Second World War, heralds the promise of the Americas in the face of a diminished Europe. Using a three-note motif to represent North America, South America, and the Caribbean, Still conjures a pan-American vision of the region as “the abode of freedoms, of friendship, of the sharing of resources and achievements of the mind and of the spirit.”
While Still ended his career finding hope in blurring the boundaries of race and nation, Logic found resolution closer to home. Announcing that he was going to retire from rap to raise his newborn son, Logic released a valedictory album in the summer of 2020. No Pressure is a redemptive, beautifully crafted bookend to Under Pressure. It refreshes Logic’s earlier themes, this time with the more mature perspective of a thirty-year-old man who has fought the modern battle for self-acceptance and won. In this new view, the formula for happiness is simple and universal: abandoning social-media-fueled status battles and identity wars and finding beauty and art in the mundanity of family life (“I could tell you more about diapers than modern rappers in cyphers,” he spits in the cheekily titled “DadBod“). Nevertheless, having found peace is no absolution from using one’s success to address injustice. Logic makes this point in a manner fascinatingly evocative of Still by ending his album with a six-minute excerpt of Orson Welles’ famous radio address denouncing the police beating of a Black World War II veteran, which he sets with a composer’s care against a lush piano and boom bap beat.
Every day it becomes harder to turn from the examples of rage and injustice that seem to damn the American experiment. But when those moments threaten to consume all hope in our nation, it is worth turning to the music of two artists, from the turn of two centuries, who took in the wide expanse of the American experience—its mosaic of personal and communal hopes and horrors, sacrifices and triumphs—and remixed it into something worth calling beautiful.
Nicole Penn, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is program manager for social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Still photo: By Maud Cuney-Hare, 1874-1936 - Negro musicians and their music by Maud Cuney-Hare. Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers, Inc., 1936, p. 336. Copyright not renewed., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41851604
Logic photo: By Nick Mahar , CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32926822
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