Music affects us from the visceral to the frivolous. It can be lighthearted enough to put a grin on our face or potent enough to make us cry. With every note of cherished music that enters our aural space, we attach a time or place or era – not to mention emotion – to it.
In the broad manner that music affects us in a deep way, there are certain tracks that have the power to instantaneous shift a mood and consciousness. This differs for every person. “Oh Let’s Do It” by Waka Flocka Flame may do it for some folks; “Best Friend” by Brandy for others; Canon by Johann Pachelbel for another few. These songs aren’t up for debate, but people still argue about them.
Art is personal, but like anything in a capitalistic society, it is subjected to competition. What is rooted as personal expression ends up on the open market, its value determined by a population that may or may not know what the artist is trying to convey. Throughout this bazaar of artistic goods, there are certain works that pronounces itself and shakes some foundations.
For me, one stands alone: “Liberation,” the penultimate track on Outkast’s Aquemini.
For many of us, music exists as an indicator of a certain time or place. We remember the moment we first hear a classic song, how we felt when we heard it, what was going on with us when we heard it, and so forth. Often, it is a significant other or close relationship that is brought to the forefront with music.
What do you think about when “Sadie” by the Spinners comes on?
“Ribbon in the Sky” by Stevie Wonder?
“Brenda Got a Baby” by Tupac?
” To Zion” by Lauryn Hill?
“Vice Versa” by Pastor Troy?
Some music is meant to remain at the abstract level while others seek to draw a specific picture. For example, “Before I Let You Go” by Blackstreet evokes different imagery and emotions than “Before I Let Go” by Frankie Beverly and Maze.
“Liberation” in this regard lives in an unconfined space and time. It is a track in perpetual motion, with a lot going on in the way of instrumentation, but simple in articulating the everyday hopes and dreams and fears and foibles of an individual and collective.
But it’s also much more. To ask somebody “what does liberation mean” is to invite a long silence or an incoherent rebuttal. It can’t be easily defined. Liberation is a standard that’s as unattainable as it is universal.
“Liberation” was the result of a crew of people who used their music to free themselves. If we, the listeners, happened to become free in the process, that was bonus. For Andre Benjamin (he wouldn’t become 3000 for another two years), Big Boi, Cee-Lo, Erykah Badu and Big Rube, impressing the masses didn’t drive them as much as impressing themselves.
The song served as a confessional of sorts. Each artist gave their testimony, of oppression and trials and overcoming. It was rife with frustrations and coded messages. Cod liver oil served as juice. In an era when musicians frequently stayed in their lane – rappers rapped, singers sang, producers produced – “Liberation” didn’t comply. Not a rap record. Not “soft” enough to be a rhythm and blues sound. It isn’t quite jazz, though it incorporated many of its elements. It isn’t gospel, but it soothes like a Sunday morning hymn.
This track can’t live in one or three lanes; it takes up infinite space. This song could be being played in a 1930 jazz club just as much as in a 2011 joint. There is a universal demand for liberation. Folks aren’t free for a variety of reasons. This lack of freedom fuels our insecurities, which leads to broken relationships, a robust penal system and a sleeping populace that is “ripe for the taking.”
Born out of the African-American experience, this song serves equal parts a homage to our ancestors and an olive branch to our descendants. Regardless of religious, sexual, career or artistic orientation, it is a clarion call for self-fulfillment not in a “materialistic one-upping way,” but in a “communal campfire listening to your inner voice” way.
There are many self-induced obstacles that keep us from fulfilling what we were sent on Earth to do. Books and magazines and TV shows abound with tips, feel-good stories and pick-me-uppers to guide us. Nationalistic agendas, new age philosophy and old school religion are what we use to cope and move us ahead. Well-meaning family and friends offer us advice the best way they know how, for good or ill. But for many of us, these are substitutes for an unknown force we’re trying to grab and harness.
“Liberation” gets to the essence of this force.
The liberation theology of the church pews and guttural cries of the street corners and cotton fields and corporate boardrooms and classrooms was channeled into a sonic masterpiece. For a 14-year-old kid hearing this for the first time, it was like learning to breathe again. New life.
Though I wasn’t quite sure what this song meant, the vibrations emanated relief and peace. Shake that load off. In a sound capsule, an explanation was provided to co-opt the brokenness and inconsistencies I saw around me.
For eight minutes and forty-seven seconds, I could be peace. I could be whole.
11 years later, ain’t nothin’ changed. Libertad.