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Somebody gave me a cassette tape of Stevie Wonder when I was a kid, probably about 12.
A light switch clicked on, and I knew that I wanted to say things the way he was saying them.
♪♪ Amna Nawaz: Hi, everyone.
This is "Beyond the Canvas."
From the "PBS Newshour," I'm Amna Nawaz.
You've just heard from Grammy-winning musician P.J.
Morton, who plays the keyboard for the hit band Maroon 5.
Please remember his phrase, "a message with the music" because it's a theme that flows through the work of all the African-American musicians in this episode.
As voices of Black Lives Matter rise up around the country, we couldn't think of a better time to spotlight these artists.
Tonight, you'll hear from the multitalented Common, musical ensemble Ranky Tanky, along with singers Rhiannon Giddens and Gary Clark Jr.
The people you're about to meet were first featured on the "PBS Newshour" before the pandemic, but tonight you'll meet them on a new canvas and maybe see them and their work through a different lens, right here on "Beyond the Canvas."
Now, back to this brief, but spectacular look at musician P.J.
I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana.
My father's a preacher, so I grew up a preacher's kid.
There was a battle between me not necessarily wanting to be a gospel singer or be a preacher.
Black Christian churches is, I still think, you know, one of the most amazing experiences.
It was my first introduction into performing, in a way, because you have an audience that's there, the congregation, and I was watching my dad stand up there and command the audience; I'm not a preacher, but I like to think that I carry a message with the music.
Stevie Wonder, to me, even before I met him or anything, indirectly taught me how to write songs.
Getting to work with him, hearing that song, and then that song being nominated for a Grammy, it still is today, to me, the--the top thing.
The song I wanted Stevie to be on was a song called "Only One."
♪ Oh, you're the only one ♪ that I need ♪ ♪ The one that I need, ♪ one that I need ♪ ♪ Stevie Wonder, play on ♪ [Harmonica solo playing] That year I was nominated for "Only One," my dad was nominated for Gospel Song of the Year.
I think it was the first father-and-son nomination since, like, Bob Dylan and Jakob, like, 15 years before that.
It was cool for us 'cause we got to spend father-and-son time at the Grammys.
My mom was taking 5 million pictures.
I try to write selfishly.
I try to have as little mental processing as possible if I can 'cause you start thinking about the fans, and the fans change, or you start thinking about some person you're writing for and your relationship changes.
I think the only thing you can truly do is come from an honest place and just expect that people are gonna be able to connect to the honesty.
"Gumbo" is my favorite album that I've done, and it's the first album that I was able to make at home in New Orleans.
And New Orleans is, you know, "laissez le bon temps rouler," which is "let the good times roll," it's "The Big Easy," so nobody was on my back as if I was in L.A., like, "Hey, man, you got to meet this, you got to"-- no, it's just like, "Oh, man, that sounds good, P.," you know.
It's just whatever feels good in New Orleans.
I owe a lot to the city, too, for giving me that spirit of freedom.
My name is P.J.
Morton, and this is my brief but spectacular take on making music for me.
Our next guest is one of the biggest names in hip hop, known for the rhythm and the rhymes he's created over nearly 3 decades in music.
I sat down with Common in our studio to discuss his music, where he finds inspiration, and why he finally decided to tell his own story.
Common: ♪ This is street ra-dio for unsung hero ♪ ♪ Ridin' in the Regal, ♪ tryin' to stay legal ♪ Nawaz: Lonnie Rashid Lynn, better known as Common, first emerged on the rap scene in the nineties.
In 2000, his first major-label album, "Like Water for Chocolate," brought big success, and his 2005 album "Be" was a commercial hit, leading to one of several Grammy Awards.
As his fame has grown, Common has used his growing platform to become more politically vocal.
Through it all, Common continues to make music.
His 2019 album "Let Love" accompanied a memoir.
Thank you for having me.
I want to ask you about your memoir now.
It's called "Let Love Have the Last Word."
What was it about this stage of your career, this stage of your life that made you want to sit down and write this book?
Well, I think there's a lot of what we see going on in the world like the, um, divisiveness, the anxiety, a lot of the--including the attacks and things.
I really wanted to put-- instill something that was hopeful, instill something that could be solution-oriented, and something that has been an antidote for me, a resource for me to overcome, you know, tough times in my life.
I wanted to share that with other people.
It's also a very intensely personal book.
One of the things that you share for the first time, speaking publicly about it, was that as a child, you suffered a very serious trauma.
You were molested when you were 9 years old.
What did it take for you to get to a place where you felt like you could talk about that?
You know, I felt that if--if I decide to talk about it, it would be healing for me, but also healing for others because other people experience sexual abuse, molestation, um, just physical abuse, and I knew, as a black man, me talking about it would give a gateway and an opening for other men, black people, brown people, what--you know, just to be able to talk about it because--and I bring us, you know, black people into the equation because for us, it's-- in our culture, it's not really discussed.
Like, when those things happen, it's not talked about as much on "How do we solve this?
How do we, like, stop the cycle?"
So I really knew that if I told my story and told it in a way that's really just raw and truthful, and still acknowledge that I'm in the process and--it would allow other human beings to come out and talk about it.
You have never been afraid of tackling the tough stuff... Heh!
in your career, whether it's about your own personal journeys--you mentioned your criminal justice reform work, you tweet a lot... Yeah.
about immigration detention, you were tweeting about the ICE raids recently and injustices that you see going on around you.
Where does that come from?
Do you have a--like, a sense of responsibility to pay attention and be engaged?
You know, I grew up on the south side of Chicago, a community which I really love, and that community is like many other communities, communities that suffer from, um, being marginalized, being treated less than, having lack of opportunities and resources, so when I see somebody being pushed down, I just relate to it.
I have to speak up.
It's my duty as a human being, as an artist, um, and not only speaking out; to me, my speaking has to become action, and that's what I'm in-- more involved in.
You did say something in your book I wanted to read to you, though, about sort of the roots of where your music comes from, which is freestyling.
You were talking about rapping, you say, "I've been rapping "for more than 25 years now.
"I would rap if I lived on the streets, "I would rap if I were a preacher or a prisoner or a politician."
You say it's your release, that sometimes, even if you can't do it in the studio, you just hop in the car.
And you go and you do.
You really just do that?
You just get out in the car and freestyle?
Yeah, I mean, I love--that's actually how I write my songs, is, like, I get in the car and I just, like, put on a beat and I say my raps out loud, just start freestyling whatever lines I like.
I do believe it's a divine expression, meaning I'm only creating when I'm at my-- when I'm in a, like, a pure place and I'm feeling like this--I'm not thinking too hard.
So is this a pure place right here?
OK, if you give me a word, it's... Oh, OK. How 'bout-- how 'bout "facts"?
Can you riff off "facts"?
Sometimes she might even ask if I can come here and rap off facts I'mma tell you this, even sitting in a booth, any time I talk about facts, I spit truth.
That's what it is.
I spring-- I spring truth to power.
I came to do this at the "PBS NewsHour."
You know how it is.
I'm telling the facts.
I've been telling the facts for years, and when it comes to this, yo, I say no lie.
That's why some politicians, I, like, see in they eye, they don't be telling the facts, yo, facts, that's false, and what'll happen when it come to trying to be the boss?
Some get lost.
The lost tapes try to escape, but I'm telling you now, yo, it's more than one take, it's truth, and I'm giving you that when it comes down.
This is how the facts just sound.
I think we have our new theme song... Heh!
here at the "NewsHour."
Just like Common, the musical group Ranky Tanky has a mission.
The South Carolina band is known for the revival and celebration of Gullah music and culture, which originated among descendants of enslaved people from West Africa.
"PBS NewsHour's" chief arts, culture, and society correspondent Jeffrey Brown went to see how the group has given new life to this old art form.
[Slow jazz playing] Woman: Y'all clap.
Brown: Ranky Tanky.
It loosely means "get funky," and you can see and feel why it's the right name for a band celebrating and reinventing a music of joy... Woman: ♪ Down in the darkness, yeah ♪ Band: ♪ Stand by me ♪ Brown: and pain... Woman: ♪ In these hard times ♪ ♪ Filled with shadows ♪ ♪ When a dark cloud ♪ calls my name... ♪ Brown: rhythms brought by the enslaved from West Africa, spirituals of the Christian church, themes that resonate today.
♪ Come by here, ♪ my Lord ♪ Both: ♪ Come by here... ♪ Brown: It includes songs many know, though you've likely never heard "Kumbaya" quite like this.
♪ Somebody's praying, Lord ♪ Ha ha!
Both: ♪ Come by here... ♪ Brown: An impromptu performance for us by vocalist Quiana Parler and trumpet player Charlton Singleton... ...and the Grammy goes to "Good Time," Ranky Tanky.
Brown: fresh off winning a Grammy for the album "Good Time," a first for Gullah music.
Singleton: It meant a lot to me with this community just because of the magnitude of the whole Gullah thing.
You felt you were representing something?
It's an honor to be here to stand on the shoulders of our Gullah ancestry... Singleton, voice-over: That's representative of how I was raised to be a musician from listening and watching and imitating all of my aunts and uncles and grandparents.
Thank you so much.
Singleton: And, uh, you know, have it all kind of culminate with a Grammy.
Growing up in church, we emulated the elders as well.
It was like a homecoming for me.
Brown: The ensemble is based in Charleston and specializes in jazz-influenced arrangements of traditional Gullah... Ranky Tanky: ♪ Oh, my, you look so... ♪ Brown: sometimes called Gulla Geechee... [Man chants, claps] Brown: which originated among descendants of enslaved Africans in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.
[Trumpet playing jazz] The 4 male members of Ranky Tanky have played music together since meeting at the College of Charleston in the 1990s, but they'd all gone off to do their own things until, two decades on, guitarist and vocalist Clay Ross proposed reuniting around Gullah.
Parler: ♪ Show your purpose ♪ Brown: They brought in Quiana Parler in 2017.
Man, voice-over: I am a disciple of this music.
This music moves me, you know, this music has called to me, it's inspired me, and it's been a part of my life for over two decades.
Parler: ♪ All for you... ♪ Ross: There's no one out there doing a contemporary expression of our South Carolina roots music and specifically Gullah music.
Man: It's an English-based Creole language, Gullah is.
Brown: There is a strong sense of mission with this band, as we saw when percussionist Quentin Baxter, bassist Kevin Hamilton, and Clay Ross offered a lesson in history and music... Ross: ♪ Ooh, way down yonder ♪ Brown: to students at the Charleston Seventh-Day Adventist School.
It wasn't a hard sell, as these fifth- to eighth-graders quickly took to the clapping, singing, and dancing.
[All clamor] Baxter: The thing about it is the music and the message of the culture itself deserves as big of a stage as it can get.
♪ Oh, my, ♪ you look so... ♪ Hamilton, voice-over: I like to think of it as hopefully being part of the evolution of the culture, so there is a preservation there, but also, I think, there's also the, you know, sharing it with the world and also in adding to it.
Parler: ♪ Let me be like a Simmon tree... ♪ Brown: Ranky Tanky band members want to play it forward for current and future generations.
♪ Let me be... ♪ Brown: The pandemic lockdown put a halt to the band's post-Grammy high.
Charlton Singleton gave me an update.
Singleton: You definitely miss, you know, just being around your brothers and your sister, you know, in Ranky Tanky and what was, you know, going to be this grand celebration for us.
Brown: The band did play at an empty Charleston music hall, a virtual performance.
♪ When a dark light ♪ creeps up on me ♪ Brown: Its members have kept healthy and busy with individual projects and, Singleton says, the pain of pandemic and continuing racial and social divisions bring a new urgency to their music.
Does the music you're doing address our time even more now?
Singleton: I believe that it does.
It always has.
[Playing mellow jazz] Singleton, voice-over: It always goes back to love and faith in the Gullah community, so we feel that definitely our music is, um, really primed for what's happening right now.
[Playing lively jazz] Brown: Ranky Tanky is hoping to return to large venues... Singleton: It was in this very room that we recorded our Grammy Award-winning album.
[Crowd cheers] Brown: while still playing for local friends and family, as we'd seen on our visit... Ross: ♪ Good time, a good time ♪ Ranky Tanky: ♪ We gonna have a time ♪ Brown: embracing the good time and joyful sounds of Gullah.
Ranky Tanky: ♪ Shake it, yeah ♪ ♪ Shake it, go... ♪ Next, another musician with a strong connection to her musical roots.
Vocalist Rhiannon Giddens sees herself as part of the tradition that includes some of the great ladies of music: Odetta, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, and Nina Simone.
Giddens shared with Jeffrey Brown how she uses historical inspiration to inform her own sound.
Giddens: ♪ Waterboy ♪ Brown: It's a powerful song, "Waterboy," made famous by the folk singer Odetta, now becoming a signature for a powerful new voice of today, belonging to Rhiannon Giddens.
Giddens: ♪ ...tell your Pa on you ♪ ♪ It's all become ♪ so complicated... ♪ Brown: Her debut celebrates women who influenced her, some famous like Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline... Giddens: ♪ ...you stay ♪ [Different song playing] Giddens: ♪ Pawn my watch... ♪ Brown: others, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Libby Cotten, much less so.
Giddens: ♪ ...everything that was in my name ♪ ♪ Oh, Lordy me, ♪ didn't I shake sugaree?
♪ ♪ Everything I got ♪ is done and pawned... ♪ Giddens, voice-over: I've been really thinking about the woman in Americana music and the woman in American history and just kind of thinking about all these really strong women who, you know, broke down doors and, you know, had to kind of overcome lots of hardship to, like, even have a music career and just how much I benefit from that.
♪ ...they asked of me ♪ what could I say?
♪ To me, all of those songs-- blues, you know, jazz, uh, country-- you know, all of them actually do belong side by side 'cause they're all coming out of this common well of-- of sort of the proto-American music, like, this root stuff, you know, and so it was just kind of irresistible to be able to--to do them all together.
Brown: Giddens studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio.
It was there she came back to earlier loves: folk music, first through contra dance, similar to line-dancing, and then string band music from Appalachia.
♪ When the waters flow ♪ and the grasses grow... ♪ Brown: That led to an exploration of the often overlooked role of African-Americans in the genre.
Her group, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, won a 2010 Grammy for Best New Folk Album.
♪ I am a country girl... ♪ Giddens, voice-over: String band music is a cross-cultural thing.
It's not a white thing.
It's not a black thing, either.
I'm a mixed-race person, you know, and I was raised with both culturally, and I was raised sort of, you know, with this Southern sort of mélange of cultures, and so, to me, getting that information out there is way, way important because it's like, "Look, guys, like, this is why American music is so strong."
♪ If you don't ♪ come right here ♪ ♪ If you don't come ♪ right here... ♪ Brown: Then, one of those moments that can change a career... Giddens: ♪ ...tear your... ♪ Brown: a concert in New York in 2013, put together by legendary music producer T-Bone Burnett to celebrate the film about the early folk music scene, "Inside Llewyn Davis."
[Singing in Gaelic] Brown: Many stars performed, Joan Baez, Jack White, Patti Smith, and Elvis Costello among them... [Giddens singing in Gaelic] Brown: but, by all accounts, Giddens stole the show, including with a rousing song sung in Gaelic.
[Giddens singing rapidly in Gaelic] It was like, "Now, don't screw it up, don't screw up, don't screw up."
[Singing rapidly in Gaelic] Giddens: You know, and the rest of it just kind of came as a total surprise.
[Song ends, cheering and applause] Brown: Soon after, T-Bone Burnett offered to produce Giddens' first solo album.
Giddens: I'd be a fool to not use all the tools at my disposal, you know, because really, the important thing to me is the music and the mission, so if me being a soloist is going to be the best way to get it out to more people, I'll do it.
If me, like, putting on makeup and a nice gown is gonna help the, you know, the mission and to get the whole project taken forward, I'll do it.
[Vocalizing] Brown: But you're being, in a sense, for the larger public, discovered at 38.
Yeah, and I--I am so grateful for that.
I was an idiot at 28, you know what I mean?
Like, not to say that I'm, you know, I'm about half-idiot now, so, you know, you just learn so much as you get older, I've got kids, like, I just know what's important in this life.
It's a good spot to be in at the moment.
♪ She told me that she ♪ wouldn't mind ♪ ♪ And then commenced ♪ to roam ♪ Finally, another musician embracing a full palette of sounds is Grammy Award-winning artist Gary Clark Jr. Best known for his fusion of blues, rock, and soul, Clark reflects on the past and shares his hopes for the future.
Jeffrey Brown is back.
["This Land" playing] Clark: ♪ Paranoid and pissed off... ♪ Brown: In the title song of his latest album "This Land," Gary Clark Jr. sounds an angry cry... Clark: ♪ Right in the middle of Trump country ♪ Brown: about the racism and hatred he sees in America today, and a confrontation he himself had with a white neighbor after he bought a new ranch outside his hometown of Austin, Texas.
Clark: ♪ Go back where you come from ♪ ♪ We don't want, ♪ we don't want your kind ♪ ♪ This is where I ♪ come from ♪ ♪ This land is mine ♪ ♪ This land is mine ♪ Clark: Basically, "This Land" is me saying, "Yeah, there's all this around, but forget everybody.
"Nobody can bring you down in your head.
"Nobody can make you feel less than.
"Nobody can make you feel not equal to.
"Be strong, be proud, be humble, but don't let 'em break you."
Brown: Clark is a proud product of Austin's famed Sixth Street music scene-- one club after another, a wide variety of live music.
He got his first guitar at 12 and was quickly grabbed by the sound of the blues, where, still in middle school, he found an immediate home.
I had this raw thing, and there was guitar players out front, and there was lead guitar playing, there was improvisation, and when I saw these people playing blues and when I went down to that blues club, and it was filled up with smoke and it was old guys who were cool with their leather jackets and their Stratocasters, you know, and their amps, I was like, "Man, I want to be a part of this," and they welcomed us.
Think of being 14 years old, to have your elders welcome you and be excited, you know.
Brown: The welcoming into the blues community would culminate some years later in 2010 when Clark was invited by Eric Clapton to perform at his legendary Crossroads Festival.
["Bright Lights" playing] ♪ You gonna know ♪ my name, yeah ♪ It meant something to me.
I felt like I was a part of something.
Brown: A brilliant guitarist, he would play at the White House in 2012, win a Grammy two years later, but Clark never saw himself as limited to the blues and had begun to feel constrained by what the world expected or wanted from him.
His newest album--his third studio recording-- is his most varied statement yet, a broad palette of sounds, including reggae... ♪ You're not looking ♪ for a lover ♪ a Prince-like falsetto... ♪ You don't understand ♪ how you hurt me ♪ Whoo!
Brown: straight-ahead Chuck Berry rock 'n' roll riffs.
[Playing fast rock] [Playing slower rock] Brown: And also now in his music, the hopes and fears of being a parent.
Clark and his wife Nicole have two young children.
He says that and the world they're growing up in make him want his music to reach deeper and have greater impact.
Clark: It's because of this tension and social climate, you know, race relations and fear and the unknown.
How do I maneuver through that and teach my kids how to be strong, teach my kids how to be loving in a world that can be so cruel?
♪ Come together ♪ Come on!
♪ Right now ♪ [Song ends] Yeah, we love you.
Nawaz: Each artist you heard from in this program has a unique sound and story, but what brings them together is their belief in the power of music to honor their past and inspire the future.
Join the conversation on our website: and find more canvas art stories on the "PBS Newshour."
I'm Amna Nawaz.
For all of us at the "PBS NewsHour," thanks for joining me here on "Beyond the Canvas."
We'll see you soon.
Next time on "Beyond the Canvas," our profile of Oscar-nominated Mexican actress Yalitza Aparicio... Translator: I enjoy fighting for my indigenous community because I feel proud of who I am.
Nawaz: along with some of the best cultural creators in that country.
Stay tuned for a special episode featuring the arts of Mexico.
Common: ♪ Hands to the heavens, ♪ ♪ No man, no weapon ♪ ♪ Formed against yes ♪ ♪ Glory is destined ♪ ♪ Every day, women ♪ and men become legends ♪ ♪ Sins that go against our skin ♪ become blessings ♪ ♪ The movement is ♪ the rhythm to us ♪ ♪ Freedom is like ♪ religion to us ♪ ♪ Justice is ♪ juxtapositionin' us ♪ ♪ Justice for all just ♪ ain't specific enough ♪ ♪ One son died, his spirit ♪ is revisitin' us ♪ ♪ Truant livin' livin' in us, ♪ resistance is us... ♪ Announcer: This program was made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.