By Bob Marovich
Give it up for Pastor Shirley Caesar. She stands once again, unafraid, and speaks her mind through music.
Caesar, whose heart-wrenching “Mother Emanuel” honored the nine who lost their lives in the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is back with another protest anthem called “Take Your Knee Off My Neck.”
The new song attacks the literal and figurative asphyxiation of African Americans at the hands of police and by the violence and apathy of white America. Declaring “Black Lives Matter,” she speaks their names, including George Floyd (“a lynching in broad daylight”), Breonna Taylor (“that’s a girl, ya’ll”), and others who have lost their lives violently and senselessly.
While “Mother Emanuel,” with its overarching message of forgiveness, was a more affecting song, I applaud Pastor Caesar for the courage to lift the standard of justice. “You’re going to reap what you sow,” she threatens, “and it won’t be very long.” Amandla!
She also implores African Americans to lift their heads high and be proud of who they are, because Black is Beautiful.
With notable exceptions—Mahalia Jackson, Dorothy Love Coates, Inez Andrews, and the Staple Singers come to mind—professional gospel artists have been hesitant to record songs with explicit messages of anger at the status quo. The preference has been to speak out through Biblical allegory for reasons too lengthy to go into here. But Caesar remembers coming up in the days of Jim Crow. She remembers running from racists with evil on their minds. So Sister Shirley is not afraid to go there.
By concluding with a clip of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, “Take Your Knee Off My Neck” reminds us, if any among us need reminding, that fifty-seven years later, we are still waiting for the dream to come true.