The stark image on the front cover—so familiar but still so chilling—depicts the “strange fruit” of a Black man’s body swinging from a branch. Flip over to the back cover and it’s a different view, a closeup of the same man taken from behind, a sign attached to his back. “THIS NIGGER VOTED,” it reads. The images come from a recreated series of postcards that celebrated the lynching of African Americans. We have hereby been informed: This will not be a casual listening experience.
The American Negro is a suite of 26 interconnected pieces, some only seconds long, none stretching beyond five minutes, that feature Adrian Younge playing virtually all of the instruments (keyboards, guitars, drums/percussion, vibes, even sitar) with orchestral and vocal accompaniment. Younge also wrote nearly all of the music and helmed both a related film and podcast. It’s an ambitious undertaking and one that—as intended—leaves its mark.
A spoken-word piece, “Revisionist History,” sets the scene. It says, in part: “This minstrel dance took centuries to develop, but its creation exposes the prodigious clockwork behind racism and hate in Western society.” From there it’s up to the music to expound on the themes, of the anger and heartbreak born of institutionalized racism and how they must be met with education, positivity and, yes, love. “Light on the Horizon,” written and sung by Sam Dew, is set in a classic soul framework that would’ve felt equally at home on a ’70s Marvin Gaye album. “It feels like ages, hope I can take it/All I can do is try, is try,” he sings. Similarly, “Mama (You Will Make It)” and “Dying on the Run,” the latter pointing directly at the ongoing stench of gun violence, ultimately paint a picture of hope.
But there’s no denying—as is made clear in other spoken-word tracks like “Race Is a Fallacy” and “Intransigence of the Blind”—that we still have a long way to go before those horrifying photos on the cover truly belong to the past.