Toni Lester’s Tribute to Singer, Songwriter and Civil Rights Activist, Abbey Lincoln, on the One Year Anniversary of Her Death

“It’s Supposed to Be Love” – A Tribute to Singer, Songwriter and Civil Rights Activist, Abbey Lincoln, on the One Year Anniversary of Her Death”
by Toni Lester, The Gardarev Center
June 15, 2011

Jazz singer, songwriter, actress and civil rights activist, Abbey Lincoln died at the age of 80 last summer. Lincoln often used her work as a vehicle for social change. She was the ultimate socially engaged creative artist, combining quality and meaning in potent proportions.

“Body slam you to the ground
Messaging a chill
Curses make the head go round
Brings a certain thrill …”
(From “It’s Supposed to Be Love”, by Abbey Lincoln, on Abbey Sings Abbey, Verve Records)

Since the instrumental music accompanying them is so pleasing to the ear, the words – harsh and violent – come at you unexpectedly. The piano slowly plays a melancholy one note motif over a lilting steel drum vamp. The overall groove is smooth, even soothing. But the words are not, and neither is that voice. Husky, plaintiff, anguished – that voice belongs to Abbey Lincoln, and she is singing about domestic violence, a topic rarely broached in mainstream jazz circles.

For anyone who knows Lincoln’s tremendous body of work spanning over six decades, it should come as no surprise that she made one of the tracks on her critically acclaimed 2007 CD, Abbey Sings Abbey, a song about the terror and confusion that domestic violence conjures in the minds and souls of its victims. That she did this when she was well into her 70s, at a time when few other popular jazz artists dared to touch this or similarly weighty topics, is astounding. Equally so is the fact that she is confident enough in her own powers to share the spotlight in this performance with her mentee, Maggie Brown. As the two women trade singing verses about the sting and humiliation of surviving this most heinous form of degradation, the overall effect is at once powerful and disturbing.

No stranger to bringing politics to a musical genre often populated by crooners singing about surface understandings of love and its foibles, Lincoln, along with her then husband, acclaimed drummer, Max Roach, collaborated on the groundbreaking 1960 Civil Rights album, We Insist – Freedom Now Suite. Lincoln was pivotal in ensuring that Roach’s songs took their rightful place in the artistic history of the civil rights movement. As one New York Times writer put it, “One movement had her moaning in sorrow, and then hollering and shrieking in anguish — a stark evocation of struggle.”1

Born the 10th of 12 children in 1930 in Chicago, Lincoln was often compared to her idol, Billie Holiday, who made equally tumultuous waves on the jazz scene with songs like the 1939 Lewis Allen work, “Strange Fruit”, which decried lynchings that were taking place in the South at the time. A frequent supporter of civil rights causes during the 60s, Lincoln could often be found headlining fundraising concerts to support them. She had a keen sense of how the plight of African Americans since the days of slavery connected to her own life path. As noted contemporary jazz singer, Diane Reeves, has said: “[Lincoln] got in touch with her ancestors,” … “And when she got in touch with them, she responded and never stopped.”2

Lincoln also had a quieter, more introspective side, found in song after song she wrote about the life of the spirit and her wonder at the magnitude of the universe. One of her most deeply loved songs, “Throw It Away”, exemplifies her belief in something similar to agape, the Christian concept of selfless love. “Leave your hands wide open,” she writes, “Let the sun shine through/’Cause you can never lose a thing if it belongs to you.” That message, simple in concept, but hard to emulate, is also part of Lincoln’s legacy. Her exemplary life both in service to others and to her own muse belong to all of us now. Let’s try to honor it by keeping our own hands wide open, doing our best to create art that both serves and stirs the soul.

1. Nate Chen, “Abbey Lincoln, Bold and Introspective Jazz Singer, Dies at 80,” Aug. 14, 2010, at www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/arts/music/15lincoln.html.
2. NPR Staff, “Abbey Lincoln, Remembered By Her Proteges,” May 20, 2011 at http://www.npr.org/2011/05/20/136497648/jazz-divas-pay-tribute-to-abbey-lincoln.
[Copyright 2011 Toni Lester (all rights reserved). Used with permission by The Gardarev Center.*]

9 Responses to “Toni Lester’s Tribute to Singer, Songwriter and Civil Rights Activist, Abbey Lincoln, on the One Year Anniversary of Her Death”

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  1. Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith says:

    Thank you for this post … I had a chance to get to know Ms. Lincoln a bit in the last decade or so of her life, and was continually inspired by her passion and her commitment to what she called “the music”, because she didn’t believe the name jazz did it justice.
    As an artist, she made a conscious choice early in her career to veer away from the sentimental romanticism that many vocal artists and songwriters in the genre cleave to. Instead, she carved out a niche for herself that centered on realism, authenticity and empowerment. Her belief in a generous love to be shared by all humankind is one of the hallmarks of her work, and we are all richer because she paved her own way.

  2. Pat says:

    I heard about this article from a friend. I am in my 20s and write music and didn’t know much about Abbey, but she sounds amazing so thank you. But don’t you think it’s also ok to just write love songs for the sake of it sometimes too? They can make people happy and help them get thru things, so they’re important too. Although I do get your point. Thanks.

  3. Gene H says:

    What a wondeful tribute to Abbey! It’s only a year and she is so sorely missed. to the last comment – i think it’s fine to write about love anytime. We artists are always tyring to create something new, though. Love has been done to death in a certain way, so why not go for more? That’s what Abbey did. It’s where her life path took her and look at the results.

  4. Michele Oshima says:

    Your blog is a loving tribute to Abbey! Some folks might not be familiar with her or her activist side if their medium is poetry or film so it is great to share her multifaceted gifts.

  5. Mushim says:

    Thank you for this tribute to Abbey Lincoln. Music can be a vehicle to soothe the wounded soul, or it can be a vehicle to awaken the consciousness that systemic oppression is not inevitable, were we all to refuse to be soothed, and instead rise up collectively against violence. It’s difficult to find artists who can make a stand for justice through artistry rather than dogma. This celebration of Abbey Lincoln’s life invites all of us to become more than mere survivors.

  6. thanissara says:

    I enjoyed so much this ‘capturing’ of a life’s work – of music – of spirit – of challenge – the naming of un-nameable things and ‘so much more than mere survival’ And i thank you for bringing us to witness and to honor Abbey Lincoln. Great Soul.

    Domestic violence – now there’s an all too frequent darkness that spawns so much that wounds and is wounding…may the voices that sing, alerting us to it’s haunting devastation, continue to sound forth – inspired by Abbey – inspired by the writing on this blog – and inspired by the work of the Gardarev Center – Look forward to more!

  7. Ana Lara says:

    Abbey Lincoln is an ongoing inspiration to me. This is such a beautiful tribute. To me, Lincoln embodied struggle – just as you put it – her voice made you feel the weight and weightlessness of struggle. I was sad when she was gone, but blessed to have known about her at all. Thank you!

  8. Kim W says:

    Your blog post came to mind this weekend at the concert “Sing the Truth with Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo, and Lizz Wright” The concert was a tribute to Abbey LIncoln, Miriam Makeba, and Odetta. They brought to life the power of music as both a spiritual and political force in the art and lives of these women who went before them. One of many heart-stopping moments in the concert was Dianne Reeves singing Lincoln’s song, “The Music is the Magic.” I am so happy to see Lincoln’s work being lifted up in your blog and in this concert. May this be a trend that continues.

  9. Tsitsi says:

    I love the image you leave us with of keeping our hands wide open. Lincoln was an amazing artist and her inspiring courage and creativity live on. Thank you for your vision with Gardarev…keeper of dreams, you are making room for the Dreaming Time in the everyday. A luta continua.

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