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In a time in American history when inequality was the leader of our country and murder and violence were an everyday occurrence, Emmett Till was a fourteen year-old boy who was visiting Mississippi when he allegedly flirted with a white woman and was lynched by two white men who were the woman’s husband and brother-in-law. This terrible act of blatant racism created an uproar across America that is still relevant today, especially because of the current Black Lives Matter movement and increase in police brutality specifically against young black men. Not only did this heinous act occur, but the two men, even after confessing to the kidnapping and murder, were acquitted of their charges. Till did not live in Mississippi, he lived in Chicago, he was only visiting the south. His mother demanded there be a public funeral for Till in Chicago to force America to look at his mutilated body and send a message about the horrors that racism causes. Thousands of people attended Till’s funeral and the photo of his body was in many black newspapers and magazines.
The kidnapping and murder opened the eyes of society to how inequal blacks and whites really are. In response to the murder, many famous artists and musicians put out works and songs protesting the death and court case. Bob Dylan’s The Death of Emmett Till and Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam are both great examples of activist music that protest the death and court case of Emmett Till. Dylan has a more direct approach in his message and Simone addresses inequality as a whole.
Bob Dylan’s The Death of Emmett Till is a musical recounting and reflection of the murder and court case of Emmett Till. Dylan directly addresses his audience multiple times and calls out America for its blatant racism in a very blunt way. The song is very detailed and direct and a good example of this is when he says “The reason that they killed him there And I’m sure it ain’t no lie He was a blackskin boy So he was born to die.” While Dylan sings this in a very poetic way, it is a very obvious message with an extreme meaning. The Death of Emmett Till was one of Dylan’s first songs that he ever wrote so there was no huge reaction to it. Later on in his career, Dylan even went as far as to say it was a “bullshit song” because of it’s lack of songwriting skills (chimesfreedom). However, this song is continuously addressed more and more today than it ever was in the 1960s. Dylan was heavily involved in the civil rights movement and wrote multiple songs regarding it. As a black ally, Bob Dylan’s music inspired many Americans, especially white Americans, to not simply stand by and let racism ruin our society. This is explicitly shown in this quote of The Death of Emmett Till when Dylan says “If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust…” Also, because he was a prominent white figure in America he helped assist a movement that changed the lives of thousands of people.
Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, while it may not specifically be about Emmett Till as Dylan’s song is, addresses racism in the southern states of the United States. However, this song also thoroughly expresses the same aspect of shock and horror at the violently racist acts occurring in the south that Dylan shows in his song as well. At start of the song, Simone starts listing off her disbelief at certain southern states, which she repeats multiple times throughout the song, when she says “Alabama’s gotten me so upset Tennessee made me lose my rest And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam!” Alabama and Tennessee were both prominent places during the civil rights movement and were home to many civil rights battles that occurred in the 1960s. Mississippi was basically a homebase for hostile whites and the Klu Klux Klan during the civil rights movement and had hundreds of kidnappings and murders like Emmett Till’s. In addition to this, Medgar Evans, a prominent civil rights activist, the president of Regional Council of Negro Leadership, and someone Nina Simone looked up to, was killed in Mississippi right before she wrote Mississippi Goddam. Simone also repeats a lot of the same line in the song. For example she says “They keep on saying, “Go slow!”But that’s just the trouble, do it slow. Washing the windows, do it slow. Picking the cotton, do it slow. You’re just plain rotten, do it slow.” In this quote of the song, Simone is explaining her frustration with white people and how they want change to come slowly and that one day it will come. However, she is repeating the statement over and over again to try and get America to listen and know that black people are being murdered and denied basic civil rights everyday and in the south. She is saying there is no time for any kind of slow change, a change needed to happen immediately. This song was unlike many of Simone’s other songs because she usually did not address political issues like Bob Dylan often does. Even at the premier of this song with a primarily white audience, Simone sang many of her lighter songs before revealing this frustrated song. Also, before performing the song she said “this is a show tune for a show that hasn’t been written yet.” At the beginning of the song, it sounds like a light-hearted show tune that the white audience would enjoy only before the song starts to get more and more angry and the current state of inequality in our country (Staggs).
Both songs, The Death of Emmett Till and Mississippi Goddam, call out America’s racists and bystanders for the horrific acts happening all over the country to black Americans. They both also have affected society in some type of way through their frustrated tone and specific mentions of very real events happening in America. The tragedy of Emmett Till’s death was one of many terrible events that caused ripple effects through the country and prompted many to speak out and do something about the racism problem in the United States. Bob Dylan and Nina Simone are two advocates for black rights who were brave enough to put out controversial music to a very critical and closed-minded society and that is something to be highly respected and admired. This is especially true in today’s current civil rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, because songs and artists like that are what actually open racist minds and can and will change the world.
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