In April, after the death of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore riots that followed, I made myself a playlist called “We Gon Be Alright.” I needed a break from the death, stress and racial weight of being a Black woman in America aware enough to be enraged. I just wanted to hear Black joy in song, verses about happiness, romance and dancing accompanied by groovy drums, keys and chords—I wanted to hear Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go.”
There’s something to our unofficial black national anthem that, even in the darkest moment, spurs a lightness through tears. The sound invites us to literally “let go” and have a good time. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing, if “Before I Let Go” comes on, it’s a party in my mind and I’m two-stepping, whether it be in a doctor’s office, at a gas station or on a sun-baked street corner. The 34-year-old song written and produced by Beverly brings back lovely memories of family reunions when I was too young to play bid whist with my older cousins and was shooed away to the domino table or watching my mom cook her delicious stuffing for Thanksgiving while my Granny, dinner’s commander-in-chief, instructed everyone where to put everything, from pots to spoons, whether they liked it or not. From the song’s first six chords beneath Beverly’s smooth voice and the wailing guitar lick, my hands are up and ready to sway. It’s almost a Pavlovian instruction telling me to relax—it’s going to be OK, at least for the duration of this song.
As Blacks in America are dealing with the joy and pain of President Obama’s eight years in office, it often seems that we’re taking two steps forward and four steps back. There’s a Black man in the White House, flanked by the fabulous First Lady Michelle Obama and their two lovely kids and even a First Grandmother in Marion Robinson; this is progress. On the other hand, racial unrest and racist violence has unfurled from America’s underbelly and lashed out. From Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore at the hands of cops to the tear-stained face of Michael Brown’s mother Lesley McSpadden, from Eric Garner’s wife Esaw refusing to forgive the man that killed her husband to the families of the Emanuel Nine forgiving Dylann Roof for murdering their mothers, fathers and friends... It’s been a lot for Black people who still have to get up and go to work in the morning like all is normal and our lives aren’t an arbitrary combination of avoiding the wrong place at the wrong time. This is why songs like “Before I Let Go” and Black joy are so important, they allow us to collectively let our guard down and just be in the company of others who understand our struggle.
Tonight, when Frankie Beverly and Maze make their return to the Essence Festival for the first time in six years, it will be right on time. As the crowd will no doubt break out all of their best moves—and all white outfits—to the familiar groove, those in the Superdome will align themselves with our ancestors who celebrated in New Orleans’ Congo Square hundreds of years ago. And guess what? We gon' be alright.