A Black Luv N Rage show. / Photo by @chloebwarren

Sounds of the Movement

Black Luv N Rage creates revolutionary space for Black queer artists 

In his book “My Bondage and My Freedom,” Frederick Douglass said, “To an ignorant observer, spirituals appeared to be simple hymns, retelling biblical stories and themes. But the songs held deeper meaning for the people who sang them, acting as coded messages that passed along information about how one might escape and serving as much-needed reminders that freedom was possible.”

As long as Black people have been in America, music has been important to us. Music has always been more than a way to pass time, or a way to entertain. It has been a tool to gather our people, to conjure strength, to make a statement and express the passion we have for our people and the world around us and the grief of struggle when those things are put in jeopardy.

The bonding of music and strife has been consistent through all generations as the fight for justice has taken different forms, but we continue to pick up where those before us left off. This is just as true now as it ever has been. Local Black queer artists have banded together to cultivate a space for their sounds of the movement, Black Luv N Rage. BLNR started as a one-shot Week of Action event in support of the Stop Cop City movement last year but is now becoming much more. Desh King and Travis Austin, lead vocalist and guitarist for local band BIMBOS and two parts of the BLNR organizing team, sat down with Georgia Voice to discuss the role of music in their lives and what BLNR is doing for the movement.

“[We] may be hot and look good but also the world is kind of crumbling around us and talking about the systems that impact us,” King said of the message they hope to get across in their music. While discussing the realities of their conditions, they find it important not to dwell on it too much and still have moments of joy. Why is that important? “The people that have a stake in our demise, our suffering, and our oppression are never going to stop,” King said. “We have to find a way to keep ourselves going through whatever that may be. Music and art are a good avenue for that.”

Much like Douglass’ reminder that freedom was possible, strengthening the will to persevere has been a constant in Black American music. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson, originally a written poem in 1900, is one of the most recognizable songs across Black American culture. It was adopted as the “Black National Anthem” by the NAACP in 1919 and is still sung at school assemblies and other occasions today. The song tells us to “lift every voice and sing, ‘til earth and heaven ring, ring with harmonies of liberty” and later continues, “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us… let us march on ‘til victory is won.”

Almost a century later, Kendrick Lamar would make waves and help bring in a modern period of social justice. His 2016 Grammy performance of “Alright” was arguably the most controversial and iconic live performance of the new millennia. Lamar and his backup dancers took the stage in chains and prison uniforms to the tune of early 1900s harmonica and saxophone. He raps about falling for his vices while trying to escape the pains caused by life, but constantly reminds us, “If God got us, then we gone be alright.” This reminder became an anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement well into the 2020s.

In between that century, music has been a pillar of social movements at every turn. In 1939, Billie Holiday, one of the most famous jazz singers in history, popularized the song “Strange Fruit” about the hangings of Black Americans. The lyrics read, “Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Few songs evoke emotion the way it does; Time magazine named it the Best Song of the 20th Century.

In 1988, coming down the stretch of Ronald Reagan’s tenure as president – one of the most infamous and overtly anti-Black presidencies of the last century – rap group NWA completely flipped the tone of protest with “Fuck tha Police.” This song brought more of an in-your-face attitude to Black liberation than ever before, as Reagan’s so-called War on Drugs was ravaging Black urban communities without remorse. They had had enough.

What is it about music, to BLNR, that makes it such a strong part of liberation movements? Accessibility.

“Folks can gatekeep literature,” King said. “They can gatekeep resources… but when it comes to music and art, you can do that with your body.”

You can take music with you wherever you go. Accessibility has been a central focus with BLNR.

“[BLNR] meant to be a showcase for Black music that a lot of leftist circles aren’t tapped into and giving a voice to the demographic most affected by Stop Cop City,” Austin said. King frequents the City Council meetings on the issue and told a story of something that motivated them. They said, “…I was at a city council meeting, and [a public commenter] said, ‘Black people don’t care about this. This is a white issue.’ [paraphrased] … There are a lot of times when people want to speak on behalf of Black people. It’s nice that they’re speaking up, but we can also speak for ourselves.”

In fact, we must speak for ourselves if our feelings are ever to be accurately conveyed.

BLNR has been more about the movement, the people, and the emotions (hence the Luv and Rage) than the music itself. This has allowed for a unique blending of genres that has cultivated a beautiful space for gathering. Acts range from hip-hop and techno to noise and hardcore, to performances words can’t do justice.

They try to be as inclusive as possible when it comes to who is brought on. Liking the music is just a small factor. Being actively against Cop City is non-negotiable, and bringing a comfortable inclusive vibe comes right after. Atlanta is a city that has blossomed because of its rich culture o Black queer artists but now it’s turning its back on the groups that have made its foundation so rich.

“[Cop City] is a tool of capitalism and gentrification,” Austin said. “Atlanta is getting taken from us. People are perishing and it’s going to get really hard to live here.”

The variety of acts has shown to be a great tool for bringing people together. The first BLNR show in June 2023 hosted approximately 60 to 80 people. The growth between the summer and fall show was immense; over 200 people were in attendance for the fall BLNR, which was once again held during a Week of Action and attracted many people from across the country.

“We met people all the way from Seattle and New Mexico,” King said. “People were like ‘Wow I came here and did not expect to find a black space like this.”

While the music scenes in Atlanta are very much thriving, it is not common to see so many people of different backgrounds coming together in this way.

With the overwhelmingly positive response to BLNR events, the organizers have their minds set on doing more in 2024.

“There are really a multitude of ways we can take it,” King said. “We’re not dead set on anything. We just realized with the response from the community, from the artists, and people really showing that love that it can be a lot more than just the one original show we planned for it to be.”

BLNR is becoming a collective looking to serve the community in other ways, such as potential community outreach and doing more for artists such as booking and networking. Defending the community and giving Black queer artists a voice will always be at the center.

BLNR’s organizers are optimistic for Atlanta’s future but still concerned for the rest of the country.

“Cop City will never be built,” they said. “It does make [us] worry though that if this is something they are trying to do in the supposed Black Mecca and people have pushed back this hard against it… it makes [us] concerned for any other place.”

The Stop Cop City movement has raged strong for years and the people of Atlanta still have plenty of fight left in them, and there is plenty of Black Luv N Rage to go around.

Follow @blackluvnrage on Instagram and be on the lookout for the announcement of their next show announcement on February 23. Reach out if you are a Black queer artist in need of help finding a platform.