The Natural

Abbey Lincoln, photo taken by Pieter Boersma during a 1966 concert

Straight Ahead

The road keeps winding…

Bumpy road

Confuse a body

Lead a trusting soul astray

For some, this road is easy

Traveling high without a care

But if you got to use the back roads

Straight ahead can lead nowhere.

-Abbey Lincoln: actress, jazz singer, civil rights activist in her song, Straight Ahead.

Ms. Abbey Lincoln was born Anna Marie Wooldridge, in Chicago, Illinois, on August 6, 1930. She honed her musical talents, invoking raw emotion and heartfelt sentiment, by listening to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. At the age of 22, she moved to California, where she was renamed Abbey Lincoln by lyricist Bob Russell. There, she co-starred in the film Nothing But a Man, and, subsequently, fired Russell as her manager. In 1956, Lincoln released her first album: Abbey Lincoln’s Affair: A Story of a Girl in Love. Thereafter, in 1957, she moved to New York and began performing at the Village Vanguard. It was during this period in her life, through her friendship with drummer, composer and bebop innovator Max Roach, that Lincoln developed as a politically conscious artist and activist.

Throughout the end of the 1950s and 1960s, Roach and Lincoln collaborated on many civil rights-themed songs and albums. We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite was the first product of the pair’s artistic partnership. It is a five record album that discusses a range of topics, including the Emancipation Proclamation and growing African independence movements of the time. The album’s black and white cover references a United States civil rights era sit-in, with a White server behind a counter and three Black men on stools, looking piercingly into the camera.

Album Cover: We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. Image Courtesy Candid Records

Album Cover: We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. Image Courtesy Candid Records

Ms. Lincoln’s solo efforts also featured civil rights topics. Her Straight Ahead album was released in 1961 and featured her idol, Billie Holiday. The album’s songs, primarily written by Lincoln, underscore the daily injustices faced by Blacks. On In the Red, she sings about the economic exploitation of Black laborers in the U.S. On the title track, Straight Ahead, Lincoln speaks about the hardship of a marginalized existence. When one reviewer called Lincoln a “professional Negro,” she and her supporters responded by writing letters to the publication’s editor. Lincoln continued her activism by performing at benefits and fundraisers for the NAACP, CORE and other civil rights organizations. Prior to her death in 2010, she had received many accolades from fans, fellow musicians and even the movie industry, having appeared in For the Love of Ivy, which co-starred Sidney Poitier and earned her a 1969 Golden Globe nomination.

For a modern-day example of lyrical protest against colonialism and imperialism, check out Lupe Fiasco and his albums: Food and Liquor, The Cool and Food and Liquor 2. The Lupe Fiasco Foundation and Project Orange Tree are two organizations working to end youth violence by analyzing the influence of structural oppression in communities of color.

by Sade Stephenson


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