This weekend, I led a spin class inspired by and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’d been thinking about doing something like this for a while, and a few things came together that made me realize it was the right time. Basically, it boiled down to these two things: I knew that I was only teaching one class during Black History Month and wanted to do something meaningful with that opportunity, and then, on Facebook of all places, I came across a video that talked about the concept of being anti-racist instead of non-racist and it really struck a chord. Who would’ve guessed, huh?
The kick in the butt
“We need to get active. We need to hold people accountable. We need to accept that what hurts one of us hurts all of us, and we need to stop thinking that injustice going on in the world isn’t to some extent our fault. We need to stop being non- and start being anti-.” – Marlon James
Sometimes the truth hurts, and the truth is that I was basically that dude “not doing a damn thing” who Marlon James was talking about in the video… and I know better than to be that guy. We all have a role to play, even if figuring out what to do and how to help can be a little difficult. It’s time for white people to show up for Black lives. How we do that is up to each of us, but it basically means that you need to find your pocket in which to contribute.
As a spin instructor, for instance, I have a literal stage to stand on and the ability to say something in front of 30 or so people every couple of weeks. The thing is, though, that me getting up in front of unsuspecting class participants and preaching about the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t the right move because a) those people aren’t at the gym for a lecture, they’re there for a workout and b) even if I want to speak up in support of the movement, I’m not the right spokesman for it. It’s not the right time or place for that, and I’m not the right dude.
So, upon further reflection, I had a better idea for the platform I’ve been given: let the musicians speak for themselves. People like me have a lot of ways we can contribute and a lot of work to do in this movement, but the first step is always to listen. This soundtrack and this class are based on the notion of active listening.
The musical inspiration
The playlist for this class is built around the song “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, which has come to be a sort of unofficial anthem for many people in the Black Lives Matter movement. “Alright” is a song that is powered by pain and struggle that are unique and specific to the Black community, but the lyrics and the hook provide an unrelenting undercurrent of positivity and hope. It also won two Grammy Awards for “Best Rap Song” and “Best Rap Performance,” and was nominated for “Song of the Year” and “Best Music Video” as well. Needless to say, you could do worse than using this song as the inspiration for any spin class you put together.
But, Evann, isn’t the idea of a white dude putting together a #blacklivesmatter playlist by himself kind of, uh, weird and antithetical to what you’re talking about trying to accomplish? Yeah, it totally is. That’s why I asked for help and guidance from my friends Khalil, Antasia and Tyler, who are three of the smartest and most musically knowledgeable people I know. Without them, this wouldn’t have worked. Full stop. I’m super grateful to all three of them for the time and support they gave me on a conceptual level and with regard to song choices.
Filtering out song options that weren’t available on Spotify, didn’t quite meet the “safe for spin class” requirement and options that didn’t quite work for one reason or another, I ended up working from a pool of almost 50 songs before whittling it down to the final 16. I wasn’t strict with it, but the thought behind the overall structure of the class was to put the songs in a roughly chronological order in terms of release date. To that end, I essentially tried to take the participants on a musical journey from near the end of the Civil Rights Movement through the present day. I could have done better on certain fronts in terms of representation, but I tried to keep in mind some of the stated guiding principles behind the Black Lives Matter movement when making my selections. Namely, I tried to be intentional about making sure to have female and queer-affirming voices included. Like I said, it’s definitely not a fully comprehensive or inclusive list, but that’s a tall order for an hour-long spin class and I did my best.
Ok, so I’m hoping that it’s obvious that I put some thought and intention into this. I mean, I had to remind myself pretty often that it was just a freaking spin class and not a Ph.D. thesis. For those who care, the featured drill was what I ended up calling an “endurance climb.” At 90 RPM, it was faster than a typical climb and slower than where I typically set the endurance pace, so it could either be considered a light climb with a fast cadence or a heavy endurance resistance with a slower RPM depending on your mental state that day. Here’s the final playlist as well as a few thoughts on why I picked the songs that are in it.
Fight the Power, Pt. 1 – The Isley Brothers
Look at the title. Listen to the lyrics. No explanation needed. This just barely beat out Public Enemy’s song by the same name for “Fight the Power” honors in this class.
Respect – Aretha Franklin
C’mon, man. The Queen of Soul? It would have been disrespectful not to include her.
Higher Ground – Stevie Wonder
The topics Stevie addresses and the idea of working to be a better person in the world helped this make the cut, plus I really wanted to play some funk in the class.
Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud – Pt. 1 – James Brown
Not that I needed reassurance, but I knew I’d made a good choice with this song when it came on in a Starbucks near the Amazon offices and an employee rushed over to the stereo to switch it.
All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
I felt like I wanted Hendrix to be a part of this playlist from the start because of what he and other prominent Vietnam War protesters represented (think Muhammad Ali’s “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” quote), and I really wanted there to be a strong rock and roll element in the musical selection. Also, in researching this song I found a tidbit concerning “Jimi’s repeated, gradually progressing ascents up the scale with blistering notes” that really stuck with me in how I led this track.
Cult of Personality – Living Colour
Please refer to my above-stated interest in including rock tracks for some context around why this was in the playlist. Then take a some time to think about how Living Colour’s examination of mass media and propaganda’s influence on creating a public perception and opinion might relate to how Black people are looked at in a predominately white society.
Sound of da Police – KRS-One
Whoop whoop! I don’t need to explain this one if you’ve made it this far.
Changes – 2Pac
Khalil suggested this one, and I had to include it even though this song makes me cry a little probably at least one out of every five times I hear it. I got around the crying thing by explicitly not talking during this song so that people could listen to the lyrics and not me sniffling.
Get By – Talib Kweli
“‘Get By’ was me saying that hip-hop is talking about these sort of illusions… this sort of temporary happiness of the club, but people are having real struggles, you know? People are having real life problems.” – Talib Kweli
Otherworldly lyricist and generally great storyteller telling a great story. Next-level production by Kanye West. You’re welcome.
Dirt Off Your Shoulder – Jay-Z
On its own merit, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” probably wouldn’t have made it in because it doesn’t fully relate to what the class was about conceptually. However, it made the cut because President Obama referenced this song in one of his campaign speeches when he was running for election in 2008. It was one of those small moments that I think was indicative of a larger change that was about to happen in America.
***Flawless – Beyoncé
Queen Bey takes over after her husband’s turn in the class and crushes a song that’s about celebration of self and female empowerment. I mean, she literally says, “…don’t think I’m just his little wife. Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted. This my sh*t! Bow down, b*tches!” Yeesh. The bass shook the stage enough that I felt it on my bike when this song came on; it was awesome.
The Blacker the Berry – Kendrick Lamar
Oooh, this one is kind of a powder keg. It’s here because a) it sparked quite a bit of thoughtful political conversation last year, b) the lyrics could be the foundation for a college course and c) it’s a certified banger. If you can listen to this song and not want to run up a mountain or karate punch your way through a wall, there’s something about you that I don’t quite understand. Also, considering that I knew I was going to play “Alright” as the cool-down track, adding this song sort of led me to break an unwritten rule I have for not playing an artist more than once in any given class. Exceptions so far: my David Bowie tribute class and Kendrick Lamar in this ride.
The Guillotine – The Coup
When Tyler makes a suggestion, it’s usually a good idea to listen.
Q.U.E.E.N. – Janelle Monáe feat. Erykah Badu
Once again… c’mon, man. This song features two legitimate, capital “Q” Queens of the game creating something that “is meant to make you JAM. DANCE. FUNK OUT. and dialogue later…”
Dialogue now, please.
From Slaveships to Spaceships – Khingz
Two Queens lead into Khingz. See how I did that? Oh, and this was the sixth endurance climb of the class, so I got to say “Siiiiiix” in honor of Khalil. I could probably have put a dozen songs from Khingz in this playlist, but the way “From Slaveships to Spaceships” connects with “Alright” and the message I wanted to convey made it the best choice out of his canon. As soon as I decided to create this ride, I pencilled this in as the last working track of class.
Alright – Kendrick Lamar
The original musical inspiration for this class was the cool-down track that led people out of the workout and into the rest of their day.