Jenzia Burgos: “Sirens became my block’s only song…”
This article is taken from our special print edition Crack Magazine: The Collections, Vol. 1.
Jenzia Burgos, founder of the Black Music Library, reflects on a summer where two deadly pandemics collided.
At first, the sirens started slowly. Warbling in the distance, like the dull bass of subwoofers speeding down the boulevard. That last sound is ordinary here in my neighbourhood of the South Bronx, where new Dominican dembow mixes spill out from muscle cars on the daily. But that was before the music stopped. By late March, the stoop boys packed up their speakers, drivers started staying home, and house parties closed out. Sirens became my block’s only song.
“Her window grew empty, withered. What’s going on, what’s going on, what’s going on, is all I could hum”
Like many in New York City, I ventured indoors and could do little but listen as ambulances yelped down the street. One dozen, two dozen would pass, until they seemed to form an endless alarm. As a music journalist, my mind tried to make sense of Covid-19’s sudden cacophony: I fixated on each siren’s undulating hum, rising and falling with robotic precision – too disembodied for the very bodies they carried. This incensed me. So did the fact that these bodies were my own neighbours, this city’s Black and brown “frontline”.
Hardly any music played in my home those days. Album drops, press releases – they all felt feckless in the face of death’s siren song around me. But on mornings when my partner ventured home from the rare grocery run, we’d concede to playing some records; something to remind us of routine life, all as we disinfected cartons of milk in a desperate bid to skirt our own mortality.
For us, that meant Sam Cooke’s Ain’t That Good News and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On were both in rotation. I always return to soul when my spirit needs nourishment, and these days of pandemic-induced panic called for none other than the genre’s king and prince. Gaye’s titular track would lull through my kitchen, its what’s going on’s looping like an incantation. And a confirmation: our unsettling times were not entirely unlike the album’s Vietnam War era, during which, in singing to his brothers and sisters, Gaye observed, “there’s far too many of you dying”. In the apartment building across the street, my window mate – an Afro-Latina elder who waved my way for years as we watered plants on our sills – became one of them. Her window grew empty, withered. What’s going on, what’s going on, what’s going on, is all I could hum.
Soon Cooke’s powerful tenor would grip me up by the ears, though, telling me, A Change is Gonna Come. Here he was, rasping his way toward hope and turning his cheek to Jim Crow – the same racist violence that precipitated Gaye’s Motown days. Over half a century later, “a long time comin’” indeed, that violence still looks like redlining and food deserts in my community; like my departed neighbour from across the way and frontline workers on the sidewalk milling to work, risking infection to pay their bills. Cooke’s hope was nothing short of a balm.
“All the artists who soundtracked my year made music to live to. Except, their joy was too often stripped away after sharing it”
But then the world learned of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder. Of George Floyd’s, and Breonna Taylor’s. There was no balm for this. Every injustice tucked into Cooke’s smooth balladry and Gaye’s lovesick melodies came spilling out to the fore, as they do every few years when enough of the public decides to bear witness to them (of course, there are racialised folks for whom this awareness is never halted in the first place). Our days saw a deluge of phone calls and emails to local officials, infographics, petitions and protests. And somewhere during it all came the subwoofers zooming down my Bronx boulevard for the first time in months, now blasting Pop Smoke’s Dior.
Across the boroughs, pockets of protesters began chanting the late drill star’s 2019 single, his subterranean voice roiling in the concrete city’s bedrock. This marked more than a moment of joy; it was resistance, too. It’s not that Pop Smoke’s track set out to be anything other than an ode to ballin’ out. Rather, for this kid from Canarsie, Brooklyn, to have his verses shouted in front of Trump Tower, mere months after his passing, was as if to defy Black death itself – along with all who enable it.
All the artists who soundtracked my year made music to live to. Except, their joy was too often stripped away after sharing it with the world. For Gaye, Cooke and now Pop Smoke, this looked like being shot to death; no badge as the “Prince of Motown,” “King of Soul,” or “Woo” could have saved them. For others, it means battling with an industry that uses and abuses Black talent as long as they survive, all in the name of commercial gain by white executives. This looks like exploitative contracts (take Megan Thee Stallion’s hotly contested deal with 1501); like being relegated to the Grammy’s now-defunct “urban” category; or, more largely, like Black artists building entire genres only for their white offshoots to be marketed as the face.
I thought of all of this as social media bloomed with its reading lists and anti-racist guides. I wondered if allies’ newfound “praxis” included a look at their own year’s soundtrack. Was it glaringly white? Could they hear the revolution in Gaye’s serenades? Did their favourite streaming playlists forget a genre’s Black history, which is to say, its full history?
An idea came to me to archive that history, to help readers figure out the answers to those questions themselves, and to inspire them to keep coming up with deeper, thoughtful new ones. Like this year’s music to live to, this would be a living library – always finding new applications. A Black Music History Library, for the listeners who return to their own Cooke’s or Pop Smoke’s whenever they need a balm of their own. And, for others to discover their own.
Find out more via www.blackmusiclibrary.com