A soft chorus of crystal clear female voices overlapping their “do do doos” over the groovy sound of a keyboard tuned for a church. The crispness of a snare drum and the bristle of a high hat. Layers and layers of quiet power building in my ears without ever losing an ounce of delicacy.
“A Peace of Light”, the opener of The Roots 2010 album How I Got Over, couldn’t have a more accurate name. It is my go-to song when I need to focus, to regroup, to get centered, to find calm in agitation, and I have found myself returning to its comforting, enveloping sounds more as the challenges of 2020 persist and amplify.
It has led me to listen to the whole album for the first time in a long time, from start to finish like we did back in the day. In it, I rediscovered gut wrenching tales of injustice, despair and pain but also much needed stories of hope and change.
When I first heard How I Got Over, I was 20. I lived in New York and was in my second year of university. In that short amount of time, I’d seen some of the best and the worst of what America had to offer: a country yearning for new leadership with the election of Barack Obama, but also a soul-crunching, economy-crashing corporate system that still managed to get bailed out no matter the long-term damages it caused. The country was juggling between new promises and the painful reminders of the error of its ways.
Why’s the world ugly if you made it in your image ? And why’s living life always such a fight to the finish ?
— Track 3: Dear God
The Roots has been one of my favorite acts since my early teenage years. I am still convinced that even though I didn’t get them, the band’s drummer ?uestlove looked me in the eyes when he threw his drumsticks to the crowd at the end of their concert in Paris in 2004. When the album came out, I was elated to see that they hadn’t stopped making new music like it was announced they would. As they had done during their whole career, they forged their own path, detours allowed. I admired that, and still do.
Make my mark alone, shed the light across the dark alone
— Track 2: Walk Alone
Today, I am 30. I had many plans for what that year would mean for me. New goals and parties mostly. Maybe some adult-like stability.
I got all of that yet none of it. Parties were Zoomed or had in smaller groups than imagined. Life changes were kicked off but are tinged with impertinence. Stability is nowhere to be seen. It mostly feels like a lot of confusion, about me and the direction our world seems to be taking.
Black Thought, The Roots’ MC, already had our society’s ills laid out back in 2010, the biggest one of all being our inability to make durable change even when faced with repeated tragedy and disaster.
But when I think of change, I’m like “Why even try this shit?” […] My role was cast before I even auditioned for it
Track 5: Now or Never
Still, there comes a time when enough is enough. To make the message clear, The Roots even decided to sing it in the album’s upbeat eponymous track, moving away from rap in the first half of the song.
Are we running outta time out here?
Track 6: How I Got Over
Someone has to care, Black Thought sings out.
In 2010, the world felt like it was about to slowly come back from the recession and the prospect of prolonged global bankruptcy. We were already aware of the unbearable social and racial inequalities we had created, though in a short year, Occupy Wall Street and the global stir it spurred would remind us again. Opportunities to give new societal models a try were right there.
I was delving deep into my love of journalism, music writing, radio and interviewing artists who infused and nourished their art with their progressive values. Outside my university bubble, the world looked scary but having all these projects I loved helped me hold on to the promise of a better, more exciting future.
Every day is like a blank canvas. […] Deep down still don’t know if it’ll play out but for the first time, I feel I done found a way out.
Track 8: The Day
As I look on 10 years ahead, though I can’t say nothing has changed, I’m still waiting on this bright future. From Australia to California, our planet burns yet we take flights to nowhere to travel when we’re supposed to stay put. Each day comes with a new tale of the horrific ways in which the powerful prey on women, minorities, the poor or the disabled. Losing hope seems like a logical outcome.
Yet I can’t. My determination to see change through lives on. It’s just like the second half of How I Got Over. The music, so subdued until then, starts to swell and gain in loudness. The drums and piano are pounded on with dramatic emphasis. The words gain a bravado unheard until then.
The difference is I give it everything inside me.
Track 10: Doin’ It Again
The underachievers we have been hearing from since the beginning aren’t letting obstacles or haters stop them anymore. I feel energized hearing their stories turn around so powerfully. Individuals feeling empowered to start anew for them and the ones that will come after them. Isn’t that what we all want?
I’m the definition of tragedy turned triumph.
Track 11: The Fire
How I Got Over summons the spirits of gospel music, the indignation of protest songs and the subversive nature of jazz among other influences to get us to get a move on. It’s an album of reckoning with the past. It’s a story of the power of healing. It’s a call for us all to strive for better. It’s our roadmap to riding out yet another crisis, if we care to pay attention.
Ten years later, I’m listening as intently and attentively as ever.
Written by Sedera Ranaivoarinosy