The importance of music to Black identity and the vitality of ownership in determining music’s significance in David Chariandy’s Brother

Essay by Audrey Kruger

Art by Adri Marcano

When discussing White supremacy, many only consider the United States and wrongfully exempt Canada from the issue of systematic racial prejudice. In fact, a plethora of scholarship has been published addressing the embodied experiences of Black immigrants in Canada, including Robyn Maynard’s discussion on state-sanctioned violence and Jennifer Roth-Gordon, Jessica Harris, and Stephanie Zamora’s exploration of the improper use of hip-hop lyrics and Black jargon by corporations and pop culture (Roth-Gordon et al. 107). In the introduction to Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, Maynard highlights the significance of Black artistic expression as a form of resistance against state oppression (Maynard 15). Expanding on the topic, “Producing white comfort through corporate cool: Linguistic appropriation, social media, and @BrandsSayingBae” explains how the exploitation of hip hop by white corporate and pop culture highlights racial differences and therefore, encourages racial inequality. Notably, music’s significance in Black culture extends past the points raised by Roth-Gordon, Harris, and Zamora. As demonstrated in David Chariandy’s novel Brother, music’s ability to connect Black individuals to their collective history and individual memories holds significance in determining collective and individual identity, that is, only if the music is owned by the Black community. Below, I describe how music’s evocation of shared history and personal memories shapes Black individual and collective identities throughout Chariandy’s novel. I conclude by arguing that music can, in some cases, only have significance to Black identity when the art clearly belongs to the Black community. Otherwise, it risks becoming an avenue for stripping cultural autonomy and replacing real representation with stereotyped identities. 

One character who exemplifies music’s connection to collective history and as a result, individual identity is Francis. As a second-generation immigrant and Black Canadian, Francis continually grapples with his personal identity throughout the novel as he attempts to balance the expectations of his mother, peers, and society at large. This internal conflict is ultimately a large contributor to Francis’ poor choices throughout the novel, which in time,  leads to his death at the hands of the police. Early in Francis’ childhood, his mother Ruth takes him and his younger brother Michel to Trinidad. Notably, the trip highlights how music works in tandem with other elements, such as religion, to contribute to the construction of Black individual identity. This point is clearly illustrated through Michel’s description of his brother at the Baptist church service in Trinidad, during which Michel describes that 

We were greeted as “brethren” and ushered into the service/…/The preacher held a book, but rarely read from it. Instead, he pounded it expressively while the congregation shouted out in unknowable tongues. Something about redemption and the persecuted, something about Canaan and promised lands and how God gave everyone a secret name, a deep name that only he knew and he would call you this one day, and you would answer fully. I felt amazement at all of this, at the loud spectacle that I’d never seen before of adults, and when I looked to Francis for an explanation, I saw him looking on, listening to that strange language and music and noise with a wet face (Chariandy 145). 

This quotation, and Michels lack of connection to the event, highlights the significance of the service to Francis, whose connection to the event is made clear by his emotional reaction.  By describing the sermon as a “strange language and music”, and a “loud spectacle”, the passage highlights the importance of music in enabling the impactful nature of the sermon (145). More importantly, the passage illustrates that when supplemented with religion, music allows Francis to be immersed in his Trinidadian ancestry through culturally and historically important ceremonies that are ultimately, an integral part of Black culture. Supplemented with Maynard’s statement that “African Canadians have always been in a relationship of social subordination in dealing with the state” (Carty qtd. in Mayard 2), the sermon itself, plays an important role in Francis understanding his history before he was considered “socially subordinate”. Thus, music enriches Francis’ understanding of his Trinidadian history, which plays a vital role in his personal identity by enabling him to relate more closely with a culture instead of simply considering himself a part of a collection of outsiders. 

Notably, music’s significance in Brother extends past its ability to connect an individual to their collective history. As seen through the gathering at Ruth’s house, music also evokes personal memories, which are vital in shaping Black collective identity in Chariandy’s novel. In this section of the novel, music evokes Ruth’s memories of her embodied experience as a Black immigrant, which ultimately plays an important role in connecting the individuals present. This point is particularly evident in Michels’ descriptions of the impromptu party at his home, in which he details that Aisha’s friends have “resurrected Mother’s old turntable, pulled out albums I haven’t heard for ages. Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge. Nana Mouskouri?” (Chariandy 96). Continuing his description, Michel notices Ruth is “wearing Jelly’s Walkman, the headphones around her neck. She’s sitting on the couch between Jelly and a big woman with hoop earrings. On the coffee table before them is a small green suitcase, the one mother used decades ago to move to this country, the one she now uses to store pictures and memorabilia” (96). These two quotations suggest that the old music by Black artists summons Ruth’s memories of Trinidad, establishing music’s power to evoke personal memories within Brother. Most importantly, the fact that Ruth, Jelly, and a third unknown woman are all drawn together by Ruth’s suitcase of memorabilia establishes the power of personal memories in bringing individuals together, despite their significant differences. This conclusion is affirmed and further applied to Black collective identity through Aisha’s defensive statement following Michels charged reaction to the party, in which she states “They’ve heard the story, and they want to know more. They want to show their respect” (96).  This excerpt clarifies that the gathering was based on a collective desire to learn more about Ruth’s embodied experience as a Black immigrant. Therefore, these segments of text display how Ruth’s remembrance of her embodied experiences, prompted by the music, play a vital role in collective identity, as the other Black individuals can see their own experiences reflected through Ruth’s memories. As a result, the Black migrant community in Scarborough feels more connected to Ruth, and each other, thereby shaping and developing their collective identity in Chariandy’s novel.  of the Black migrant community within Brother.  

Though music is proven to be vital in the evocation of memories and subsequently, the development of Black individual and collective identities, its significance depends on the ownership of the art to the Black community. The vitality of the ownership of music is particularly evident in Desirea’s hair salon, in which Michel describes how those present “heard, as if with new ears, the music of our parents, the lost arts of funk especially, but also ska and soul, blues and jazz. We heard an album by Toots and the Maytals, ‘borrowed’ from a parent whose musical tastes you would never think to trust” (102).  This quotation, particularly the mention of music being borrowed and then lost, clearly establishes that music has been taken from the Black community. Furthermore, the quotation highlights the complexity and variety of Black music, with multiple genres including funk, ska, and soul being significant in reflecting the complexity of the Black community itself. Later, Michel further divulges how ownership is returned to the Black community by explaining how within Desirea’s, “We listened patiently to Satchmo and Aretha Franklin from TV commercials and movie soundtracks. But Francis and Jelly stole it all back for us. The dead and the living made it ours to listen to” (102). By listening to the music on their own terms, Jelly and Francis are able to restore the significance of the sounds to the Black individuals listening. Furthermore, this quotation establishes how the significance of music to Black culture can be diminished through the use of Black music in “TV commercials and movie soundtracks”, which allows for ownership to be transferred from the creators to presumably, dominant pop culture (102). As Roth-Gordon, Harris and Zamora affirm, the exploitation of Black music and jargon in “TV commercials and movie soundtracks” (Chariandy 102) also allows for popular culture, and the white individuals leading it, to control public perception of Black individuals and emphasize cultural differences, thus taking the meaning out of Black music as a means to control Black identity and individuals (Roth-Gordon et. al 111). Together, these passages demonstrate that within Brother, the ownership of Black music to its creators and the Black community enables music to be an expression of Black identity instead of a tool used to control and confine Black individuals to stereotyped identities. 

Ultimately, music is proven to be vital within David Chariandy’s Brother to Black individual and collective identities through its ability to evoke both personal memories and connect individuals to their shared histories. Notably, music’s significance also relies on the ownership of Black music to the Black community, which can cause it to act as a form of expression and resistance to state control or a tool used to perpetuate stereotypes and inequality. To address the problem highlighted in Brother and supplemented by Maynard, Jennifer Roth-Gordon, Jessica Harris, and Stephanie Zamora, further research must be conducted on the diversity of the voices leading pop culture in order to establish how we as a society can transfer ownership of Black music back to the community while also uplifting Black voices in dominant pop culture; which is a balance Canada is still struggling to achieve.  

Works Cited

Chariandy, David. Brother. Toronto, ON, McClelland & Stewart, 2018.

Maynard, Robyn. Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Winnipeg, MB, Fernwood Publishing, 2017. 

Roth-Gordon, Jennifer et. al. “Producing white comfort through “corporate cool”: Linguistic appropriation, social media, and @BrandsSayingBae.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language, vol. 2020, no. 265, 2020, pp. 107-128.