Compton Is Like Wakanda...
by Shana Redmond
We know of its lush landscapes and rich resources, cutting-edge technology and skilled warriors but what does Wakanda sound like? What are the musical creations that define its culture and populations?
While the film score accompanies our tour of Black Panther, it is the popular representation of the country and its people—the part of Wakanda that we hear on the radio—that will most endure in our imaginaries. The Black Panther soundtrack, with music “from and inspired by” the film, is the portable, public face of the film that has developed its own fanbase and set of ideas about what Wakanda is and can be.
Curated by super-emcee Kendrick Lamar and his label mates at Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), the fourteen tracks suggest various parts of the globe through the featured artists (including The Weeknd from Canada and British singer Jorja Smith) even as we are firmly grounded in western sounds and rhythms. Part of the appeal of an artist like Compton-born Lamar is his recognition—we know his name, his image, his voice and our knowing will send us to stores and online sellers to purchase his songs. A number of listeners undoubtedly pursued the Black Panther soundtrack in order to hear him—someone familiar.
The single from the album, Lamar’s duet with TDE singer SZA “All the Stars,” was a perfect pitch for the album, which is full with his voice and influence. In it, he and SZA narrate individual stories of fake friends and love that do not directly reference the film or its themes. He raps and she sings over a synth-driven melody punctuated by a middle-range pulse on beats two and four; it’s consistent and marks the progression of the song like a heartbeat. This song sounds like U.S. radio, where it has made an impact on the Billboard Hot 100 top ten and peaked at number five on the Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart. The desire for these sounds around the world also sent the single to the top of the charts in Malaysia, Australia, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, and elsewhere.
Though not crossover-friendly like “All the Stars,” many of the songs on the album appeal to our current tastes in the U.S. West coast heavy production like that used in “Paramedic!,” which features northern California group SOB x RBE, and “King’s Dead” with emcees Lamar, Future, and Jay Rock ground these songs as coming not from a foreign land—certainly not an imaginary one—but from our own backyard. We know these songs, not because we’ve heard them specifically but because they do not disrupt our current listening practices. This is true even when musicians from the wider African diaspora are featured. For example, “Opps” (track five) is a fast-paced, bass-heavy rave led by Lamar and Long Beach’s Vince Staples that also includes Yugen Blakrok, a South African woman emcee. Largely unknown in the U.S., Blakrok is the standout of the track. She carries the beat and announces the historical and tactical possibility of the film by naming former Black Panther Party leader Kathleen Cleaver. Yet, her South African heritage does not change how we hear the song. It remains familiar to our sonic sensibilities. The soundtrack has not yet forced us to leave the United States.
There are two disruptions to the U.S. focus on the soundtrack: “Bloody Waters” and “Redemption.” The latter is an up-tempo play on Gqom music, a South African popular music described by the song’s featured singer Babes Wodumo as “EDM [electronic dance music] from Africa.” While “Redemption” does not have the same deep grooves and bass of some of the Gqom form, it is nonetheless unlike most else on the soundtrack, thereby announcing that there are other horizons in view. Though it does not feature a non-U.S. musician, “Bloody Waters” similarly takes listeners to another part of the African world. This time the rhythmic patterns and sound of the steel drum reveal a move toward the Caribbean, even as the bright tones of the instrument are dulled by overlays with other deeper instruments and vocals. Led by the voices of Southern California musicians Ab-Soul and Anderson .Paak, “Bloody Waters” begins to hint at the creations and potential shared among African-descended people.
Even as the momentary transitions between songs suggest locations on the African continent through vocal overlays and percussion, we know throughout the soundtrack that we are still in the U.S. With a majority of U.S. artists and the regular appearance of Compton producer Sounwave (nee Mark Spears), we expect it. Yet, if we hear the U.S. throughout the soundtrack, what are we meant to know about Wakanda? Is it possible that this sovereign African nation sounds like Compton? Considering its location in Africa, we should wonder how it might differently be heard and understood. Who else is influencing the sound of Wakanda? Nigeria? Tanzania? What are its unique languages and rhythms? Its instruments and ideas? We might not recognize Wakanda’s sounds if we heard them but that struggle to listen to another culture is what comes with the critical project of identifying as part of and building the Black world.
 Wikipedia, “All the Stars,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_the_Stars. Accessed March 17, 2018.
 Sowmaya Krishnamurthy, “Babes Wodumo on Her Appearance for ‘Black Panther: The Album’: ‘I’m so happy. It’s such a privilege’,” Billboard.com, https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/8211820/babes-wodumo-interview-black-panther-the-album. Accessed March 17, 2018.