BHM Series: Abbey Lincoln – A voice for change

“To know her music is to know a lot about Abbey Lincoln, as it is with the deepest artists.”-— Amiri Baraka

Abbey Lincoln(1930-2010) was a jazz vocalist, lecturer, painter, and actress, and was a part of the entertainment industry for over 50 years. Her work gradually went through changes, most heavily during the 1950s when she became involved in the black freedom struggle.

Her records expanded the range of socially conscience music during the 1960s as well as further bridged the gap between jazz and protest music.

She modeled her style after jazz icon Billie Holiday, who used her voice as an instrument to be heard,rather than just admired. Her rough, robust, vocal ability truly captured the essence of power and the fight for freedom.

A prime example of Lincoln’s commanding vocal presence is heard on drummer Max Roach’s legendary social protest album,  We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. Lincoln was featured on the radically charged 1961 album, which explicitly voiced the growing demand for equality.

The screaming echoes, and coarse tone from Lincoln accompanied by the dissonant, raging  instrumental timbre drastically details both the struggles of South Africans during apartheid and African Americans efforts to gain equality.

One of Lincoln’s most powerful and unique recordings on We Insist is “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace.” In the song, Lincoln verbalizes her emotions in the form of a wordless spiritual. Prayer, Protest, and Peace are personified through various shouting and screaming techniques.

Lincoln did not utter one word in “Triptych,” but the emotional intensity in her voice was worth a million words, and truly exemplified the power of the Civil Rights Movement.

The nontraditional vocal structure displayed by Lincoln in the song not only changed the standard perception of jazz music, but it also changed the perception of female jazz vocalists at the time. While most jazz vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughn would only sing romantic ballads, Lincoln showed that female jazz vocalists did not have to be limited to a specific theme within their music and that they could display personal integrity in the face of social injustice within jazz just like the male musicians (Porter 165).

If “Strange Fruit” was Billie Holiday’s ode to civil rights, then I would say that “Triptych” is  the sequel, and further showcases African Americans’ anger and frustration with inequality.

You could feel Lincoln’s words and emotions in her music, and as Baraka stated, knowing her music got you a little closer to knowing the truly amazing woman that she was.


Porter, Eric. What is This Thing Called Jazz?: African American Musicians as Artists, Critics,  and Activists. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2002.

Check out Abbey Lincoln’s performance of “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace”


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