If We Must Die

Music by Olly Wilson, 1991
Poem by Claude McKay, 1918

Claude McKay wrote the poem "If We Must Die" in 1918. What challenges were African Americans experiencing at this time that might have inspired him to write a poem about fighting back against oppressors?

How does Wilson's music express struggle and trauma?

Compare and contrast this song with Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." Despite their significant stylistic differences, how are the messages of the songs similar? What do their similar messages say about perceptions of racial progress over the seventy years that separate the writing of the poem from the song?

"If We Must Die" performed by Kirk Smith, New Black Music Repertory Ensemble & Leslie Dunner on Recorded Music of the African Diaspora, ©2010. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44694/if-we-must-die

Composer Olly Woodrow Wilson, Jr. (1937–2018), was born in St. Louis, Missouri. One of few African Americans to attend Washington University in St. Louis in the 1950s, Wilson obtained his bachelor's degree in music there in 1959. He received advanced degrees from the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa, and he also studied at the University of Ghana in the early 1970s. In addition to composing, he published widely on African and African American music and served on the music faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, from 1970 to 2002.

"If We Must Die" is a setting of a poem by Claude McKay. It is the last song in a larger work titled Of Visions and Truth: A Song Cycle, which was commissioned by the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago in 1989 and premiered in 1991. Wilson writes,

 

Of Visions and Truth is based on my personal reflection on the historical status of African American males in society. In a broad sense, the composition considers the optimistic vision of an egalitarian America in which the American ideal, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, is a goal, while simultaneously acknowledging the harsh, colossal hypocrisy of the historical truth that is a mockery of that ideal.

The instrumental ensemble includes bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, strings, piano, and percussion. The voices are tenor and baritone, which unite at the end of the movement in a moving call to action.

"If we must die" original publication

Claude McKay's original poem.

The poet Claude McKay (1889–1948) was born in Jamaica, but throughout his life he traveled extensively and eventually moved to the United States, where he was an important participant in the Harlem Renaissance. From an early age, McKay was particularly interested in poetry, which he learned about from his older brother, who was a schoolteacher. McKay first encountered racism when he moved from his native town of Sunny Ville, which was primarily Black, to Kingston. His experiences there prompted his lifelong criticism of racial oppression, expressed not only in poetry, but also in several novels.

McKay penned "If We Must Die" in 1918 and published it in the communist periodical Liberator. This was the first of several of his works that encouraged Blacks to fight oppression. Wilson writes that the poem "exhorts the oppressed to resist, to trade blow for blow, and to die—fighting back. In a broad sense, this admonition reflects the basic position of the African American spiritual."

Compare this song to:

"Fight the Power" in this Unit.