When celebrated folk artist Odetta sang "I'm on my way and I won't turn back" at the March on Washington in 1963, she humanized the plights of oppressed Black people everywhere, in both sound and message. Fifty-seven years later, we are still in desperate search of that humanity. The indelible ache of Odetta's resonant voice has, thankfully, long since propagated, as evidenced in the careers of Tracy Chapman, Toshi Reagon and Brittany Howard. Now, Morgan Harper Nichols has nestled herself in a long line of Black women artists who proudly weaponize their art to elucidate (and, perhaps someday, eradicate) society's ills.
"One Breath at a Time" stops far short of proposing how to do away with systemic racism in America once and for all. Instead, Nichols aptly lingers in her grief and bewilderment: "I'm out of answers, I'm out of breath / About to lose the small hope I had left." This might suggest that the 30-year-old singer-songwriter has conceded defeat. Quite the opposite: As Nichols draws her focus inward, she in turn finds a commonality with the issue at hand. Her fervent and guttural cries, calling out for help from a "higher power," seek both grace and salvation — hers and our own.