Posted July 8, 2008
In the last two installments of Mp3 Spotlight we have looked at the work of individual musicians who have put their creative energies towards building social movements. Now I would like to feature music directly influenced by one of the 20th century’s most vibrant and radical movements: the Black Power movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s.
The role of music in the early Civil Rights movements is fairly widely known in our movement. Classic Gospel songs, some more than a century old, were refashioned and sung at demonstrations, on picket lines, and across the South. Even the iconic song “We Shall Overcome” is based on an early spiritual. These songs expressed the surging energy of the Black freedom movement of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Readers not familiar with defiant gems like “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus” or “I Ain’t Scared of Your Jail ‘Cause I Want My Freedom” should search out recordings as soon as possible. It is some of the most righteous, infectious music of the century.
But the political mood evolved as the long decade of the 1960’s progressed. Hope that the system could deliver meaningful reforms quickly dimmed, snuffed out by state violence and white racist backlash. Increasingly, the working class black people who made up the base of the Civil Rights movement looked for more radical solutions to their oppression. This was especially true in Northern cities where the lapping waves of the Southern struggle had yet to wash ashore. Before long ‘nonviolence’ sounded like an excuse for passivity, and ‘reform’ seemed positively naïve. This growing, roaring current of black discontent became know as the Black Power movement. This movement, too, expressed itself in music.
It would require a book to trace the history of Rhythm and Blues music, with its roots both in the church and in the saloon. Soul music grew naturally out of R&B, marked by gritty, churning vocals and emotional urgency. There was the dirty, Gospel-drenched ‘Southern Soul’ of Otis Redding, and of course the slick, pop-inflected ‘Northern Soul’ of Motown. Either way, Funk pushed them out of the way with its pounding simplicity and need to move bodies. Each of these variations, from sweaty Soul to deep Funk, was capable of expressing the widening radicalization of the Black working class.
Jazz music was also profoundly affected by the high tide of struggle. Artists like Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders explored Afrocentric themes and publicly associated themselves with the even the radical edge of the movement. Not only did so much Jazz in the 1960’s get radical in intention, it also became radical in form. Saxophonists like Albert Alyer may not have mentioned politics, but their sound was an obvious battle cry. Sax savant Joe McPhee recorded a bristling live record in 1969 titled “Nation Time”. McPhee opens the show with an effusive question for the audience: “what time is it?”. “It’s nation time” the crowd rapturously cries back. Readers interested in the cross section of Black nationalist politics and radical Jazz music should consult LeRoi Jones’ (Amiri Baraka) essay from the mid 1960’s.
For years R&B and Soul overwhelmingly featured love songs. The emergence of a strain of Soul and Funk that featured openly political and culturally defiant lyrics was a startling development. In this new environment, even hyper-political performance poets like Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets gained national attention.
No single artist was more central to the development of this movement and its Black Pride aesthetics than James Brown. Brown had been evolving musically along the trajectory of Soul music since the late 1950’s, and by the late 1960’s had become nothing short of the public face of youthful Black defiance and pride. “Say it loud”, Brown insisted, “I’m Black and I’m proud”. He probably reached a bigger audience than Marcus Garvey with just that one 45 rpm record. But Brown’s political legacy was mixed. His notion of Black Power had conservative overtones and he supported Nixon in 1972.
Brown’s influence can be heard all over the tracks featured below. The painfully tight horns, the rock solid back beat, and the sheer force of argument are all his. But the contagious sound and message of this music—politically defiant as it was insanely danceable—spread faster and wider than even James Brown could have imagined. The Black Power movement drew inspiration from national liberation struggle across the globe, from Algeria to Vietnam. In turn, the sights and sounds of Funk and Soul helped communicate the ideas of Black Power to people in struggle around the world.
That’s some of the history. Now let’s kick out the jams.
Music of the Black Power Era
1. James Brown “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” (coming soon) Probably one of Brown’s most explicit calls for social activism, it is also a case study in hard Funk. Brown states plainly that the time has passed to “raise your hand”, and the time has arrived to finally “raise your fist”. This song is what I’m talking about when I say there is URGENCY in the political message of Brown and his followers.
2. Getto Kitty “Stand Up and Be Counted” This song takes the position of the formerly apolitical person pulled into struggle by the desperate scene around them. Before she was “too honest” for politics, she thought, but now she’s on the move and “peace and freedom is our goal”. Getto Kitty was another hardly known Funk group who hoped for a national hit with a song about social change. There was still a part of the 60’s Soul/Funk continuum that remained ostensibly “apolitical”, and this increases as the movement ebbs in the 1970’s. Getto Kitty clearly do not have their head in the sand, they’ve got their fists in the air.
3. Archie Shepp “Blues for Brother George Jackson” Saxophonist Archie Shepp is a fierce player in the jazz tradition of John Coltrane, not the funk tradition of James Brown. I’ve included him here to show how widely the spirit and ideas of the era permeated Black art in general. Shepp was at the front of the 60’s Free Jazz explosion, alongside Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. He composed numerous songs for Black political prisoners, movement heroes, and other touchstones of the struggle. Many other artists and musicians were inspired to create art dedicated to George Jackson, including Bob Dylan. His political assassination while in prison in California symbolized for many both the brutality and racism of the state and the bravery and vision of young militants like Jackson.
4. The Pharaohs “Freedom Road” I would like to dedicate this Mp3 to our comrades in FRSO/OSCL, due to its snappy title and of course its revolutionary thrust. This song is archetypal: take a churning Soul/Funk crossover jam and simply add metaphors about the centuries old freedom struggle. Not only does it draw a line connecting the Gospel tradition with that of Funk, it also keeps the people on the dance floor. The lyrics are as straight forward as the riff, both topical and universal.
5. Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)” This song is a killer on so many levels. Firstly it is located exactly at the intersection of Mayfield’s classic Chicago Soul and a harder, grittier Funk sound, which all works perfectly. Then you have the lyrics, which are a desperate plea for multiracial unity and social change. That being said I’ve always bristled at the lyrical call for “black and white power”, although I understand Mayfield’s intentions (we all know those two pleas ain’t the same). I know that “liquidate the white supremacist power structure and the institutions that buttress it” doesn’t fit into lyrics of a danceable song quite as effortlessly. Readers of last month’s column will remember what happened when Cornelius Cardew tried that route.
I almost forgot the one song you can’t forget. Here’s James Brown with his hit “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”.