Black Power Music
by Mosi Reeves | March 1, 2013
So what did a young black revolutionary listen to in 1968? It's a trick question: He or she probably listened to what everyone else listened to.
Before black pride went pop with Shaft and What's Going On, the revolution was barely heard on the radio. It was occasionally transmitted in songs like The Temptations' "Message from a Black Man," and self-styled artists/activists Nina Simone ("To Be Young, Gifted and Black") and James Brown ("Say It Loud -- I'm Black & I'm Proud") deserve special mention. More often, however, the changing mood among blacks was subtly inferred through the likes of Aretha Franklin's "Respect," a love song that its audience transformed into a proto-feminist anthem, a Black Power chant and many things more. The Black Arts nationalists on the East Coast may have been savvy enough to dig into some righteous avant-garde jazz artists like John Coltrane and Archie Shepp, but those records sold in extremely modest numbers; the rest of the country wasn't hip to that.
Meanwhile, the ferocity of the street battles between the nationalists, the Black Panthers, the US Organization, and other radical groups against sundry police departments and the U.S. government begged for a more militant sound. That soundtrack didn't arrive until it was almost too late.
In the excellent 2007 documentary on Melvin Van Peebles, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company and Enjoy It, he remembered that in the late 1960s, "In the political movement, there were no black songs. ... There was (Bob) Dylan and (Joan) Baez, but there weren't things that I felt mirrored the black experience." It's why the novelist and independent film director recorded albums like Brer Soul and, more famously, Sweet Sweetback's Baadassssss Song, despite not knowing how to sing a lick. (Hilariously, he titled a 1973 album What the … You Mean I Can't Sing?) Other subterranean rumblings like the Watts Prophets (Rappin' Black in a White World) and The Last Poets, both of whom emerged from arts programs at neighborhood community centers, suggested that local activism fulfilled cultural needs better than what was transmitted via mainstream media.
By 1971, the world finally got its Black Power pop image. But to the men and women being gunned down by cops, torn apart by internal divisions fomented by the FBI's Cointelpro efforts, and struggling to address poverty in their communities despite a surfeit of funds, the swaggering "private dick" of Shaft, the flamboyant cocaine dealer of Superfly and the flashy pimp of Willie Hutch's The Mack must have seemed like a sick joke. "By turning our oppression into fantasies, by making black people look like fun-loving, love-making, hustling freaks, Hollywood would have us walk away from the theatre feeling that all of the problems we saw were of our own cause," read a 1972 unsigned article in the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service newsletter. It also took issue with how revolutionaries like the Panthers were portrayed: "Black youths with out-dated rhetoric, the 'revolutionaries' come across as stumbling fools, with no program to serve the community and obviously being controlled by others."
We can't blame the likes of Curtis Mayfield, who strained to turn his Superfly songs into a warning against the perils of drug abuse. And we definitely shouldn't deny ourselves the funky pleasures of Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man, or Hutch's The Mack and Foxy Brown. Still, a chasm remains between the street folks that fought for a communal paradise that got subverted into black capitalism and the soul renaissance that those of us who didn't live in that era mistake as representative of their political goals. As Greg Tate wrote in his book of essays Flyboy in the Buttermilk, "When you consider what black folks' mass energy was then and what it is now, you feel like that era maybe never happened at all."
So let's trip back into time and construct an imaginarium of what that young revolutionary's musical playlist would look like before 1971 and the dawn of Blaxsploitation. It's unlikely he sat around listening to poetry all day, but he may have dabbled in it, so let's include Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. He may have educated himself with a lecture or two courtesy of Folkways Records, so Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton belong here. And he may have even sought to tap into his spiritual African roots, so add in Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders.
For the most part, however, he would have simply sought out popular music that spoke to him. Eldridge Cleaver once (mis-)interpreted Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" as a parable of white bourgeois obliviousness to the Civil Rights struggle. Mayfield's "We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue" inadvertently signified the infighting that would eventually destroy the Black Panther Party. And Sly & the Family Stone's "Don't Call Me N-gg-r, Whitey" needs no preface. There's a lot of pain in this music ... and a lot of joy, too. If the Godfather of Soul can't get you clapping and singing, then nothing will.