Music has been an important part of my life. It has given me inspiration during difficult times and joy during happy times. I have been exposed to many types of music as a child: classical, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, rock, soul, funk, salsa, calypso, and pop.
The sixties and seventies were turbulent times for America, and especially the black community. The Civil Rights movement, racism, drugs, the Vietnam war, unemployment, and urban blight were just some problems facing people in America, especially blacks. Much of the music of black musicians reflected the climate of the times.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It prohibited discrimination in employment and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 extended these rights to housing. This created a rise in expectations in the black community. The reality of the times did not meet the expectations causing frustration. This frustration is evident in the riots of the sixties: Harlem in 1964, Watts in1965, and Detroit and Newark in 1967. The focus of protest turned to social and economic deprivation rather than segregation. The Black Panther Party was formed in 1967 calling for blacks to arm themselves for a struggle against oppressors. The Black Power Movement lead by Stokely Carmichael started about this time. He called for economic and political power as a prerequisite and a means for entering mainstream society. During this time the Vietnam War had escalated since 1964 when Congress gave President Johnson authority to conduct military operations. The music had reflected these volatile times.
Discrimination in voter registration in the South was the impetus for the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The march organized by Dr. Martin Luther King in March 1965 as a demonstration that was followed extensively by the media. The demonstration touched the social consciousness of many Americans. The Staple Singers recorded an album, Freedom Highway to commemorate the march. It was the beginning of their change from a gospel group to a soul group with a message. They later recorded a song, I’ll Take You There which had the message of a better future. The lyrics, “I know a place, where ain’t nobody dyin’, ain’t nobody worried, ain’t no cryin’ faces…” brought the message of hope to many blacks. Another song, Respect Yourself stressed the importance of self-respect and self-esteem. It stated that you can’t demand respect from others without first respecting yourself. It was a powerful message.
Another artist with ties to gospel and Martin Luther King was Aretha Franklin. Her father, Reverend C. L. Franklin, had been a friend of Dr. King. She toured with her fathers gospel show as its opening act as a teenager. She developed a gospel following before her change to soul music. She later did a cover of Otis Redding’s Respect but made it her own. Her version with its message became a hit, and a symbol of ethnic and feminist pride in the black community. She later returned to her gospel roots recording the live double album Amazing Grace. It was recorded live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles and also featured James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. It included songs by Clara Ward and Marvin Gaye, and was well received by the public as being very inspirational. Gospel has been a part of the black community since slavery and continues to be a source of inspiration for many.
One problem that faced many blacks was a lack of identity. Black history was not taught in many schools. Many people were unaware of contributions made by blacks throughout the history of the United States. It was felt that black history should be taught in schools in order to instill a sense of pride for blacks. James Brown’s song, “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” became an anthem in the black community. With lines like “I say we don’t quit moving, until we get what we deserve” and “ we’d rather die on our feet, than keep living on our knees” , the title became a battle cry in many communities. Blacks demanded that black history be taught in their communities, and many succeeded. The song also helped to create a sense of identity and unity within the black community.
The sixties and seventies were also a time of political and social unrest in the black community. Some of the music of this time reflected those feelings. Marvin Gaye’s album "What’s Going On" was a commentary on societal problems of the times and made a tremendous impact on increasing social awareness. Inner City Blues echoed the despair of the black community. The song dealt with unemployment, inflation, police brutality, and taxes among other problems. It goes on to say “this ain’t living…makes me want to holler, throw up both my hands!” Save The Children also reflects the despair of the times. The song asks “who is willing to try to save a world that is destined to die “ but goes on to say “live life for the children…let’s save the children”. Another song Mercy, Mercy Me dealt with the global problem of pollution and its effect on the ecology. The album set a standard for others to follow.
The Temptations also made a song that dealt with the social ills of the times. Ball Of Confusion debuted in 1970. It expressed the turmoil felt during the times and explored white flight to the suburbs, urban riots, politicians, etc. The lyrics go on to state that “the only person talking about love my brother is the preacher… the only person interested in learning is the teacher”. It meant to me that love and education were essential to the cure of society’s problems. It said people should focus on solutions, not the problems which created despair.
In October 1966, James Brown released Don’t Be A Drop-Out. This was a message to youths about the importance of getting an education. It is a story about a drop-out who compares himself to friends who didn’t. The song says that “they kept on pushing when the going got tough, and now they know that things don’t seem so rough”. James Brown knew the importance of this first hand having no formal education. He implemented a program which encouraged kids to stay in school and gave scholarships for those that wanted to go to college. He also worked to improve the quality of education received in urban areas. He later released two anti-drug songs, King Heroin and Public Enemy No. 1. He had realized the devastation that drugs brought to the black community and the songs were used as a tool to educate blacks about their danger. James had become a role model for black youth not only through his music but through his commitment to the black community.
While Dr. King felt that change should occur through non-violent civil disobedience, others felt that this choice would not bring the desired results. Black militants felt that the only way change would occur was through revolution, like that of the forefathers of this country. This had scared many in society including blacks. This is seen in the work by the group The Last Poets. Using the spoken word (traditional in black culture) and music, their song Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution exemplifies this. The song deals with the apathy in the black community about black revolution and the lack of participation in the movement. Another artist with a similar message is Gil Scott Heron. His song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised discusses how the media avoids issues important to blacks and how change will occur. The Black Panther Party’s slogan Power To The People became a song by the Chi-Lites. Black Americans saw their political potential as a means of improving their situation.
August 1972 brought the Watts Summer Festival which commemorated the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots and achievements by blacks. Sponsored by Stax Records and Schlitz Beer, the festival ended with a seven hour concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum attended by 100,000 people. The proceeds benefited the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, the Martin Luther King Hospital in Watts and future festivals. Hosted by Reverend Jesse Jackson, the show featured Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Kim Weston, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, The Bar-Kays, The Soul Children, Richard Pryor, The Emotions, and The Dramatics. The concert was filmed and Wattstax was released as a movie and a double album (and another album the following year of material not included in the first). The concert and movie were very powerful in affirming unity and pride in the black community. I remember seeing the movie as a teenager and the impact it made on me and my friends.
There were many other songs that provided positive messages to the black community. The Impressions - People Get Ready, Edwin Starr’s War, Nina Simone’s Young, gifted, and Black are just a few of many songs that drew the black community together and helped to raise social consciousness.