In the late 1960s and early 1970s, soul began to address the social and economic problems that faced Black Americans in the (mostly Northern) cities. The textual emphasis on this new wave of soul moved away from the genre’s earlier optimism, instead highlighting dystopian urban visions. This iteration of soul was, in a sense, a musical protest against the ambiguous legacy of the Great Migration and the dashed hopes of the Civil Rights era. Solomon Burke’s 1968 “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)” is a good example.
Isaac Hayes, the producer and songwriter who co-led Stax Records in Memphis, the center of Southern soul, performing his Academy Award-winning theme song from the 1971 blaxploitation film Shaft at the Oscars that year.
John Shaft is a private detective trying to combat the Mafia’s control of the drug trade in Harlem. In a scene in which Shaft is doing a door-to-door search for his nemesis, Isaac Hayes’s song “Soulsville” plays in the background — a tender ballad describing the hardships of Black urban life:
Black man, born free At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be Chains that binds him are hard to see Unless you take this walk with me
Place where he lives is got plenty of names Slums, ghetto and black belt, they are one and the same And I call it “Soulsville”
Any kind of job is hard to find That means an increase in the welfare line Crime rate is rising too If you are hungry, what would you do?
Rent is two months past due and the building is falling apart Little boy needs a pair of shoes and this is only a part of Soulsville
Some of the brothers got plenty of cash Tricks on the corner, gonna see to that Some like to smoke and some like to blow Some are even strung out on a fifty dollar Jones
Some are trying to ditch reality by getting so high Only to find out you can never touch the sky ‘Cause your hoods are in Soulsville
Every Sunday morning, I can hear the old sisters say Hallelujah, Hallelujah, trust in the Lord to make a way, oh yeah I hope that He hear their prayers ’cause deep in their souls they believe Someday He’ll put an end to all this misery that we have in Soulsville.
Compare Isaac Hayes’s Oscar performance with H.E.R.’s 2021 Oscar-winning song, “Fight for You,” from Judas and the Black Messiah, about Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton. In what ways does H.E.R. draw on the music and aesthetics of late 1960s and early 1970s soul?
Contemporary blues-folk singer Ruthie Foster singing the Staple Singers’ song “The Ghetto,” which addresses the same social issues.
Marlena Shaw’s 1969 “Woman of the Ghetto” is a direct appeal to lawmakers to improve the living conditions in the urban core.
How do we get rid of rats in the ghetto? Do we make one black and one white in the ghetto? Is that your answer legislator?
Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” is about a migrant from the rural South to the urban North, where he is unjustly arrested and imprisoned. In the last verse, Wonder implores would-be migrants to the city to stay in their home places and make them better. As such, it’s an anti-Great Migration song.
I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow This place is cruel, nowhere could be much colder If we don’t change, the world will soon be over Living just enough, stop giving just enough for the city.
Many artists moved to Harlem, where they were free to cultivate the inner life.
Langston Hughes, the most famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance, reading his poem “I, Too”:
The Harlem Renaissance was the artistic flowering of the Great Migration. As Duke Ellington wrote in “Drop Me Off in Harlem”:
I don’t want your Dixie, You can keep your Dixie, There’s no one down in Dixie Who can take me ‘way from my hot Harlem. Harlem has those Southern skies, They’re in my baby’s smile, I idolize my baby’s eyes And classy uptown style.
The music of the Harlem Renaissance drew from the commercialized blues of performers like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Josie Miles; from ragtime, jazz, and the Black musical-theatrical tradition — music like that for the first full-length Broadway musical by a Black composer (and with an all-Black cast) was In Dahomey, by Will Marion Cook, Antonin Dvorak’s former student at the National Conservatory.
Another hugely successful Black musical was the 1921 Shuffle Along, composed by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The show was revived on Broadway in 2016.
The show’s composers, Sissle and Blake, singing together (minstrel songs!)
The muse of the Harlem Renaissance, Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show (in other words, a meta-narrative, or a work of art that is self-consciously about art itself). Note that she is costumed in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”
Another famous Harlem Renaissance singer and actress, Florence Mills:
Paul Robeson in a film clip from Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones, the role that launched his international stage career.
The Renaissance also included concert music by composers like Nora Holt, the music critic of the Black newspaper the Amsterdam News.
As Steven Blier notes in his article “Harlem, Billy Strayhorn . . . and me,” Harlem was also legendary for its tolerance of LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming people. Blier suggests that the following songs are signifying — i.e., that they contain coded messages of LGBTQ+ acceptance.
“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”
Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not “the kind of love that satisfies.”
Rhiannon Giddens explains how Ethel Waters changed the lyrics.
Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”
The great Bessie Smith, singing some rather racy lyrics:
The song ended up best known as a jazz instrumental, but the seldom-heard lyrics hinted at the people you’d encounter in Harlem: “Oh, they’ve got women just like men, ’cause they act-a just like brothers.” The theme of gender fluidity was made even more explicit in a playful verse that Grainger sang on a 1924 recording he made with Waller:
In Harlem’s Araby You can’t tell “B” from “G.” There’s nothing in the Orient Like Harlem’s Araby.
“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.
Blind Blake (1896-1938) recorded “Detroit Bound Blues” for Paramount in 1928. It’s a kind of miniature record of at least some of the impetus behind the Great Migration.
I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob
I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place Stop these eatless days from starin’ me in the face
When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around ‘Cause I don’t want her now, Lord. I’m Detroit bound
Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Wild women and bad whisky would make a fool out of me
But working on an assembly line could be soul-crushing. As Joe L. Carter sang, “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.”
From 1970 to 1973, Motown, whose mainstream records were mostly apolitical, operated a sub-label called Black Forum, which was dedicated to recording spoken word, poetry, and radical Black thought for posterity. Here are some recordings from its archives.
The last recording released by Black Forum was an album of consciousness-raising songs composed and performed by Black Panther leader Elaine Brown (who was a fantastic singer as well):
In July 1967, Detroit underwent five days of brutal unrest following the police raid of an after-hours club. Sixteen people were killed in the ensuing rioting.
While the unrest was still underway, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to study the problem. The commission concluded:
Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. . . .What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.
In 1968, civic leaders initiated a summer program to repair the city’s reputation, called “Detroit is Happening.” Motown artist Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded a song for the City of Detroit, “I Care About Detroit”:
And Detroit Tigers left-fielder Willie Horton recorded a spoken-word jam over the Supremes’ song “It’s Happening,” to advertise the summer program.
Marvin Gaye’s great 1971 record What’s Going On took Motown’s first-string in a politically-engaged and socially-conscious direction. The album, influenced by a dark time in Gaye’s own life, was a “concept album” — all the songs were connected into a single overarching narrative, about a Black soldier coming home from Vietnam, based on the experience of Gaye’s brother, Frankie. Berry Gordy at first refused to release it, thinking it too political. Gaye refused to record anything else for Motown unless Gordy changed his mind. Gaye prevailed, and the rest is history.
Content warning: explicit language, racial slurs (including the n-word) in original sources.
Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, dedicated his 1968 book Seize the Time, to his wife, Artie, and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.
Malik’s third name, as Seale explains it,
derives from the lumpen proletarian politically unaware brothers in the streets. Stagolee fought his brothers and sisters, and he shouldn’t have. The Stagolees of today should take on the messages of Malcolm X as Huey Newton [the co-founder, with Seale, of the Black Panther Party] did, to oppose this racist, capitalist oppression our people and other peoples are subjected to. Malik must not fight his brothers. . . .
When my wife Artie had a baby boy, I said, “The nigger’s name is Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.”
“I don’t want him named that!” Artie said.
I had read all that book history about Stagolee, that black folkloric history, because I was hung up on that stuff at the time . . . Stagolee was a bad nigger off the block and didn’t take shit from nobody. All you had to do was organize him, like Malcolm X, make him politically conscious. . . [Kwame] Nkrumah [the first president of post-colonial Ghana] was a bad motherfucker and Malcolm X was a bad nigger. Huey P. Newton showed me the nigger on the block was [as powerful as] ten motherfuckers when politically educated, and if you got him organized. I said, “Stagolee, put Stagolee on his name,” because Stagolee was an unorganized nigger, to me, like a brother on the block. I related to Huey P. Newton because Huey was fighting niggers on the block. Huey was a nigger that came along and he incorporated Malcolm X, he incorporated Stagolee, he incorporated Nkrumah, all of them.
Who was Stagolee, and why did his legend persist into the days of Black Power?
Also known as Stagger Lee, Stacker Lee, and Stack-o-Lee, among other derivatives, Stagolee was born Lee Shelton in Texas in 1865. He became a legendary pimp in St. Louis, and shot another man, Billy Lyons, in a bar fight in 1895, during which Lyons snatched Shelton’s Stetson hat off his head. As Joe Kloc describes the scenario:
Popular songs about Stagolee, in the ancient folk tradition of murder ballads, began cropping up almost immediately after this event. Shelton went to prison, and by the time he was paroled in 1909, the first written version of the lyrics about his misdeeds had been published. The folk narrative of Stagolee and Billy has been recorded hundreds of times by artists across color lines and genres, and Stagolee has become a romanticized outlaw in the great American tradition of Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde.
The most famous rendition is by country blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt.
The influential Depression-era white folksinger Woody Guthrie:
Blues guitarist Taj Mahal’s version:
In 1959, it became a rock-and-roll hit for Lloyd Price:
Amy Winehouse performing a cover of Lloyd Price’s cover:
Wilson Pickett’s blues-funk version in 1969:
The Grateful Dead:
Samuel L. Jackson talk-sings it in the movie Black Snake Moan:
British-Australian post-punk singer Nick Cave:
The lyrics for Nick Cave’s version are here. As you can see, Cave takes the tale out of the African-American context and places it in the genre of the generic murder ballad. Do you think it works?
Rudy Ray Moore’s toast, “Stack-a-Lee”:
Why do you think the legend of Stagolee has had such an enduring appeal to both black and white artists?
Bobby Seale described “the Stagolees of today” (in 1968) as “politically unaware brothers in the street.” What did he mean? Who are the Stagolees of the 21st century?
Has the romanticized-outlaw image of Stagolee carried over into rap music? Give an example of a song and an artist.
By 1966, the Civil Rights Movement, defined by peaceful protests such as the 1960 Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, the 1961 Freedom Rides, and the 1965 marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery to register voters, was in decline.
The Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been formed in 1960 as a college-student auxiliary to Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition, made a sharp pivot away from non-violence in 1966, when its new leader, Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), said in a speech in Greenwood, Mississippi:
The night after Carmichael’s speech, however, King repudiated the term:
Some people are telling us to be like our oppressor . . . telling me to stoop down to that level. I’m sick and tired of violence.
And Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, called the idea of Black Power “the father of hatred and the mother of violence.”
But by 1966, young blacks were beginning to drift away from from what they saw as the incrementalism of the Civil Rights movement, and starting to embrace the more radical vision of Carmichael and Malcolm X. The next head of SNCC, H. Rap Brown (currently serving a life sentence for the murder of a sheriff’s deputy in Georgia), famously said, “Don’t love [the white man] to death! Shoot him to death!”
Watch Brown and Carmichael address a gathering in honor of Huey Newton’s birthday in Oakland in 1968 (Newton was in prison for the shooting death of an Oakland police officer). Brown begins and Carmichael comes in at 2:32.
Later that year, two college students in Oakland, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panther Party (both men were born in the South and moved with their families to California with the second wave of the Great Migration). The BPP was founded on what Newton and Seale called the “Ten-Point Program”:
We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine The Destiny Of Our Black Community.We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.
We Want Full Employment For Our People.We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American businessmen will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
We Want An End To The Robbery By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community. We believe that this racist government has robbed us, and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings.We believe that if the White Landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.
We Want Education For Our People That Exposes The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society. We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History And Our Role In The Present-Day Society.We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service.We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self- defense.
We Want Freedom For All Black Men Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails.We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
We Want All Black People When Brought To Trial To Be Tried In Court By A Jury Of Their Peer Group Or People From Their Black Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States.We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being, tried by all-White juries that have no understanding of the “average reasoning man” of the Black community.
We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace. When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect of the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
Compare the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program with Tupac Shakur’s Code of Thug Life, which he wrote with his stepfather, Mutulu (see below). The Code provides a series of directives for what might oxymoronically be called the ethical selling of crack.
Code OF THUG LIFE:
1. All new Jacks to the game must know: a) He’s going to get rich. b) He’s going to jail. c) He’s going to die.
2. Crew Leaders: You are responsible for legal/financial payment commitments to crew members; your word must be your bond.
3. One crew’s rat is every crew’s rat. Rats are now like a disease; sooner or later we all get it; and they should too.
4. Crew leader and posse should select a diplomat, and should work ways to settle disputes. In unity, there is strength!
5. Car jacking in our Hood is against the Code.
6. Slinging to children is against the Code.
7. Having children slinging is against the Code.
8. No slinging in schools.
9. Since the rat Nicky Barnes opened his mouth; ratting has become accepted by some. We’re not having it.
10. Snitches is outta here.
11. The Boys in Blue don’t run nothing; we do. Control the Hood, and make it safe for squares.
12. No slinging to pregnant Sisters. That’s baby killing; that’s genocide!
13. Know your target, who’s the real enemy.
14. Civilians are not a target and should be spared.
15. Harm to children will not be forgiven.
16. Attacking someone’s home where their family is known to reside, must be altered or checked.
17. Senseless brutality and rape must stop.
18. Our old folks must not be abused.
19. Respect our Sisters. Respect our Brothers.
20. Sisters in the Life must be respected if they respect themselves.
21. Military disputes concerning business areas within the community must be handled professionally and not on the block.
22. No shooting at parties.
23. Concerts and parties are neutral territories; no shooting!
24. Know the Code; it’s for everyone.
25. Be a real ruff neck. Be down with the code of the Thug Life.
26. Protect yourself at all times.
Biggie Smalls paraphrased and expanded on these principles in his 1997 “Ten Crack Commandments,” a song focused on the behavior of the individual crack dealer rather than on his obligations to the community:
Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur (above, with baby Tupac) was a prominent member of the New York City chapter of the Black Panther Party. In 1971, she and 20 other New York City Panthers, who were known as the Panther 21, went to trial for a conspiracy to bomb various locations in New York City. Just one month after being acquitted, Afeni gave birth to her son.
Tupac memorialized her in the 1995 song “Dear Mama”:
Tupac’s stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, is currently serving a 60-year sentence for his part in the 1981 robbery of an armored car in Nanuet, New York, which left one Brink’s guard and two police officers dead (also convicted were the parents of current San Francisco D.A. Chesa Boudin, David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin. Chesa was a baby at the time).
In the years following his untimely death in 1996, Tupac’s own politics, as well as his music, has been studied and analyzed by scholars of popular music, Black studies, and American history alike. Some commentators see him as the legitimate heir of the traditions of black nationalism, a “Homegrown Revolutionary.” Others view Tupac’s prioritizing of money, his calls for Black-on-Black violence, and his misuse of women (he did a prison sentence for rape in 1995 and was killed in a drive-by just a month after his release) as a squandering of the legacy of his mother’s generation.
What do you think? Did Tupac move from conscious rapper to gangsta? Or were these two strains always present in his music and his life?
Tupac’s godmother was Assata Shakur (above), born Joanne Chesimard (Chesa Boudin was named for her). Assata, a leading member of the New York Black Panthers, escaped from prison in 1979, where she was serving a life sentence for participating in the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. She was smuggled to Cuba, where she still lives, and she remains on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. Tupac dedicated the song “Words of Wisdom,” off his 1991 album 2Pacalypse Now, to her.
Common released a song in 2000 called “A Song for Assata”:
Underground Chicago rapper and lawyer Capital D refers to her in his song “Start the Revolution” (2004), along with other Black revolutionaries Fred Hampton, Geronimo Pratt, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Jamil Al-Amin (a.k.a. H. Rap Brown):
They ain’t fighting poverty, they fighting the poor/And every couple of years they just declare a
new war/Cold war, drugs, gangs, terrorism, et cetera/Man I been seen it coming got my vision
ahead of ya/They be BSing me because I didn’t enlist/That be their hatred boy that I refuse to
resist/That be they hate a brother because of this black fist/But nah, they probably just chasing
young Muslims for kicks/Ya know same story brothers face and constantly chanting/Meanwhile
in my brain I’m thinking about Fred Hampton/Geronimo, Mumia, and Assata Shakur/Imam Al–
Amin plus a whole lotta more/But waiting for the opportunity to settle the score….
Another song off 2Pacalypse Now, “Trapped,” appears to rationalize violence as an appropriate response to systematic oppression, and even suggests that black-on-black violence has the transformative ability to earn respect for those who engage in it.
Tupac is, in a sense, a pivotal figure between the Black Power generation and the hip hop generation.
And what about the aesthetics of black revolution? Take a look at the image above of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in their black leather jackets and berets, outfitted with guns and bandoliers. As Angela Davis recalled about seeing an image of the Black Panthers in a German newspaper while a graduate student in Frankfurt: