Soul as Protest Music

Content/Trigger Warning: Racist language in original sources.

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Soul was a stream of rhythm and blues that engaged overtly with social issues. Where 1950s R&B was primarily dance music, in the early 1960s certain artists began marrying the R&B musical sensibility to lyrics that dealt with pressing political topics. In the Civil Rights Movement, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or SNCC, pronounced “snick”), which was formed in 1960 to address voting rights issues in the Deep South, began to reject what they saw as the incrementalist approach of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and to embrace the “by any means necessary” philosophy of leaders like Malcolm X. New Yorker, Howard graduate, and emerging black nationalist Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), who had grown up hearing Malcom X preach on street corners in the Bronx, took over the leadership of SNCC in 1967 from John Lewis (later a long-serving Congressman from Georgia), and began to steer its mission towards Black Power and separatism. The white members of SNCC were deplatformed and drifted away, and, as Nicholas Lemann notes,

The emergence of an openly anti white strain in the civil rights movement — and, in particular, of an openly anti-Semitic strain in the black power movement — severely curtailed the movement’s ability to exert a moral claim on the nation.

As former SNCC field secretary Julius Lester wryly put it:

If SNCC had said Negro Power or Colored Power, white folks would’ve continued sleeping easy every night. But BLACK POWER! Black! . . . All the whites wanted to know was if Black Power was antiwhite and if it meant killing white folks. The nation was hysterical. [Vice President] Hubert Humphrey screamed, ” . . . We must reject calls for racism . . . whether they come from a throat that is white or one that is black.” He could “reject” all he wanted, but if you reject a woman, that still doesn’t keep the bitch from killing you.

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Soul music essentially was R&B music that engaged with the cultural aspirations of of the Black Power movement. In 1969, Billboard changed the name of its R&B chart to the Soul chart.

As we’ve discussed in class and on this blog, soul takes its musical inspiration from the black church, using gospel music techniques like call-and-response structure and melismatic singing (stretching one syllable of a word over many notes to give textual emphasis). Soul pioneers like Ray Charles and James Brown at first restricted their songs to the usual topics of love and desire. You can hear Charles’s marriage of gospel-influenced piano phrasing with a boogie-woogie vamp in the left hand.

You can hear the melismatic vocal style of James Brown (the “Human Package of Dynamite”) set against a staccato horn section and the interjections of a solo electric guitar played in a high register, which would become hallmarks of funk music a few years later. Notice also that the audience and the backup dancers are integrated.

James Brown soon turned to songwriting that was overtly political.

According to James Brown, “Say It Loud”

scared people . . . Many white people didn’t understand it . . . They thought I was saying kill the honky, and every time I did something else around the idea of black pride another top forty station quit playing my records.

Bands like the Temptations and the Chi-Lites joined the vocal harmonies of male R&B groups to socially-engaged lyrical content.

The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion”:

The Chi-Lites, “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People”:

The Staple Singers fused gospel choral style, the fast-paced bass lines and jangling guitars of funk, and passionate pleas for black self-respect and communal love:

The Staple Singers, “This Old Town”:

Another Staple Singers song, “The Ghetto,” sung by contemporary blues-folk artist Ruthie Foster:

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Some popular Motown artists, too, began to record “message” songs. Here, the Supremes mash up their trademark breathy vocal style with the driving bass line and polyrhythms of early funk, against a stylized, Sesame Street-like “ghetto” backdrop. Note their bare feet and natural hair, a far cry from their earlier glamorous look.

Stevie Wonder, “Living for the City”:

Marlena Shaw, “Woman of the Ghetto”:

black soldiers vietnam satire

The Vietnam War also became a flashpoint for soul. It was the first “integrated war” in US history, with blacks and whites serving together in the same units. In reality, however, blacks and poor whites bore a disproportionate burden of Vietnam service; college men, mostly white, were able to get deferments, or join the Army Reserves, to avoid being drafted and sent into combat.

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In 1965, SNCC issued a statement urging that blacks should not

fight in Vietnam for the white man’s freedom, until all the Negro people are free in Mississippi. 

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Edwin Starr, “War”:

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Richie Havens, medley of “Freedom” and the old spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” at Woodstock:

The ethos of struggle found its way into mainstream culture. The 1970s television show “Good Times” took place in the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, and one of the show’s child characters was a young activist.

(This is funny.)

The (sonic) contributions of women to the Black Power women have often been overlooked. Read “They Do Not All Sound Alike: Sampling Kathleen Cleaver, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis.”

And Elaine Brown (above), the first woman to lead the Black Panther Party, was also an accomplished singer who recorded anthems in the service of the cause.