Fight the Power

hero_Do-the-Right-Thing-imageStill from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989).

Chuck D of Public Enemy was inspired to write “Fight the Power,” the theme song for Do the Right Thing, by an Isley Brothers song of the same name.

Carlton Ridenhour was 15 years old, and a lifelong Isley Brothers fan, when that song changed his life.

Ridenhour would later take the stage name Chuck D, as the leader of the pioneering rap group Public Enemy. In 1989, he wrote his own “Fight the Power” for the film Do the Right Thing. The movie is set on the hottest day of the summer in a Brooklyn neighborhood, where the temperature leads long-simmering racial tensions to boil over in the street.

The Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power Parts 1 & 2” obliquely references the policing of “boom cars”:

I can’t play my music
They say my music’s too loud
I kept talkin about it
I got the big run around
When I rolled with the punches
I got knocked on the ground
With all this bullshit going down 

The regulation of boom cars has also become a civilian effort, with groups such as Lower the Boom! addressing the following to the drivers of such vehicles:

Boys;

Most of you – not all of you – are mere boys, or have the mentality of a boy and thus exhibit much of the typical mind set of an adolescent.  . . (Those of you who carry this attribute into adulthood will have painful marriages and failed personal and professional relationships. At best, you will spawn yet another dysfunctional family for our society).  . . We know why you lash out, and you need to realize that it isn’t because you are a big man. You do whatever you think you can get by with, even when it’s counterproductive, morally lacking, damaging to others, or just plain stupid. . . we don’t expect this page to mean a great deal until you’ve become men; not just in the physical sense, but in your minds and souls as well. 

Public Enemy would later rap about the phenomenon of aurally profiling black drivers in “Get the F*** Outta Dodge” (1991):

I was wheelin’ 
Wit’ the boom in the back 
The treble was level 
I like it like that 
I was rolly roll a roll rollin’ 
5 o looked and said hold it 

Read an interview between Chuck D and Ernie Isley: “‘Fight The Power’: A Tale Of 2 Anthems (With The Same Name)” here.

Funk and Futurism

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Earth, Wind and Fire as part of the cycle of creation.

What is Afrofuturism?

Briefly, the term denotes an African American ideological current associated with aesthetic references to outer space, non-Western cosmologies, religious and historical revisionism, and a stringent critique of the socio-economic plights of African Americans (and diasporic and continental Africans more broadly).

Earth, Wind and Fire’s video for “Let’s Groove ” (1981)

includes multiple aesthetic references to Afrofuturism: a backdrop of flying white stars in the vastness of outer space, glittery and metallic-colored spacesuit costumes, and a group line dance preceding through a receding, neon pyramid. The line dance—a salient feature of the Chicago-originated television series Soul Train, proceeds through a potent symbol of Egyptology: the pyramid. Egyptology, an influential religious current during the 1960’s and 1970’s, placed black people at the center of Western and world history, and the pyramid adorns several EWF album covers, including 1977’s All ‘N All.

Superheroes and comics also figure heavily in the Afrofuturist aesthetic. In the 1970s, DC Comics published an issue of Lois Lane in which Lois has Superman use futurist technology to make her black for a day, in order to “get that story.”

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Read the whole story here.

If we think of the escapist trend in 1970s funk as a retreat from the hardships of the day-to-day struggle, the religious-science-fiction-cosmological-Afrofuturist trend in 1970s and 1980s funk goes beyond escapism, and advocates for a kind of spiritualized black self-empowerment. Is this vision also escapist? Or is it meant to unify the African-American community in the quest for a better future? If so, can it succeed?

Watch the legendary P-Funk Mothership landing live in concert for the first time in 1976, and note that Parliament-Funkadelic repeatedly reference the 19th-century spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:

The “sweet chariot” in the original song is the vehicle in which the Old Testament prophet Elijah was carried up to heaven. How do George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic revise this symbolism?

One of the earliest pioneers of the Afrofuturist aesthetic in music was jazz pianist Sun Ra. To learn more about Ra’s philosophy, listen to the lectures he gave as a visiting professor at UC-Berkeley in 1971, all linked here.

The opening titles from Ra’s 1974 film Space is the Place.

Ra live with his Arkestra in 1979:

Soul and Funk: Some Historical Background

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Kitchenette buildings on Chicago’s South Side, 1950.

The turbulence of the 1960s, as Linda and Dawn discussed yesterday, was as much a response to the domestic situation in the urban United States as it was to Vietnam. One of the effects of the Great Migration was to turn northern cities into unofficially segregated spaces, with black citizens, unable to purchase homes in good neighborhoods, consigned to renting substandard housing in the ghetto.

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The great African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), above, writes about what it was like to hone her poetic voice in a kitchenette apartment on Chicago’s South Side. “Kitchenettes” were apartments chopped up out of older houses. They usually had a tiny kitchen, and a bathroom in the hall shared by multiple families.

kitchenette building
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms
Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?
We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

A family’s striving to leave a kitchenette apartment is also the subject of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. You can read the play here, and watch it here.

With overcrowding came an increase in the poor conditions.  And because Federal Housing Authority policies actually encouraged discriminatory lending policies, very few African American families were able to secure the loans necessary to move out of the neighborhood, even if they were prepared for the uphill battle against racism they might receive in another area . . .

This is what the Younger family in [Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play] A Raisin in the Sun is fighting so hard to get out of – overcrowded spaces both inside and outside of their apartment walls, which are crumbling around them. What happens when a family – or a whole city full of families – is pushed to the brink like this, where even getting up in the morning involves a fight with those around you?

For more about racist housing policies in northern cities, this article, “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is long but absolutely indispensable.

For a wonderful article about the photographer who captured the glory days of funk, go here.

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, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) 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 and Stokely Carmichael.

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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”:

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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.)