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
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.
Isaac Hayes, a master of storytelling, was famous for setting up a mood in his songs using nothing but his evocative voice. Here he covers Jimmy Webb’s song “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” on the 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul with a 9-minute spoken intro. Do not miss a single one of those nine minutes.
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.