Content/Trigger Warning: Racist language in original sources.
Soul was a stream of rhythm and blues that engaged overtly with social issues. Where 1950s and early 1960s R&B was primarily dance music, in the mid-60s, 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 1966 from John Lewis (the Civil Rights hero who had marched alongside Dr. King in Selma in 1965, been brutally beaten by the police, and before his death in 2020 was 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.
Soul music was a repertoire that combined the rhythms and the dense, tight instrumentals of R&B with the cultural aspirations of the Black Power movement. In 1969, Billboard changed the name of its R&B chart to 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 Ray Charles’s marriage of gospel-influenced piano phrasing with a boogie-woogie vamp in the left hand.
And 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 just a few years later in the early 1970s. 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.
Politics and art make strange bedfellows, however. Brown played at President Nixon’s 1968 inauguration, and endorsed Nixon in his reelection campaign in 1972.
In 1973, Brown’s band, the J.B.’s, recorded a song called “You Can Have Watergate, Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight,” referring to the scandal that would later topple Nixon’s presidency: a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate Office Building in order to install illegal wiretaps, ordered at the highest levels of government.
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”:
Some popular Motown artists, too, began to record “message” songs. Here, the Supremes mash up their trademark soft, 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.
Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (remixed with topical video in 2019):
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. It was also alleged that Black soldiers got sent on the most dangerous missions.
In 1965, SNCC issued a statement urging that blacks should not
The Black Panther Party encouraged and supported protests among American G.I.s. They were supported, in turn, by the radical white group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who organized an action in Chicago in 1969 called “Days of Rage.” The Days of Rage, which took place from October 8-11, involved various acts of vandalism, sabotage, and attempts to provoke the police into a confrontation. SDS and its subgroup, Weatherman, hoped to recruit youth from community colleges and high schools to the cause of anti-imperialism, on the basis that students were de facto members of the working class because they did not, in Marxist terms, “own the means of production.” In reality, only a few hundred people showed up; 250 were arrested. The SDS slogan was “Bring the [Vietnam] War Home.”
Veterans throwing their medals at the Capitol in a protest in 1971:
Edwin Starr, “War”:
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.
Even shows as white as The Partridge Family joined in. In episode #78, the band’s tour mistakenly takes them to play at a failing Detroit club run by Richard Pryor (they were supposed to play in Tucson). Danny Partridge convinces the local Afro-American Cultural Society (a fictional version of the Black Panthers) to help out with some musicians.
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.
Not all calls for Black Power, however, endorsed violent means. The Shahid Quintet, in a spoken-word jam against a cool-sounding jazz background, probably recorded in 1968 or 1969 in Chicago, caution revolutionaries that burning and mayhem are “no way to have a Black revolt”:
Burning and looting and cries of Black Power . . .
Brother, try and think like a wise man,
how much Black power can you hold in a can [i.e., of gasoline to start a fire]?
Instead, Richard Shabazz and Earl Shabazz, about whom little is known, urge revolutionaries to come to God and his messenger — specifically, to the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad.
Earl Shabazz and Richard Shabazz might have envisioned their record finding its way to their local Black Nationalist bookstore, they might have seen it being sold at local poetry readings. Some forty-odd years later, though, they likely wouldn’t have foreseen that their recording had landed mostly in hands of white record collectors, the inevitable home to such cultural ephemera.