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.
The video for Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop” alludes to that time and place.
And Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is in some ways an attempt to recreate it.
Do you believe that it’s possible to re-create a moment of unprecedented community engagement like Black Woodstock?
“White” Woodstock, in the meantime, was perhaps the last gasp of optimism of the 1960s counterculture. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy had both been assassinated the previous year. Five hundred thousand U.S. troops were in Vietnam. Nixon was in the White House and had begun secretly bombing Cambodia.
Just a few months later, another massive music festival would try — and fail catastrophically — to carry on the spirit of Woodstock.
At the Altamont Speedway in northern California, the Hell’s Angels were contracted to provide security for $500 worth of beer (more than $3000 worth in today’s money). As the crowd got restless and the Angels got drunk, they began beating concertgoers with pool cues and motorcycle chains, and kicked and stabbed an eighteen-year-old black audience member, Meredith Hunter, to death during the Rolling Stones’ set.
As rock critic Greil Marcus, who was at the festival, succinctly put it:
The murder was caught live on camera and included in the documentary Gimme Shelter as the Stones performed “Under My Thumb” (warning: this footage contains the actual murder of Meredith Hunter — watch at your own risk).
As gospel singer Merry Clayton famously sang on the studio version of “Gimme Shelter”: “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.”
Kitchenette buildings on Chicago’s South Side, 1950.
The turbulence of the 1960s 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 — segregated in fact, if not by law — with black citizens, unable to purchase homes in good neighborhoods, consigned to renting substandard housing in the ghetto.
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.
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.
This article, “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, published in 2014, is long but absolutely indispensable for an understanding of the racist policies that helped create black urban ghettos and restrict black homeownership, which has led to the present great disparity between white and black generational wealth.
Dawn oversees percolating coffee and the new wreckage of the world.
I stand before my routine reflection, button up my sanity, brush weary strands of hair with pomade and seal cracked lips of distrust with cocoa butter and matte rouge.
I ready myself once again for morning and mortify. Stacking poetry and bills in a knapsack; I bundle up hope (it’s brutal out there).
For a moment, I stand with ghosts and the framed ancestors surrounding me. I call out, hoping she can hear me over the day-breaking sirens— hoping she’s not far away, or right down the street, praying over another dead black boy.
How will we make it through this, Ms. Brooks?
When she held a body, she saw much worse than this. I know she was earshot and fingertip close to oppression. She saw how hateful hate could be. She raised babies, taught Stone Rangers, grew a natural and wrote around critics.
She won a Pulitzer in the dark.
She justified our kitchenette dreams, and held on. She held on to all of us.
Hold On, she whispers.
Another day, when I have to tip-toe around the police and passive-aggressive emails from people who sit only a few feet away from me. Another day of fractured humans who decide how I will live and die, and I have to act like I like it so I can keep a job; be a team player, pay taxes on it; I have to act like I’m happy to be slammed, severed, and swindled. Otherwise, I’m just part of the problem— a rebel rouser and rude.
They want me to like it, or at least pretend, so the pretty veils that blanket who we really are— this complicated history, can stay pretty and veiled like some desert belly dancer who must be seen but not heard.
We are a world of lesions. Human has become hindrance. We must be stamped and have papers, and still, it’s not enough. Ignorance has become powerful. The dice that rolls our futures is platinum but hollow inside.
Did you see that, Ms. Brooks? Do you see what we’ve become? They are skinning our histories, deporting our roots, detonating our very right to tell the truth. We are one step closer to annihilation.
Hold On,she says, two million light years away.
She’s right. Hold On everybody. Hold On because the poets are still alive—and writing. Hold On to the last of the disappearing bees and that Great Barrier Reef. Hold On to the one sitting next to you, not masked behind some keyboard. The one right next to you. The ones who live and love right next to you. Hold On to them.
And when we bury another grandmother, or another black boy; when we stand in front of a pipeline, pour another glass of dirty drinking water and put it on the dining room table, next to the kreplach, bratwurst, tamales, collards, and dumplings that our foremothers and fathers—immigrants, brought with them so we all knew that we came from somewhere; somewhere that mattered. When we kneel on the rubbled mosques, sit in massacred prayer circles, Holding On is what gets us through.
We must remember who we are. We are worth fighting for. We’ve seen beauty. We’ve birthed babies who’ve only known a black President. We’ve tasted empathy and paid it forward. We’ve Go-Funded from wrong to right. We’ve marched and made love. We haven’t forgotten—even if they have—Karma is keeping watch.
Hold On. Hold On everybody. Even if all you have left is that middle finger around your God-given right to be free, to be heard, to be loved, and remembered…Hold On, and keep Holding.
Closer to home, the city of Syracuse is debating what to do about the crumbling I-81 bridge that essentially cut off its black neighborhoods from the rest of the city, creating a ghetto. As one resident notes: “Have you ever noticed how cities always have a south side?”
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 i9the 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,
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 Humphreyscreamed, ” . . . 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.
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”:
Sly and the Family Stone were the first to use the n-word in a song title in 1969:
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.
The Staple Singers were a father-and-daughters group, who moved to Chicago from Mississippi during the Great Migration and started in the Black church:
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” was set in the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, and one of the show’s characters was a tween 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.
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.
The T.A.M.I. (Teenage Awards Music Intenational) Show was a concert documentary that combined footage from two concerts held in Santa Monica, California in October 1964. The concerts were attended mostly by local high school students, who had been given free tickets to the show, and were headlined by a mix of white pop and rock-and-roll artists and black R&B and soul musicians.
One of the most celebrated performances in the concerts was that of James Brown and his band, the Famous Flames. There had been a backstage conflict just moments earlier between Brown and the Rolling Stones over who would go last. The Stones prevailed, and Brown, before going onstage, supposedly said, “Watch this, y’all.”
In the 1991 Irish film “The Commitments,” set in the working-class neighborhood of North Dublin in the 1960s, an Irish soul fan tries to put together an American-style soul band. He shows his skeptical bandmembers a clip of James Brown’s T.A.M.I. performance, and tells them that, as the “Blacks of Europe,” they should be able to relate: