Soul and the City

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
.

Funk and Futurism

yokoo_5_large

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.

In the inner sleeve of his 1972 album Music of My Mind, Stevie Wonder also drew on Afrofuturist iconography.

This was the first album in which Wonder had total creative control, and he heavily featured the futuristic sounds of the synthesizer.

Superheroes and comics also figure heavily in the Afrofuturist aesthetic. Marvel introduced T’Challah, the Black Panther, in 1966 in Fantastic Four  #52, in which the FF travel to Wakanda.

In the 1970s, DC got in on the game, with an issue of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane in which Lois has Superman use futurist technology to make her black for a day, in order to “get that story.”

blackloiscover
blacklois4

The complete story is linked on your syllabus. What was woke back then might seem cringeworthy now.

However, by 1970, most of the transformative social projects begun in the 1960s had ended in violence and chaos. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, followed by the murder by the Hell’s Angels of a Black concertgoer at the Altamont Music Festival (see Black Woodstock and the Opposite of Woodstock), and the “Days of Rage” in Chicago initiated by Students for a Democratic Society, in 1969, showed that what had begun with optimism and hope was headed in a dark direction.

The 1960s were definitely over when, on March 6, 1970, the Weather Underground (formerly Students for a Democratic Society) blew up a townhouse in Greenwich Village in which they were fabricating bombs, killing three Weathermen. Less than two months later, on May 4, 1970, four students were killed by the National Guard in a protests at Kent State University in Ohio.

From “Epilogue,” Green Lantern #76, April, 1970 (Dennis O’Neal and Neal Adams)
From “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!” Green Lantern #76, April 1970 (Dennis O’Neal and Neal Adams).

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?

The landing of another mothership at the end of Black Panther. 

The filmmakers are making the case that the way out of the Oakland ghetto, and the way to true equality, is through science and technology — an idea that is Afrofuturist to its core.

“Wake Up,” by Funkadelic, is a sonic manifesto of Afrofuturism.

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:

Some femme Afrofuturism: 

Grace Jones.

Janelle Monae.

Legendary sci-fi author Octavia Butler.

clipping, the rap group co-led by Daveed Diggs, created the song “The Deep” in 2017, about an underwater utopia created by the descendants of African women thrown overboard during the transatlantic slave trade, who could breathe underwater.

The techno turntabling of DJ Jeff Mills, a.k.a. The Wizard.