Take a stand. Stop the violence. These are among the impassioned cries in Black America after last week’s horrific eruption of the U.S. divide over race and policing, resulting in the murders by cops of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Delrawn Small, and the high-profile arrest of one of the Black Lives Matter movement’s leaders DeRay McKesson while protesting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Old and young, famous and infamous, this land’s people who are darker than blue—or whom true citizenship has always been an ideal never quite attained—keep reeling from the news, pondering if lynching season is open again (per a disturbing incident in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park last Thursday), planning boycotts off social media, and taking their rage and sorrow to the streets nationwide.
When things fall apart in society and we find ourselves angry, sad, hopeless, tired, disempowered, and mired in a ball of confusion, most of us turn to our kin and music for solace. Amongst black folks, songs from the 1960s-70s Golden Age of black music are dominating the Facebook loop as they search for succor and a semblance of peace amidst the suffering, and the cohort of conscious artists are covering and offering up tunes from the same well. And so, here below is a sampling of the sounds we cleave to, hoping that once again music can be a great healer and restore our soul power.
Anglo-African folk singer Kiwanuka teamed with black American digital-soul producer Danger Mouse to bring forth this timely track, an urban blues sitting firmly between this list’s Lamont Dozier selection (see entry No. 10) and Kendrick Lamar. In stark black and white, the song’s video illuminates the peculiar hyper-consciousness and peril of being black males in the West that does not prize them and the resulting constant surveillance and menace by the police. Boldly titling his album after the song, Kiwanuka makes it plain that he’s strong enough to step out of the fey and take up the activist torch of such forebears as Richie Havens and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Although specific to his Native American subjectivity, being a song about the horrible forced assimilation practices of Indian schools, iconic Village folkie LaFarge’s “Drums” is ultimately about oppression and an embattled culture’s will to fight back and liberate itself. The black indigenous communities’ struggle for recognition in Indian Country has also dominated the news in recent years; but Idle No More and native solidarity with Black Lives Matter amongst the youth have also re-knit ties in order to strike back against forces (sprouting like weeds this summer of internecine presidential campaigns) declaring it’s time to Make America White—ahem—Great, Again.
“Chameleon” is Labelle at its Afro-futuristic, space-rock best—one of the crowning jewels of primary songwriter Nona Hendryx’s repertoire. Street corner vocals take flight on lyrics promising a sublime journey from earthbound nature unto a new plane of bliss: “Come with me / (I do believe) / …If you believe in the magical world that we live in…” There are echoes of many Negro spirituals full of avian imagery and determined sojourns on a quest for freedom. “Chameleon,” title cut to Labelle’s 1976 swansong (prior to 2008 slight return), goes “back to chuuch,” ringing down the stratosphere.
This heroic, hard swinging, vanguard jazz staple from Doug Carn’s Spirit Of The New Land is a clear call-to-arms to black folks on the cosmic tip. Forged in the fires of revolutionary struggle, the sound of Doug and former wife Jean Carn’s work epitomized the Black Arts movement’s aesthetic. Sonifying deliverance from Jim Crow, the Carns, on Spirit Of The New Land, created a soundtrack for rebirth of a nation, spiritual elevation, and total liberation while soothing to the soul. “Arise and Shine” is an anthemic hymn from times when we believed that peace, justice, equality, and parity in societal standing was within reach. As the lyrics go, “Arise and shine / Beautiful people arise / Arise in the light of God’s wisdom / Beautiful people arise!”
Under the visionary hand of producer-arranger-songwriter-musician Charles Stepney, Rotary Connection is psychedelic soul and orchestral acid rock at its zenith, “I Am the Black Gold Of the Sun” is part of the primer of the post-soul generation of freak-flag flyers and cohort of creatives—the phrase oft-invoked, the song one every musician attempts to master. The band of Chicago Afro-Hippies including a young Minnie Riperton swirls up through the Aether, musing upon the primordial root lines of black being, achievement, and glory. This song’s shading of sentiments through a potent hallucinatory haze provides essential uplift for these days of rage.
It would be impossible to compose this without referring to Chicago message-and-guitar maestro Curtis Mayfield. With his group The Impressions, Mayfield produced enough brilliant songs riding the sacred/secular line in the 1960s to make one think he was the era’s sole important interlocutor. And then he did it again in the decade following as a solo artist. The stately, elegiac masterpiece “Choice Of Colors,” featuring a dream team collaboration with Donny Hathaway and Johnny Pate, addresses America’s eternal black-white racial divide and asks the trenchant question still surfacing in national dialogues today: “If you had a choice of colors / Which one would you choose, my brothers? / […] People must prove to the People / A better day is coming / For you and for me.”
No gathering of The People is complete without music by The Elements, as in Earth Wind & Fire. It’s even sadder to note bandleader/philosopher/conceptualist Maurice White’s passing earlier this year, when he would doubtless be offering forth still more African-centered and pride-filled anthems to address the state of America this blood-soaked summer and chaotic election year. “Happy Feelin’” is a purely electric, Afro-Latino-tinged ode to joy, featuring White’s beloved amped kalimba calling all to the dance circle. Let your spirit dance!
Erroll Garner-influenced keys man-turned-preacher Pastor T.L. Barrett made of the most stunning and indelible gems of the Gospeldelic and Jesus Freaks season in America, shepherding a chorus of children and legendary Chi-Town sidemen like Phil Upchurch. As Edwin Hawkins’ “Oh Happy Day” was the joyous, paradigm-shifting anthem of the genre, “Like A Ship…(Without A Sail)” ought to have been the standard sounding the dark drag and sorrowful undertow of the period’s upheaval; it’s a trippy, eerie answer song awash in sleigh bells and the anxiety of the rudderless praying the world can still right itself. Yet Barrett still knows he can “make it / Because [we] are a proud people.”
An Appalachian songsmith from Johnson County, Ky., who transplanted to Los Angeles and gained Sly Stone as a best friend, Jim Ford deftly and poignantly brought his country boy sensibilities to bear on a western landscape littered with the ashes of the Watts Rebellion of 1965 and the corpses of young boys sent to slaughter in Vietnam. Aided by sepia singing cowboy and sometime writing partner Bobby Womack, this country gospel lament of Ford’s sings, “The sounds of our time / Ring loud in my mind / Will I ever get used to this sound?” as if on the streets of today urging for a stop to the violence.
Lamont Dozier, onetime resident of President Nixon’s enemy list, is better known as Motown Sound architect and producer/arranger/songwriter of the hit-making machine Holland-Dozier-Holland than as a solo artist. Yet his 10-minute epic “Going Back To My Roots” contributed to the development of house music and spawned several cherished covers. Craving spiritual self-renewal complete with African chants, Dozier sings, “Goin’ back to my roots / Yeah / To the place of my birth / Back down to earth / Ain’t talkin’ ‘bout no roots in the land / Talkin’ ‘bout the roots in the man.”
There was a time when even the most loverman-shaded and pop-centric artists felt they had to reckon with the primacy of Bob Dylan and slogan king Sly Stone and become more relevant to the crises in the streets, rather than perpetually drown in the unctuousness of syrupy, mainstream R&B. Amongst the resulting slew of tracks that transformed black music, radio, and the music business, soul trio the Main Ingredient’s exultant “Black Seeds Keep On Growing” from 1971’s Black Seeds stands out as a paean to uplifting the race.
Rather than a true ole-timey entry, this semblance of a hymn by Motown titan and son of ‘Bammy Eddie Kendricks (The Temptations) was selected for perfecting the ring shout for modern times. The Thin Man From Birmingham eschews formulaic Hitsville rules on the concept album People…Hold On to conjure with grittier, upstart D.C. R&B band the Young Senators. Kendricks’ nonpareil, soaring falsetto wails over distorted guitar and African drums, chants, handclaps. His relevating, delivered in a speak-sing lilt, inexorably leads his circle of voices to the (fonky) Promised Land. He offers, “In peace, let us trust / Before we turn to ashes and dust / Let us all stand together / I realize how hard you tried / I can see the struggle in your eyes / My people!” “My People…Hold On” is a triumph of black Americana, electrifying the roots. Stars fell on Alabama, indeed.
Had he not walked on, Siksika/Blackfeet folk artist and Woodstock legend Richie Havens would doubtless have been the first artist to address the recent spate of police murders in-depth and be on-call for any protests. With songs such as “Handsome Johnny,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “The Klan” (plus a great version of the Lamont Dozier tune cited above), Havens was always on the right side of history—associating with revolutionary icons including Kwame Ture, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Floyd Red Crow Westerman/Kanghi Duta, fearlessly projecting the hearts and minds of a generation of activists with his singular voice and strumming. This mellow, yet vibrant take on Tom Pacheco’s tune reassures his fellow Africans and Natives of Turtle Island that indigenous lives matter and, despite the will of the dominant culture, the land shall always be regenerated for America’s first peoples.
Out of the mouths of righteous babes fostered by Chuck Griffin comes this celebration of freedom. A Dixie-fried gospel, child-led classic, “Right On, Be Free” is simply undeniable in its pure declamation of organic human rights, especially for those of their black community so long denied. In light of the gentrification of Harlem escalating racial tensions and the related banishment of such civic-minded music from the public gathering spaces of the former “Mecca of the New Negro,” the dichotomously local/global spirit of this community choir that took their sounds of change from New York prisons to Madison Square Garden to Ghana’s Black Star Square and back is an especially bittersweet reminder these days.
Self-proclaimed bluesologist Gil Scott-Heron would have been the other artist here (other than Richie Havens) to rise to service upon the harrowing events of last week. Scott-Heron and his sharp, satirical gift to breakdown the hypocrisies of the American scene have definitely been missed during the continued advance of Donald Trump. With gun violence debates raging, these lyrics leap out: “This is a violent civilization / If civilization’s where I am / Every channel that I stop on / Got a different kind of cop on / Killing them by the millions for Uncle Sam.”
A soul-stirrer from the heart of South Africa, written by his former wife Miriam “Mama Africa” Makeba, this track is a reminder of jazz legend Hugh Masekela’s status as a Third World Superstar amongst progressives before Bob Marley even moved to the States. The most famed version of “Bajabula Bonke” was performed at the Monterey Pop Festival, the footage showing the blissed out audience reveling in the African vocals and straight ahead swinging brass emanating from Masekela and his band. African and cosmic consciousness has remained in vogue among a core of black America and Masekela’s music is a key part of the soundtrack bridging the gap from the Motherland to MLK Boulevard.
Better-known as the director of Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Van Peebles is also a singer-composer. “Love, That’s America” may be his best song; his attachment shows in having showcased it on the Watermelon Man soundtrack then re-recording it for his next album, As Serious As A Heart-Attack. Certainly it has staying power, as Van Peebles wrote it shortly after the Stonewall Riots and it later became co-opted as a theme by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Will Black Lives Matter take it up next? Stylistically, the song nods to the prevalent acid rock and jittery R&B adorned by Raelette-type sister vocals that ruled its day. Yet its’ core interrogates national standards like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “My Country Tis’ Of Thee,” and “Amazing Grace,” declaiming bewilderedly: “…And the cops in the good old USA / Don’t think they’re some kinda gods either / Naw, this ain’t America / You can’t fool me.”
Recorded as an obvious response to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and assertion of his majority, Stevie Wonder’s lesser-cited Where I’m Coming From is fascinatingly flawed, yet perhaps this critic’s favorite of Wonder’s hallowed catalog. It’s strident, psychedelic, funky, silky, folksy, and occasionally dour. It’s also the necessary recording Wonder needed to make between the poles of his teen sensation years and the platinum mastery to come. Presaging later narrative nightmares like “Living For The City,” “Cash In Your Face,” and “Village Ghetto Land,” “Sunshine In Their Eyes” delineates a certain hopelessness of black American life while balancing it with the yearning of a young artist of faith. It plays like a re-appropriated minstrel show chronicling just what it is to be black and blue. The horn-lofted outro unfurls like a Second Line, grasping towards the people’s time in the light.
Credited to Canadian voyageurs, fur traders known for their singing ability and tendency to marry Native American wives, “Oh Shenandoah” or “Shenandoah” is a folk song-turned-sea shanty and a lover’s lament, specifically the lore of a trader who fell in love with Shenandoah, also known as Oneida Iroquois pine tree chief Oskanondonha. Other sources suggest the song originated as a Negro spiritual that developed into a work song. Herein steps Queens-based black string band the Ebony Hillbillies who, among much of the great work they do, remind us that behind the song credit “Traditional” is a lot of unacknowledged sonic creativity by Africans in the Americas. Despite myriad covers of “Shenandoah,” the Ebony Hillbillies’ version is canonical, led by the plaintive vocal of banjo/dulcimer/guitar player Norris Bennett. A song of America’s long lost frontier, it instills in the listener a yearning for a wild home, unfettered by modern encroachment.
Donny Hathaway continues to be so beloved in the black community because of the singular way he wept for the people, despite his tragic end. Although penned about Hathaway’s internal troubled state, in many circles this 1973 song is considered the black national anthem to reflect the prewar adoption of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing.” “Someday We’ll All Be Free” seamlessly shifts from the personal to the political: “Keep on walking tall / Hold your head up high / And lay your dreams right up to the sky / Sing your greatest song / And you’ll keep going, going on / Take it from me someday we’ll all be free.” This is the truest essence of all of our strivings in this land, capturing the desire to be simply human, liberated, and able to pursue happiness.