Long before hip-hop commodified rebellion, and as early as 1964, artists like Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Nina Simone, Les McCann, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown were sending out warning signals.
In Raoul Peck’s riveting new documentary I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin is seen instructing Dick Cavett on his live talk show, “If any white man in the world says ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”
This took place in June 1968, two months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white man in Memphis.
Baldwin’s was the voice of prophecy, one that had been widely ignored in the white community since the publication of his 1963 jeremiad The Fire Next Time. Thus, when America’s cities were engulfed in flames in the wake of Dr. King’s murder, white people could not say they had not been warned. Parts of Washington D.C. still showed the scars from those very riots as late as the 1990s, when I lived there.
However, if one’s ears were properly tuned to the airwaves at the time, the sounds of black revolution were hard to miss in the late 1960s. Long before hip-hop commodified rebellion and embraced “thug life,” black musical artists like Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Nina Simone, Les McCann, and even hit-makers like Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown were sending out warning signals.
In his richly detailed book Listen, Whitey! (2011), Pat Thomas cites a fiery speech by Stokely Carmichael on June 16, 1966 as the gauntlet tossed at the feet of the while power structure. “We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nothin’,” cried Carmichael. “What we gonna start saying now is BLACK POWER!” The crowd roared its approval and began chanting that slogan into the night. And it gradually made its way into the parlance of the black community.
Thomas’s book chronicles “the sights and sounds of Black Power” from that moment until 1975. As the documentarian Stanley Nelson says in his foreword to the book, “This was a time when the idea of revolutionary change was legitimate, and revolution itself, at least to young people, seemed to be around the corner…This was music with a purpose that went far beyond getting people up on the dance floor.”
Among the essential sounds of Black Power to which Thomas draws attention are:
Martha & the Vandellas “Dancing in the Streets.” Yes, even a radio-friendly hit like this one, released in 1964, held more in its grooves than what met the ear. The song, Thomas suggests, “foreshadowed the rebellions that would rock the streets of Watts in ’65 and Detroit in ’67”. With a line like, “Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the streets” it seemed a ready-made soundtrack of the times. (Later echoed in Sly & the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime”).
Nina Simone (1933-2003) carried the anger away from the dance floor and put it directly on the stages of the biggest concert halls in the nation. After the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evans in June 1963, followed by the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama that September that killed four little girls, Simone wrote the incendiary “Mississippi Goddam.” She was, she said, “driven by the hope of black revolution.” The righteous anger just pours out of this remarkable concert footage from 1965.
“Yes, you lied to me all these years / You told me to wash and clean my ears / And talk real fine just like a lady / And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie / Oh but this whole country is full of lies / You’re all gonna die and die like flies / I don’t trust you any mores full of lies…”
Prior to the release of “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” in August 1968, James Brown had been criticized for not using his preeminent position as a black superstar to address social concerns. This single was his response; it topped the R&B charts for 6 weeks and hit # 10 on the pop charts. Of it, Chuck D later said that, as a second-grader at the time, “’Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud’ was a phrase that prepared me for the third grade, 1969, and the rest of my life.”
Here is the Godfather of Soul on Soul Train, one of the few “dance shows” that didn’t force musical guests to lip synch their hits but allowed them to play live.
The Watts Prophets were a group of Los Angeles poets and musicians who prophesied “the revolution is coming.” They were, Thomas says, the first “proto-rappers,” releasing a debut album in 1969. This surprisingly tuneful cut, “The Master,” is a paean to Malcolm X taken from that debut.
The Harlem-based Last Poets acquired far more national acclaim than the Watts Prophets mining essentially the same territory—music, percussion, poetry, anger, revolution and, of course, controversy. Thomas calls them the “godfathers of rap.” One of their compositions “Wake Up, Niggers” was prominently featured in the Nicholas Roeg film Performance (which starred Mick Jagger and had a screenplay co-written by Anita Pallenberg). “When The Revolution Comes” was arguably their best known track.
Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand album hit like a thunderclap in 1969, a blast of pride and righteousness leavened with good humor and delivered by an interracial band lineup. The most controversial of the songs (read: the song that radio programmers wouldn’t play but, ironically, everyone knew by heart because Sly played nearly every pop festival) was “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.” Here they are performing this masterpiece live on TV (please note just how badly white people danced back then).
Gil Scott-Heron deserves a full separate article, but for the purposes of this annotated list, we’ll just say he was the giant in the field. His words cut like a knife, especially delivered in his deep resonant voice. His albums got America through the tail end of the 1960s but really peaked during the Watergate era. The musical accompaniment on his recordings was also far less stark than the war drums of the Watts Prophets and the Last Poets, giving all of his albums a lasting appeal. The BBC aired an excellent documentary on him by Don Letts (best known for 1977’s The Punk Rock Movie). Here’s a link to that film:
Here’s a link to arguably his best-known recording, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
After recording his masterful album What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye learned that Motown’s head honcho, Berry Gordy, refused to release it. He thought it was too political for a crooner of pop-soul hits like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (actually, Gordy reportedly said, “nobody will buy this garbage”). Gaye stood his ground and it was released in early 1971, cementing the singer’s reputation for the ages. Here he is singing it live, without those annoying studio strings
Eugene McDaniels (1935-2011) was a brilliant composer and arranger who wrote “Compared to What,” which became an anthem of the Black Power movement when it was recorded by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. However, McDaniels’ most righteous music was contained on two albums he recorded for Atlantic in the early 1970s that have been unaccountably overlooked in most accounts of Black Power: Outlaw and Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse. Here’s “Black Boy,” an unexpectedly beautiful song from Outlaw, an album controversial for its cover art, depicting McDaniels and his wife as violent revolutionaries.
Donny Hathaway was a talented musician, songwriter and arranger who shepherded hits for the Impressions, the Staple Singers and Roberta Flack, among others. In September 1969, he finally sat down to record his debut solo album, Everything is Everything. The first composition he cut was “The Ghetto,” co-written with Leroy Huston, who was inspired by the assassinations of Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy and a student uprising at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Hathaway suffered from depression and, possibly, schizophrenia, and ended his life by jumping from a building in 1979.