Black music has been the soundtrack to my life. It is the gift that keeps on giving. Like whisky, it matures with age. It resonates even deeper now in today's world just as much as it did in the 1960s and 70s when the protest song and socially conscious lyrics were more common.
If you have never ventured into the 'R&B and soul' section in a record shop or had any inclination to include black music on your Spotify playlists, may I suggest you read Stuart Cosgrove's tryptic of books on 60's soul music and the social context it spawned from. The books may just open up a new world of music for you and possibly make you think differently when you watch a Black Lives Matter protest. This article is merely the tip of a very large iceberg and offers barely a pinhole camera view on the vast and fascinating world of black music from the perspective of a white Scottish male. Cultural appreciation – not appropriation – is my intention.
In 1975 The O'Jays sang I Love Music
. It peaked at no 13 in the UK pop charts. The song includes the line: 'Music is the healing force of the world, understood by every man woman boy and girl'. Music can heal and God knows we need healing now. Music can bring people together. It can lift your mood or you can wallow in your sorrows. It can make you want to cry and it can make you want to dance. Black music does it all and has a tune for every situation and emotion including love, war, politics, racism, social ills, black empowerment, women's liberation, slavery, policing, family, suicide even the Atlanta child murders.
My Black Music Matters Mixtape playlist on Spotify (Soulville1000) covers some of this spectrum and is over eight hours of music. I don't even touch on countless number of songs of joy, love, loss and dancing that form about 95% of what soul music lyrics normally comprise of. You can find some of those on the other playlists.
Racism takes many forms and much of it, especially in the USA, is systemic. If you are black and poor, it follows you from the cradle to the grave – a short journey for some born south of the Mason-Dixon line where the young black student's journey from school room detention to adult penitentiary can be counted in a handful of birthdays. Writers call it the 'school to prison pipeline'.
America has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prisoners. One in four people in America are in jail now. It is a major profitable industry that made $3.5billion in 2015 in revenue. It is built on the legacy of slavery and even the Democrats under Bill Clinton made it worse. Barack Obama is the only President ever to visit a jail. It's not a vote winner being seen to be 'soft' on crime.
The prison population in America has risen from 357,000 in 1970 to 2.3 million today. Some prisoners are locked up in a cell that doesn't even have a window and measures about the same size as a bathroom in your house. One in 17 of those who are incarcerated are white. It is one in three if you are black. These are all facts gleaned from watching Ava Duvarnay's incredible documentary, The 13th
I have an LP by a group named the Escorts. It was recorded by five prisoners live in Rahway State Prison in New Jersey in 1973. It was produced and conceived by George Kerr, a legendary singer, songwriter and producer in soul circles, who worked with The O'Jays amongst others. I don't have Ike White's Changing Times
, also recorded in prison and now the subject of a documentary The Changing Times of Ike White
. Spike Lee should make it into a movie. Ike led a very colourful life and counted Stevie Wonder as a fan. Can you imagine Universal or Sony making music with prisoners today? The Escorts record includes excerpts where the prisoners speak about themselves and their crimes and how they appreciate the opportunity to make the record and atone for their crimes. They did, and went on to have a successful recording and performing career. Some of them are still alive today.
When the five black teenagers were incarcerated after being convicted of raping and murdering a white jogger in Central Park, New York, in 1989, they were sent to prison for varying sentences between five and 15 years. Donald Trump took out full page advert in the media to bring back the death penalty for the boys. There was no evidence to convict the four juveniles who were 14 and 15 when convicted and served six to seven years each. The 16-year-old served 13 years in an adult prison. They were all later acquitted when the real perpetrator confessed.
When the boys were in jail, there was no recording studio and no rehabilitation or education programmes for them to get any qualifications to help them get a job and rejoin society when they were released. They were in the system and even when they were released they couldn’t get a job as they were ex-felons. The pink paper follows you all through your life.
The projects are what we would call the schemes here. Public housing for the poor in America's big cities. They were built after the war. They were where many black families ended up, no American Dream and a white picket fence for them in suburbia. So what has all of this got to do with black music? I would suggest it has a lot to do with the music. You can't separate the people who made the music from the conditions that birthed it. It's the social, cultural and living conditions of the poorest in the community that begat the socially conscious soul of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron, Oscar Brown Jr, et al. In 1971, on Inner City Blues
, Marvin sang 'crime is increasing, trigger happy policing'.
Whether you were brought up in Detroit, New York or Chicago, the story was the same. African Americans were confined to the edges of the city in purpose-built prefabricated housing, sometimes, as with East Lake Meadows in Atlanta, Georgia, away from shops, churches, schools, and most importantly, the gaze of white America. East Lake saw the predominantly black residents moving in to unfinished, poorly constructed accommodation where the lack of adequate drainage and landscaping resulted in mud pools and open sewage seeping out into the streets. As Lou Rawls sings on the Philadelphia International All Star's classic floor filler, Let's Clean Up The Ghetto
: 'The rats, the roaches and the water bugs, man they were hustling'.
In the mid 1980s, crack cocaine became the new drug of choice amongst those wishing for a short-term escape from their predicament. Sentences for possession of crack cocaine were longer that for the powdered variety, popular with traders on Wall Street and the denizens of Hollywood. The project became a no-go area and was known as 'Little Vietnam' by the police. Young men who couldn't get a job opted for a life where big money and guns were readily available. Residents spoke of crawling about on the floor of their living room to dodge the bullets as soon as the streetlights came on.
In the 1960s, the two most popular ways out of the projects were sport and entertainment. Motown owner and founder, Berry Gordy, tried his hand at boxing before swapping record pugilism for song plugging. During one of these meetings he met Jackie Wilson (also an amateur boxer) and asked if he would record one of his songs. In 1957, he did, and this resulted in a No.62 hit in the US charts with Reet Petite
. Some of you may remember the video of the plasticine man on Top of the Pops
which helped take the record to No.6 in the UK in 1983. What they call in the industry 'a sleeper'.
After a couple of hits with Jackie, Berry was on his way to super riches when Motown became a major force in the record industry of the 1960s. Statistically though, it would be less than 1% of the black population who managed to escape the projects. If they followed Berry into the music industry, most of them were ripped off by ruthless record industry slugs, some of whom had connections to the mob. If they were lucky, they got jewellery and a car, rather than writing credits. If they were not so lucky, they could be pressured into signing contracts heavily weighted in favour of the record company and effectively becoming 'indentured' to them. Prince later wrote the word 'slave' on his face when the relationship with his record company turned sour.
There is a very good reason you know who Diana Ross is and have probably not heard of Syl Johnson. Before Marvin asked What's Going On
in 1971, Syl had already released a concept album called Is it Because I'm Black
in 1970. Radio stations didn't want to play it as they would lose advertising revenue with lyrics such as 'looking back on my false dreams that I once knew, wondering why dreams never came true', and 'the dark brown shades of my skin only add colour to my tears'. You can sense the anger and frustration in the same way the narrator of Ralph Ellison's seminal work, Invisible Man
, from 1952, feels when he is unable to get work. In 1952, it was Louis Armstrong's (What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue
that Ellison used in the book.
The reason you have heard of Diana is due to her one-time boss Berry Gordy. Gordy is the son of a successful business owner. He came from the middle class, so Berry didn't live in the projects alongside Diana and many other Motown artists. Syl did not have Berry guiding him to the cabaret circuit and supper clubs in Vegas, where Gordy was aiming to take Diana, so he never managed the degree of success Ms Ross achieved. He had to take his chances with the ruthlessness and racism of the music industry where he battled (and won) against Jefferson Airplane who ripped off one of his songs, Dresses Too Short
. He prospered more than most of his generation and his CV includes a gig in Russia where his audience included Vladimir Putin. You can read about this and how his family were cheated out of the land they owned by a white woman in his book It's Because They Were Black, 100 Years of Fraud and Forgery
– a title that speaks volumes.
Recently, Bobby Rush – a soul and blues singer who has been in the busines for 65 years – wrote on a website dedicated to black music: 'I'm so sad to see all of what's going in the world today. It has happened before, but this time it's different. The coronavirus, the knee on the neck of George Floyd, and so many other things happening to black people overall. It reminds me of myself as a black man… how the foot or a knee has been on my neck all of my life, one way or another'.
Black history was not taught in my school and probably not yours either. I had to listen to Stevie Wonder's Black Man
to learn about the inventions and achievements people of colour have contributed to the world. Or how about the lyrics to the big chart hit by Gary Byrd, The Crown
? The lyrics are printed on the sleeve for a reason. He states: 'Where the Romans came to study math. And the Greeks found out about the path. In case you wonder what else they did, the Alkebulans created the pyramids'. They kept that quiet in history class.
Black culture is so rich. From listening to black music, I have discovered the art work of Ernie Barnes and Michael Peter Palombi, whose cover art from Curtis Mayfield's, There's no place like America Today
, looks strangely prescient. Also, the photography of Francis Wolf and the typography of Reid Miles which adorns many a hipster hang out as well as the coolest record rooms, the films of Spike Lee, John Singleton, Boots Riley, Melvin Van Peebles, Mario Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, and Ava Du Varnay to name a few. The writing of Ralph Ellison, Ijeoma Oluo, James Baldwin, Fredrick Douglas, Eldrigde Cleaver, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Gil Scott Heron, Martin Luther King, Alice Walker, Ann Petry, George Jackson, and so on.
I have read books about white people who used make-up to live as a black person in the south. John Howard Griffins Black Like Me
(1962), and from the female perspective, Grace Hassall's Soul Sister
(1969), both tell the story of what it was like to live in America in the 1960s when people saw your skin colour first and how that predicated their behaviour towards you. TV dramas such as Seven Seconds
, When They See Us
, The Wire
, On the Corner
and Da 5 Bloods
, take on a whole new significance when seen though a black lens spanning over 300 years of oppression.
Black Lives Matter and Black Music Matters as the music can't be separated from the people who make it and social conditions that birthed it and still exist in America. The music can help heal the wounds and bring people together. The racism that still exists in America has morphed from overt slavery to a new form of racism that is deeply ingrained in all aspects of American life. It goes all the way from the school system, to the (in)justice system, and to the highest office in the land.
In 1968, Curtis Mayfield wrote and sang on The Impressions' This is My Country
. Possibly in response to a more patriotic song with the same title by Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians, written by Don Raye in 1942. The song is played at the end of every Disneyland fireworks show, which somehow seems appropriate as it is surely a fantasy. The song includes the line 'What difference if I hail from North or South'. The Impressions' song includes the lines 'I've paid 300 years or more, of slave driving sweat and welts on my back, this is my country'. I think that says it all.
A few years before, in 1964, Sam Cooke wrote and sang A Change is Gonna Come
, and maybe, just maybe, that time has come.