Music is the most powerful vehicle of human expression. As the embodiment of love, disapproval, happiness, experience – life, music speaks to us, because it comes from us. Each people, in each paradine of the human experience instinctively and systematically change the music of the past to represent the realities of the present. In this century, black music, more specifically Soul music, has been that music that has brought to plain view that which evidences our humanity – hope, hurt, joy and passion – in such a way that the world has no other choice than to feel its power and marvel in its brilliance.
When one discusses the relationship between Soul music and the civil rights movement, it becomes a dialouge very akin to that of the chicken and the egg. The period of “Classic Soul” is that period primarily, but not exclusively referenced as the 1950″s, 60″s and 70″s (Stephenson 186). This is the time frame of the American Civil Rights Movement, and the impact of the massive changes going on, are reflected in the music and the culture.
So one would be correct in both assuming that the Civil Rights Movement gave rise to Soul music, as much Soul music contributed to the success of the campaign for civil rights. Soul music during its heyday, did more than simply entertain. For a race of people it served as a source of motivation, strength and education, for a people immersed in turmoil and tragedy. The institution of segregation had effectively inhibited the general populace”s awareness of the great achievements and contributions made by African-americans throughout the history of the United States (Franklin 429).
Inasmuch, Soul music sought to bring that undersight to light. Soul songs like Donny Hathaway”s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” was revolutionary, in that they sought to instill pride of one”s history, but at the same time motivate a new generation to reach new heights. As Hathaway says, “We must begin to tell our young, ‘Don”t you know that there is a whole world waiting for you? “”, he is calling for the teaching of black pride to the youth, which was a wide spread trend in black communities of the ’60s and ’70s (Hathaway).
James Brown”s “Say It Loud, I”m Black and I”m Proud,” became an anthem for the movement (Brown). The song”s lyrics like, “…. Don”t quit moving, until we get what we deserve… we”d rather die on our feet, than keep living on our knees,” were words of inspiration for those involved in the struggle for equality. “Whereas the predominant theme of rhythm and blues was love and other kind of human relationships, soul singers voiced concern about the social injustice, racial pride, black militancy, and forms of protest (Southern 517).
Eileen Southern”s statement on Soul music greatly describes the type of works produced by Hathaway and Brown at the time, yet was definetly not exclusive to these two artists. The period wherein Soul intertwined with the Civil Rights Movement, produced music greatly influenced by the environment in which its creators lived. Donny Hathaway”s, “Ghetto,” and Marvin Gaye”s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler),” speak of the harshness of life in the Inner City (Hathaway/Gaye).
Societal ills and political unrest were a major theme of Soul music, and Marvin Gaye”s work, almost more than any other artist, was demonstrative of this fact. Gaye”s album What”s Goin On, was his commentary on the social problems of the period, and through its success tremendously impacted the increasing social awareness. Despair within the black community was given voice in Gaye”s “Inner City Blues”. Inflation, taxes, unemployment and police brutality were numbered among the themes addressed in the song.
The sense of hopelesness of the piece can best be conveyed in the line saying, “this life ain”t worth the living…. makes me wanna holler, throw up both my hands! “(Gaye). “Save the Children” goes on to ask: “Who is willing to try and save a world that is destined to die? “, yet goes on to say “live life for the children… let”s save the children (Gaye). So, even in the midst of great despair, Gaye, and other artist of his genre, did believe in the possibility of change. “Ball of Confusion,” debuting in 1970, gave the Temptation’s take on the societal ills plaguing their times.
It explored the white migration to the suburbs, urban riots, politicians, etc. , as it expressed the sense of turmoil experienced during that time which seemed to all come together in a “Ball of Confusion. ” The lyrics state that “the only person talking about love my brother is the preacher… the only person interested in learning is the teacher”(Temptations). These lines express a theme of love and education as the cure to society’s problems. In a deeper sense, it says that people should focus on solutions, not the problems which create despair.
In the spirit of this solution-based songwriting, a strong, no-holds-barred message to youth about the importance of getting an education was given voice in October of 1966. James Brown’s “Don’t Be a Drop Out” is a story of a drop out who compares himself to friends who continued their education. The song says, “they kept on pushing when the going got tough, and now they know that things don’t seem so rough”(Brown). James Brown knew the importance of this first hand having no formal education.
He implemented a program which encouraged kids to stay in school and gave scholarships for those that wanted to go to college. Brown also worked to improve the quality of education in urban areas. He later releases two anti-drug songs, “King Heroin” and “Public Enemy No. 1. ” He had realized the devastation that drugs brought to the black community and the songs were used as the tool to educate blacks about their danger. James had become a role model for black youth not only through his music but through his commitment to the black community, thus serving as a shining example of the lessons of his music.
Brown’s message of change by improving currently existing systems was conservative in comparison to some more radical artists. These artists, like the Last Poets, belived that change would only come around through a revolution. The Last Poets who use a combination of spoken word and music in their song “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” exemplify this. The song addresses apathy in the black community about black revolution and the lack of participation in the movement (Last Poets). Gil Scott Heron is an artist with a similar message.
His work “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” discuss the media’s purposeful ommitasnce of pertinent black issues, and the manner in which change will occur. The song “Power to the People” by the Chi-Lites was originally the slogan for the Black Panther Party. “Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone, “People Get Ready” by the Impressions and Edwin Starr’s “War” are just a few of the many songs which drew the black community together to raise social consciousness. Black music, specifically Soul music, will never diasppear.
Though the motivation for the music may change nominally, the spirit behind it will always stay the same. Passion, pain, despair, love and hope, will forever remain key elements of the human experience. This truth is the reason in which we have seen Soul music change to fit the times in which it exists. Some hip-hop artists such as De La Soul, Public Enemy and even Arrested Development carried a strong message of social change. Yet, their time too was limited as the black American climate slightly changed.
Today artist such as the crowned king and queen of the newly dubbed category of “Neo-classic soul” bear the torch. D’Angelo and Erykah Badu talk about revolution and the state of the black community and relationships. Badu’s “On and On” expresses her thoughts of how she feels that we are born into the middle of a world in constant struggle as she says, “…. my life keeps going like a rollling stone….. I was born under water with three dollars and six dimes (a metaphor to 360 degrees in reference to her never-ending struggle)”(Baduizm).
D’Angelo addresses the rampant use of marijuana in his “Brown Sugar” as he writes, “I want some more of your brown sugar…. your love makes me high right to the sky…. my eyes are blood burgundy. ” His Devil’s Pie addresses drugs and money (Belly Soundtrack). Both Badu and D’Angelo give their takes on bad relationships in “Tyrone” and “Shit, Damn, Mother Fucker,” respectively. Badu’s “Other Side of the Game” even addresses the issue of being involved with a man who sells drugs.
She writes, “Do I really want my baby….. work ain’t honest, but it pays the bills. The subject matter addressed by Badu and D’Angelo express many of the problems endured by today’s generation, some of which may not have been experienced in the same manner of generations past. Music is an expression of life. Hence, it can only be a reflection of life’s experiences. Soul music speaks directly to the human experience. It attacks the maladies of our existence. It empathizes with our pains, and rejoices in our happiness. Masterfully, has it changed so as that it remains sensitive to our needs today. Only the beat has changed. The Soul of soul, however, the message, will always remain.