Three Songs Which Inspired and Informed the Black Freedom Struggle
‚ÄúTo take part in the African revolution it is not enough to write a revolutionary song; you must fashion the revolution with the people. And if you fashion it with the people, the songs will come by themselves and of themselves.‚ÄĚ
Sekou Toure, President Guinea
The 1960s freedom struggle was reaffirmation of Sekou Toure postulation that the freedom struggle informs and produces the songs and artistic expression of the times. His statement also addresses the concern by some that black music, in particular ‚ÄúRap‚ÄĚ, is to profane denigrating, especially as it relates to women. Toure‚Äôs statement suggests that conditions create consciousness and consciousness creates songs. Hence, the demand for a change in black music is demand to change the social conditions out of which the music comes.
Black music in the 1960s and early 1970s reflected and was informed by social movement which swept across America. ‚ÄúBlack people‚ÄĚ as poet, singer and musician Gil Scott Heron remarked, were in the ‚Äústreets looking for a better tomorrow.‚ÄĚ Moreover, the civil rights and the black power movements served as the catalyst of a new ethos for a new people.
A Change is Coming
In 1963 when Martin Luther King gave his historic I Have A Dream Speech at the March on Washington, Sam Cooke echoed the optimism of the movement, recording that same year what would become an anthem for the American Civil Rights Movement, ‚ÄúA Change Is Gonna Come‚ÄĚ: ‚ÄúIt’s been a long, a long time coming /but I know A change gon’ come oh yes it will.‚ÄĚ Cooke reminds his listeners¬†¬† that the struggle is long and difficult, but he is up to the task because he knows change is coming- ‚ÄúThere been times that I thought I wouldn’t last for long/ Now think I’m able to carry on/ A change gon’ come, oh yes it will.‚ÄĚ
Keep on Pushing
Change, however, was not easy, nor was it automatic. As the civil rights movement spread and protest increased, black and the movement were met with an upsurge in white terror and violence most notably the 16th Street Baptist church bombing and the murder of three civil rights workers by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi.¬† Curtis Mayfield, song writer, singer and unofficial griot of the movement, lifted the spirit of everyone with his hit single, Keep on Pushing: ‚ÄúI’ve got to keep on pushing I can’t stop now,‚ÄĚ Mayfield exhorts blacks. He‚Äôs sure blacks will attain freedom if they keep their soul (their moral essence), singing, ‚ÄúNow maybe some day/ I’ll reach that higher goal I know that I can make it/ With just a little bit of soul‚ÄĚ. Mayfield lets black know that they will be victorious because history and righteousness-the real and enduring force- is on their side: ‚Äú‚ÄôCause I’ve got my strength And it don’t make sense/ Not to keep on pushin’.‚ÄĚ
Mayfield again signals that opposing forces are on the horizon: ‚ÄúNow look-a look (look-a look)/ A-look-a yonder. What’s that I see/ A great big stone wall/ Stands there ahead of me.‚ÄĚ but now, he lets us know things have changed. Black people have a new pride and self-consciousness and are no longer intimidated. He punctuates this phrase with a religious reference at the end ‚ÄúBut I’ve got my pride/ And I’ll move on aside/ And keep on pushin/ Hallelujah, hallelujah‚ÄĚ.
We‚Äôre A Winner
By the mid-sixties, dashikis, and the ‚Äúnatural‚ÄĚ-a hair style associated with Africa and black consciousness movement, ‚ÄúBlack is Beautiful‚ÄĚ affirmation, and the adoption of African names were normative and informed everyday life for African Americans. Curtis Mayfield gave voice to the spirit and ethos of African Americas with a bold and affirmative statement- ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre A Winner.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre A Winner,‚ÄĚ a Number 1 soul hit, became an anthem of the black power and black pride movements when it was released in late 1967,] much as Mayfield‚Äôs ¬†earlier “Keep on Pushing” (whose title is quoted in the lyrics of “We’re a Winner”) had been an anthem for Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. ‚ÄúAs a young man,‚ÄĚ Mayfield states, ‚ÄúI was writing songs like ‚ÄėKeep on Pushing‚Äô and ‚ÄėThis is My Country‚Äô and feeling all the love and all I observed politically. Of course with everything I saw on the streets as a young black kid, it wasn‚Äôt hard during the late fifties and early sixties for me to write in my own heartfelt way of how I visualized things, how I thought things ought to be.‚ÄĚ
That ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre A Winner‚ÄĚ became a number 1 hit is a testimony to how the song captured the heart and minds of black people. Many radio stations banned or refused to play ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre A Winner‚ÄĚ, associating the record with the black power movement, and the more militant phase of the freedom struggle.¬† The record starts with female voices (representing everyday community folk) in the background, and then a two chord introduction indicating that sounding of importance would follow. At the beginning of the song, Mayfield asserts the new self-concept of black, ‚ÄúWe’re a winner/ And never let anybody say/Boy, you can’t make it/‘Cause a feeble mind is in your way. To reinforce the new identity of African Americans he asserts, No more tears do we cry/ And we have finally dried our eyes/ And we’re movin’ on up (movin’ on up). Highlighting the pride which black had started displaying among themselves and the world, he says: We’re living proof in alls alert/ That we’re two from the good black earth/ And we’re a winner/ And everybody knows it too.
Mayfield then moves to affirming and make the link between black leadership and progress by the black masses, reinforcing the unity of the movement: We’ll just keep on pushin’/ Like your leaders tell you to.‚ÄĚ This is followed by a sweeping pronouncement of that the day has come when blacks are unified and making progress as a race, a stellar accomplishment: ‚ÄúAt last that blessed day has come/ And I don’t care where you come from/ We’re all movin’ on up (movin’ on up).‚ÄĚ And, acknowledging the willingness of black people to sacrifice their lives (e.g., Martin Luther King, Malcolm X Medgar Evers) in the service of freedom to show the world that black people are unafraid to speak truth to power and to stand-up to power: ‚ÄúI don’t mind leavin’ here/ To show the world we have no fear/’Cause we’re a winner.‚ÄĚ
Clearly, the black freedom movement produced the socially conscious commercial songs of the sixties. And reciprocally, the socially conscious commercial songs informed and infused the masses of black people with a new consciousness, reflected in the movement and in music of Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield. The songs of the 1960s, and more importantly the movement, point suggest what is to be done if black music is to return to its state of being a force for moral and social change.
- Frantz Fanon, The wretched of The Earth, Sekou Toure Address to the Second Congress of black Writers and Artist
- 2. Gerri Hirshey, Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music
- 3. Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing In The Street: Motown and The Cultural Politic of Detroit
- 4. Craig Werner, Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul
- 5. Kwanzaa Guide, website on African American culture and history with a special emphasis on the African American holiday Kwanzaa.