In bygone days, particularly the ‘60s and ‘70s, music not only made people smile, dance and sing, it also communicated significant messages to the masses. Just as politicians informed, teachers taught, and ministers preached, African American musicians too, used music to document and promote political activism. From civil rights to anti-war lyrics, music was used to provide activists with tools to build a community and energize social movements. At the same time, artists would combine their identity with their sense of social and political responsibility. Marvin Gaye sang passionately regarding the times in “What’s Going On” while James Brown chanted the mantra, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
What distinguished music of the mid-1960s, was the production of songs with a social or political message. It was an extenuation of the spirituals and gospel music that had major influence during the era of slavery, Jim Crow and the start of the Civil Rights Movement. The Staple Singers on the old Stax Label recorded an album, Freedom Highway, to commemorate the Freedom Rides and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington.
Social awareness was central in the music of the era. Marvin Gaye in “Inner City Blues,” sang about the despair in the black community such as unemployment, inflation, and police brutality. The Impressions informed the masses with “People Get Ready.” There also were others including Sly and the Family Stone, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. Even the Temptations and their song, “Ball Of Confusion,” cried the social ills of society. Add to these, The Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron and the Chi-Lites smash hit “Power To The People.” It was rare that artists didn’t speak of empowerment.
Some of this continued with Grand Master Flash, Kurtis Blow and Public Enemy but it is very rare in the current music of this era to speak of positive and uplifting social messages. In fact, it is the opposite. Most musicians speak of drug dealing, sex, violence and material greed. Will there ever be a time when music serves the community as it did in past decades, or is this period over never to return? I cannot answer this but I can say that such music is needed to remind us times when education was a sign of revolution, and not looked upon as negative as in today’s pop and rap music culture. –torrance stephens