At a time when most popular songs deal with matters of the heart and/or the flesh, or just having a good time, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that music can be and has often been used as a human rights and ethnic pride tool.
This kind of music was, in fact, an essential element during the Civil Rights Movement, which in turn laid the groundwork for other social movements that were to follow.
One of the most prolific and successful proponents of socially conscious music was Philadelphia International Records, headed by famed producer-writers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The company slogan informed the world that there was “a message in the music.” Oftentimes, you could dance while words of inspiration were being ingrained.
AMONG THE foremost Philly International representatives was the O’Jays. It was they — Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell — who warned about “the love of money” and “backstabbers”; who informed government that “you’ve got to give the people what they want”; who expounded on the joys of the family reunion; who laid it on the line regarding the slave trade with “Ship Ahoy”; they even admonished, “Don’t call me brother” if you have evil intentions.
Meanwhile, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, with Teddy Pendergrass up front, captured the seriousness of the time with “Wake Up Everybody”; the Intruders said we had to “find a way to save the children”; and Billy Paul believed the time had come for an apocalyptic “war of the gods.”
There was even a group project. Several Philadelphia International acts — the O’Jays, Lou Rawls, Dee Dee Sharp-Gamble, Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul and Archie Bell — recorded “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” in 1977.
There was plenty going on outside of Philadelphia International as well.
NINA SIMONE never pulled any punches when it came to singing and recording songs with something important, even urgent, to say, such as “Backlash Blues,” “Four Women” and “Mississippi G------.”
One of her most powerful songs was the musical adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” And one of her most poignant was “Why? (The King of Love of Dead),” recorded three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and written by her bass player, Gene Taylor, as soon as he heard the tragic news.
When Nina Simone said, “I ain’t playin’ — never was,” people knew she meant it.
CURTIS MAYFIELD made many contributions to “the cause,” starting with the Impressions and strong compositions such as “Keep On Pushing,” “We’re a Winner,” “This Is My Country” and “Choice of Colors.”
He continued as a solo artist, ironically, making some of his strongest statements by way of the “Superfly” soundtrack, including the anti-drug opus “Freddie’s Dead.”
PERHAPS no group delivered more messages than the Staple Singers, often with a religious slant in keeping their gospel roots: “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There,” etc.
Pop, Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne also recorded a song that proudly proclaimed, “I like the things about me that I once despised.” In another they asked, “When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?”
Mavis Staples is still oriented in that direction. Her latest studio album is entitled “You Are Not Alone,” and the one before it was “We’ll Never Turn Back.”
HIP-HOP artists have seldom been known for songs with constructive messages, Public Enemy being an exception, when the unique group was not going over the top. And then there’s Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five with “The Message,” their uncompromising description of ghetto.
But in 1986, Run-D.M.C. recorded “Proud To Be Black,” that harkened back to 1968 when James Brown startled a lot of people with the in-your-face “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Brown delivered numerous other messages aimed at the Black community, among them “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself),” “Soul Power,” “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved,” “King Heroin” and “Don’t Be A Drop-Out.”
THE TEMPTATIONS, unexpectedly, dealt with social issues by way of “Message From a Black Man,” featured on their “Puzzle People” album. “No matter how hard you try, you can’t stop me now,” the Temps kept repeating.
But the most profound messages from Motown emanated from Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
Gaye delivered one of the most extraordinary albums of all time with “What’s Going On,” through which Gaye, with help from a lot of friends, sincerely and deftly addressed conditions in the inner city and society as a whole. In many ways, “What’s Going On” was a plea to God.
The whole world knows what a big heart Stevie Wonder has, and what a sensitive, committed soul he is. We felt it with “Happy Birthday” (the homage to Martin Luther King and the exuberant promotional vehicle for the creation of the King holiday).
Wonder also “got to us” with “Living For the City,” “Higher Ground,” “Black Man” (a literal history lesson), “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” and so many others.
“LIFT EV’RY Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem, was and continues to be an essential message song — and the most powerful and identifiable rendition is that of Detroit’s own Kim Weston.
Of course, long before anyone had heard of any of the artists heretofore mentioned, Billie Holliday recorded a riveting, and graphic, song entitled “Strange Fruit.” Its lyrics chillingly described the horror of the lynching of Black people in the South. The year was 1939. Holiday would often be moved to tears when singing it.
Among other carriers of social messages over the years are the Beatles (“Revolution”), Sly & the Family Stone (“Everyday People,” “Stand!”), Sam Cooke (“A Change Is Gonna Come”), Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times, They Are A-Changin’”), Edwin Starr (“War”), John Lennon with the Plastic Ono Band (“Give Peace a Chance”), Bob Marley & the Wailers (“Get Up, Stand Up”), Gil Scott-Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”) and Prince (“Sign ’O’ the Times,” “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”).
Then, of course, there was the most famous message song, “We Are the World,” written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, co-produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian.
Called USA For Africa for the special fundraising occasion, the song’s all-star assembly included Jackson, Richie, James Ingram, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Spingstreen, Tina Turner, Paul Simon, Kim Carnes, Al Jarreau, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan and many others.
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