LISTEN, WHITEY! The Sounds of Black Power

A crucial new compilation
traces the late ‘60s/early ‘70s arc of the movement, through voices such as
Amiri Baraka, Gil Scott-Heron and Bob Dylan.

 

BY DENISE SULLIVAN

The first time I heard the rare groove “Who Will Survive
America” by poet, playwright and jazz critic Amiri Baraka (formerly known as
LeRoi Jones), I knew I had to hear it again – immediately.  Not only did the hippity thump of the bass
have me bouncing from there to here, I had to be sure I’d correctly heard the
answer – “Few Americans, very few negroes and no crackers at all” – supplied
by the chorus.

 

Surviving America as a black man caught in a web of white
supremacy has been the substance of Baraka’s work for over 50 years; his black
nationalist poetry and prose blows like a tornado through records by Gil
Scott-Heron, Public Enemy and most recently Kanye West. Surviving America was also
a theme in the speechifying of student organizer/power advocate Stokely
Carmichael, AKA Kwame Ture, remembered for popularizing the Black Power slogan.
Survival programs – supplying food, clothing and medicine – are what the Black
Panthers called their community services. “Survive black man,
survive.  Black woman too,” Baraka
screamed, and still is, mostly on the page and from podiums, as well as on the
last track of Listen Whitey! The Sounds
of Black Power 1967-1974
(Light in the Attic), a collection merging
politics and poetry with folk and funk, cratedug by Pat Thomas, author of the
recently published companion book to this disc, Listen Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power. (Listen to samples of the
songs at the Light in the Attic website; below is a video “sampler” of the
book.)

 

 

 

 

Back in the ’70s, Baraka, Carmichael and Black Panther
Elaine Brown were also recording artists, their albums issued by the Black
Forum label, an imprint of Motown, set up specifically for the release of
material with social and historical relevance and a certain incendiary quality.
Sadly those LPs didn’t survive Motown’s vaults but mercifully, Thomas scored
three Black Forum tracks as well as 13 more sweet sides from Apple, Atlantic
and assorted labels more obscure, from back when music was the message.

 

The set opens with an intriguing salvo, Shahid Quintet’s
“Invitation to Black Power (Parts 1 & 2).” An obscure seven-inch, from
1968 (possibly ’69) and traced to Kansas City origins, “Invitation to
Black Power” speaks to the soul of the movement and its goal of peaceful,
prideful community survival, against a backdrop of violence. Narrators Richard
and Earl Shabazz reject the thug life, wrapping their story around the
teachings of Muhammad. More beatnik-coffeehouse than the tough roots of rap
like the Watts Prophets and the Last Poets (also represented on tracks here),
Shahid Quintet could be the forerunner to the lighter-than-air /teachable flow
of Slick Rick and his humor dialogues with Doug E. Fresh.

 

The remaining selected cuts date mostly from the early ‘70s
with the exception of a 1978 live take of “Winter in America” by former
literary prodigy and recording artist Scott-Heron, who could say more in a few
lines than some entertainers say in a lifetime. Lesser known and less prolific,
but a seriously heavy hitter nonetheless was Gene McDaniels; he sits in with
Eddie Harris during the saxophonist’s Live
at Newport
set for “Silent Majority,” the song that sealed his
fate with Nixon’s White House (they didn’t like him and saw to it that his
career went kaput). Long known for his powers within hip hop (A Tribe Called
Quest and the Beastie Boys both borrowed his beats), McDaniels’ solo work
showcases a substantive singer-songwriter and expert vocalist who, over two
back-to-black solo albums, bridged jazz, rock and soul styles into a visionary
hybrid.

 

Also, working on mash-ups in the pre-synth era was Gylan
Kain, a former member of the Last Poets, accompanied here on the screeching
“I Ain’t Black” by a teenaged Nile Rodgers (who in his own words,
“once jumped to orders of Kathleen Cleaver” as a young Black Panther). Kain
integrates black and white, soul, free jazz and spoken passages, in one breath
and a few bars to create the musical equivalent to mental disintegration.
Insane – in a good way.

 

 

 

Same era, entirely different, is Bob Dylan’s solo acoustic
“George Jackson,” a rare single and topical song devoted to the backstory and
memory of the slain political prisoner. This version of the double A-side
single issued in 1971 was a return to Dylan’s original folk sound and first
recording after an unusual silent period (it’s also the first time this take
has turned up on a compilation or CD). 
For more than 40 years it’s largely been believed that Dylan put aside
topical music after going electric, but the facts are that he rush-released two
versions of this song concerning a real life miscarriage of justice and took it
to number 33 on the singles chart, thereby pretty much blowing the apolitical
myth.

 

As for speeches here – Carmichael holding forth on Black
Panther leader Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver on psychedelic guru Timothy
Leary’s trip, and activist/comedian Dick Gregory riffing on the color of angel
and devil’s food cakes – rather than simply providing context or a nice diversion
from the heaviosity of the music, they serve to underscore the musicality and
poetry of the movement’s oratory. Intentional? 
I hope so!

 

And though the black power movement irrefutably made way for
women’s liberation, only two black female voices – Elaine Brown and Marlena
Shaw – make the tracklist here (Angela Davis is represented by Yoko Ono and
John Lennon’s tribute, “Angela”). Brown bears the distinction of not
only serving a leadership role in the Black Panthers but serving as its
official songwriting and recording artist. Her Black Forum seven-inch, the
title song from the album, Until We’re
Free
, was the only single to ever be released by the label, though while
it’s a rarity, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of her avant
garde-jazz-inspired set for Vault, Seize
the Time
.  Shaw’s live version of
“Woman of the Ghetto” from her Live in
Montreaux
album is no doubt a tour de force but it’s overlong, as is
English folk artist Roy Harper’s live “I Hate the White Man.” And if you
survive that, there is ultimately Baraka’s track, the pièce de résistance,
and prime piece of resistance music if ever there was one, from a time when
songs not only pulled no punches, but packed-in hard news, philosophy,
righteous anger and an abiding love of humanity.

 

So Listen Whitey! and listen good: There’s power in these grooves, but there’s a message too, and
it spells a better day for everyone.

 

 

Denise Sullivan is the
author of
Keep on Pushing; Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop. Read the BLURT interview with Sullivan
about her book right here.

 

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