Louder Than a Bomb: On The Sounds of Black Power

By Rickey VincentOctober 17, 2012

Louder Than a Bomb: On The Sounds of Black Power

Listen, Whitey! by Pat Thomas

“WHAT HAPPENS TO A DREAM deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?” Langston Hughes asked in 1951, “Or does it explode?” An answer came when the Black Power Movement burst upon the American political and cultural landscape of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Movement took on significant dimensions in many realms — politics, public policy, education — but nowhere was its impact more tangible than in the culture, especially music. Movement activists utilized more than speeches, proclamations and marches to motivate their followers: rhythmic, expressive, improvisational music also propelled the struggle. Unlike the gospel-fueled Civil Rights Movement, Black Power had fewer ties to the church than to the street. Its rhetorical models included the self-aggrandizing rhymes of Muhammad Ali and the militant sloganeering of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, while its urgent resilience found a danceable counterpart in the soul music of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and hundreds of others.

But that was the tip of the iceberg. The explosion of black militant activity in the late 1960s was the shadow substance that informed every dimension of black life, from the Black Panthers to Soul Train. Yet these varied manifestations have long been too far underground, too disparate to make coherent sense of. Pat Thomas’s new book provides an intervention. Listen, Whitey!: the Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 recovers the works of many musicians and activists whose messages were originally deemed too radical for mainstream consumption. They may still be.

The title of the book, Listen, Whitey!, is a misnomer of sorts. Certainly the artists depicted here wanted all of America to hear their outrage, and to take heed of their threats of an uprising. But they were speaking to their own people as well, as the Last Poets so effectively described in their song “Niggers are Scared of Revolution.” Basically, when it came to Black Power, everyone was listening.

One of the advertisements reprinted in the book reveals just how broad the audience for this material was. A promotional advertisement for the Last Poets’ album This is Madness, printed in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, claimed “If you are white this record will scare the shit out of you.” As if that were not startling enough, the ad continued with the pitch: “If you are black this record will scare the nigger out of you!” We can safely assume that this kind of material is unlikely to appear in Rolling Stone today. This kind of documentation highlights one of Listen, Whitey!’s strengths: its breadth of explorations of Black Power’s influence on everything and everyone from Motown, to jazz poetry and performance, to comedians, to radio DJs, to the rock music counterculture. In short, Listen, Whitey! delivers Black Power as Americana.

The book is meticulously detailed, reflecting Thomas’s skills as a researcher (and record producer), yet conversational in tone, balancing the voice of a rock critic with the heft of a historian. For each chapter, organized along themes ranging from spoken word poetry to political manifestos to radical chic populism, Thomas interweaves narrative history and critical commentary with a bold, contemporary design that presents not just a musical history but a visual one as well. The sharply colored layouts that enliven passages on Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, and even social critic Stanley Crouch (in his radical period) aren’t just here for eye candy; Thomas understands that the Black Power Movement’s spirit of radical change was embodied in visual iconography as well as text and rhythm. At its best, Listen, Whitey! can’t simply be read; it must be witnessed.

No group understood this better than the Black Panther Party, who are a clear inspirational source throughout Thomas’s narrative. The Panthers loomed large in black and white America’s imagination, and the book includes numerous news articles and cultural productions centered on, inspired by, or performed by them such as the Playboy magazine interviews of party leaders Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton, re-printed here in all their full frontal rage.  

However, while the Panthers, and Black Power in general, are often associated with the aggressive, masculine rhetoric of male militants, Thomas also opens a window to the poetry of Nikki Giovanni, Jayne Cortez, Camille Yarbrough, Maya Angelou, and Ruby Dee, important figures whose influence within the Movement isn’t always recognized. Likewise, he also discusses the contributions of other forgotten or under-regarded radicals as playwright Lorraine Hansberry and humorists such as Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory.

An entire chapter is devoted to another set of personalities connected to the Movement: white rock artists that responded to Black Power, such as John Lennon, who “gives Black Power a chance,” as Thomas puns, with songs such as “Attica State” and “Power to the People.” Thomas also provides an important discussion of “George Jackson,” Bob Dylan’s chilling ode to the Black Panther leader, Jackson, who was slain in 1971 during an attempted escape from San Quentin Prison. (The never-before-reissued acoustic version of Dylan’s song is featured on the book’s companion CD.)

Another important rediscovery is Thomas’s account of Black Forum, a little-remembered subsidiary of Motown Records. The public mythos of Motown was and is that the label was firmly entrenched in the integrationist ideals of Martin Luther King Jr., and had little to do with the black radical movement. Thomas decisively debunks this notion. He reveals that in 1969 Motown Records founder Berry Gordy was convinced by three staffers at his Los Angeles office that the label had an obligation to produce works that reflected the voices of the streets of Black America. Gordy then authorized the creation of the Black Forum imprint, which, between 1970 and 1973 released speeches by Martin Luther King (Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam), Stokely Carmichael (Free Huey), Langston Hughes, and Margaret Danner (Writers of the Revolution); Black Panther leader Elaine Brown’s second album of revolutionary ballads, Until We’re Free; and Guess Who’s Coming Home, heartbreaking audio verité documents of the voices of black soldiers in Vietnam. These records did not sell well, but the experiment reveals that Motown Records, like every other institution in America, was affected by Black Power in dramatic ways.

In contrast to his comprehensive discussion of Black Forum, Thomas only touches on the most popular soul music of the day. While R&B superstars like Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown receive brief acknowledgment, Thomas is more intent on seeking out the less obvious artists who help form a broader, deeper foundation of the radical, raw material of the era. This is understandable: previous cultural historians have explored the political charge of songs like James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” in depth, and Thomas’s stated aim is to give other, lesser known (but often more radical) artists their due. Still, soul music, arguably the center of black cultural experience for much of the 1960s, shares important connections with Black Power. The soul aesthetic incorporated the spirituality and expressiveness of the black church, the hopeful mythos of the American democratic experiment, and the aggressive force of black nationalism into a sound and style that redefined black Americans and, in the process, America. From Motown to James Brown, much of the ‘identify formation’ of the day for black youth was driven by the physical feel and emotional tone of soul music, which absorbed and gave rhythmic life to the changing attitudes and new demands other figures discussed in Listen, Whitey! expressed in words and deeds.

For the most part, Thomas chooses to explore the most direct ideological expressions of black power in America, and leaves out the funk groove — the revolution in rhythm — to other authors. This doesn’t seem to me to be an oversight on his part. When historians of the period, including Thomas (and myself), have asked many of the black militants of the period what they thought of James Brown, and Sly Stone at the time, their responses have been fairly consistent: black power in pop culture, while enjoyable, was a superficial step toward real social change, a phenomenon that could as easily be co-opted and commodified by Hollywood and other mainstream cultural institutions as it could be turned toward generating a revolutionary consciousness. Soul music can inspire a revolution and yet just as easily inspire a pop wasteland. Thomas sidesteps this conundrum.

He also avoids an engagement with the soundtrack music from black action films of the era, commonly referred to as “blaxploitation” films. While the black action heroes of Shaft and Superfly have later been valorized by rappers like Ice-T and Snoop Dogg, their significance to the Black Power impulse has always been problematic. The black action films of the early 1970s involved detailed recreations of the street life — an important   breakthrough in black cultural representations. Yet their narratives rarely included characters involved in the political struggle for change. These films’ ambiguous relationship to the Black Power movement may have disqualified them for inclusion in Listen, Whitey!; in any case, a proper assessment of the most complex and compelling of these films would require a book of its own.

There are other notable omissions. The absence of more than passing reference to the Nation of Islam, arguably more radical in its separatism than the Panthers, is interesting; Louis Farrakahn’s 1960 recording of “The White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell,” though it falls outside of the Thomas’ 1965-1975 timeframe, would nonetheless have been a compelling inclusion on the CD. Likewise, Nathaniel “Magnificent” Montague, the Southern California DJ and entrepreneur who coined the phrase “Burn, Baby, Burn!” months before the 1965 Watts uprising, an avid historian and collector of African and African-American literature and cultural artifacts, deserves his own treatment.         

Moreover, though Thomas does focus on the black comedy scene, he tends to foreground the racially antagonistic elements of works of Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor but leaves out the foul mouthed antics of Rudy Ray Moore’s “Dolemite” (“Dolemite 4 President”) or Clarence Reid’s surreptitious X-rated “Blowfly” character. Their rebellion against Western norms of propriety, was, in its way, just as anti-establishment as Black Power radicals and at times; a comedy routine that upturned white cultural norms provided a catharsis as powerful as any Stokely Carmichael speech. Rather than give us a fully-developed sense of the absurdist or ironic humor that many black entertainers used to convey radical messages (sometimes across racial lines), Thomas plays it straight.

The book remains consistent with its vision, and Thomas delivers black power with authority. As a white author discussing black radical history, Thomas risks being seen as an exploitative outsider profiting off of the dedicated and dangerous work of black revolutionaries. Yet projects like Listen, Whitey! and the recent Swedish film The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 — a compilation of rediscovered news footage of many of the movement’s leaders — are among the most overt expressions of black advocacy to gain public airing in our so-called “post-racial times.” Neither glorifying or demonizing his subjects, Thomas presents the black radicals who populate his book as intelligent, caring human beings in motion towards a confrontation whose necessity was as clear as day to them. “The only historical revisionism I’ve done is to present Black Power with the respect it deserves,” he states in his conclusion, adding, “I challenge those who view the activists and artists of the movement as a blemish on 20th century American history to reconsider them as patriots.” Perhaps now, without a gun barrel pointed to their collective heads, “Whitey” will listen, and the rest of America can reconsider the position of the black radicals of the day.


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LARB Contributor

Rickey Vincent is the author of Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of The One (St. Martin's Press), winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. He teaches courses at City College of San Francisco and SF State University, and has been a longtime radio host at KPFA, where his The History of Funk show airs every Friday at 10PM. Vincent is currently finishing Party Music, a history of the Black Panther Party’s funk band, The Lumpen. For more, visit http://www.rickeyvincent.com.


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