Black history month: Black Power

16 Feb

It’s February, the month where we celebrate the lives and times of African-Americans that have changed the historical landscape. During February, In the Key of He will recognize some of the greatest and most stylish black musicians of the modern era.

Last week, we discussed the champions of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records in their matching skinny suits, glorious harmonies, and tight choreography. This week, we’ll have a look at conditions that shaped the style of this period of social turbulence that turned everything upside down and inside out.

The Black Power movement of the late 60s raised social and cultural awareness and motivated people to change. With a new consciousness of who they could be as a people and what kind of role they could play in society, African-Americans got organized and started talking, supporting leaders who helped spread the message of freedom. The movement was political, and as it goes with any political movement, ideas about what “Black Power” was and how to achieve it splintered and collected in opposite corners – the non-violent movement associated with Dr. King on one side, and the armed and angry Black Panther Party on the other.

Stokely Carmichael, an organizer of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in line with the NAACP  (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and Dr. King’s stance on peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and integration, coined the “Black Power” phrase, describing it as “black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing their representatives to speak their needs.”

This side of Black Power sang We Shall Overcome in solidarity with all people, supporting full integration of non-whites into the then-segregated society.

The other side of Black Power supported conscious segregation from whites, the “oppressors” of blacks. Some argue that the Black Panthers responded with violence to the violence that they experienced in their neighbourhoods at the hands of white police officers. Black Panther spokesman, Eldridge Cleaver said, “…these racist Gestapo pigs [the police] have to stop brutalizing our community or we’re going to take up guns, we’re going to drive them out.”

Panther members were out to protect their community. They fashioned themselves as their own Black Panther army in black berets and hip-length black leather coats, and toted guns.  Their first platform point reads, “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities. We believe that Black and oppressed people will not be free until we are able to determine our destinies in our own communities ourselves, by fully controlling all the institutions which exist in our communities.” (source)

In between these two extremes was every other political opinion, but everyone had freedom and the right to their own identity in common. In 1966, Carmichael said, “We must wage a psychological battle… for black people to define themselves as they see fit, and organize themselves as they see fit.”

And so began a new self-appointed black identity in the United States.

The echo of society

African Kente cloth

The prescribed formality of the early 60s was abandoned for freedom of movement, expression, and identity, especially in Black America, where the shape of beauty, sculpted by white hands, was being smashed apart. In black America, African-Americans began to look like African-Americans – men began to abandon hair straighteners to make them blend into a white society (read about the “conk” in the first post of this series), opting instead for the natural afro – big, beautiful, and quintessentially black. Traditional African garments like flowing caftans were popular and African textiles like woven cotton Kenta cloth from Ghana were worn with pride.

In New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975, William Van DeBurg explains clothing style in the 1960s and 70s as an expression of Black Power. “Though many of the popular trends of the movement remained confined to the decade, the movement redefined standards of beauty that were historically influenced by Whites and instead celebrated a natural “blackness.””

As Stokely Carmichael said in 1966, “We have to stop being ashamed of being black. A broad nose, thick lip and nappy hair is us and we are going to call that beautiful whether they like it or not.”

As the civil rights movement settled in and a black aesthetic took root, black art, sport, and music became more political. The poetry and theatre of Amiri Baraka, Black Power salutes at the 1968 Olympics, and the black anthems like James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) continued to inspire Black America and lead the people towards freedom. This gave recording artists loud and lucrative voices, giving them better control of their public image and their artistic craft.

Dr. Gregg Akkerman, professor of Jazz at the University of South Carolina Upstate explains in his Youtube lecture series that Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were among the first musicians who broke away from Motown’s artistic and commercial control:

Stevie Wonder in corn rows, bracelets, and caftan, 1972.

“Stevie Wonder renegotiated his contract with Motown to get complete artistic control over his music, and this was a big thing for Berry Gordy to hand over. He created music that addressed real-life black issues but crossed over pretty well to white audiences… He broke away from Gordy’s control of using songs written by Gordy’s songwriters and playing with his house band, only to develop a sound that had never been heard before  – Stevie wrote the songs, sang the songs, and played all of the instruments on his early albums.”

In the 70s, Marvin ditched the formality of the suit and took on the ease and playfulness of the 70s, getting funky here.

Like Stevie, Marvin Gaye incorporated his own African-American opinion into his music, giving us 1971’s wildly popular “What’s Going On?” album. Interestingly, this album was released on Motown’s subsidiary label, Tamla – Gordy was sure the record would nose-dive. It was Marvin’s first self-produced record, an early concept album with songs running together, told from the point of view of a Vietnam war vet, coming home to injustice and suffering (Marvin’s brother served in the US army in Vietnam for three years). It is the record that gave us wonderful and emotional songs like “Mercy, Mercy Me” and “What’s Going On”.

Both of these artists experienced the restrictions of segregation and artistic control in their early careers, only to work toward the common goal of freedom and an African-American self-appointed cultural identity. Through music, they broke through racism and oppression and challenged artistic boundaries. Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye went from the restrictive “white” standards of neat suits and cuff links to a full transformation that embraced their African past and symbolized the magnificent strides that the Black Power movement took.


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