“What we could not say openly we expressed in music.”
“The message is in the music, and the music is the message.”
—Ronald Bell, AKA Khalis Bayyan, co-founder of Kool and the Gang
Politics have arguably been a part of the music of the African Diaspora every since the first slave ship off loaded its cargo in the New World. The Africans fashioned musical idioms as a salve for their wretched existence in their new homeland. Encouraged to adopt their owner’s (who may have seen it as a method of social control) religion, they enhanced these new beliefs by building on their African traditions to develop spirituals and Gospel music.
In addition to providing an emotional outlet for their dire circumstances in bondage, the songs served another covert, albeit tangible benefit as a means of communicating to plot physical flight from the oppression of slavery.
Even after slavery, Black music served as a medium to convey the desire for liberation. Bebop Jazz emerged in the 1940s as an idiom for Black musicians to express themselves free from the oversight of White music critics and the Western (read European) aesthetic. Like all instrumentals, the musical results were abstract, but this new sensibility was often overtly reflected in the titles given to the compositions: Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” and Max Roach’s “We Insist! -Freedom Now Suite.”
This break with convention continued with the evolution of “Free” Jazz in the 1950s, and the introduction of non-Western components into the music including African, Arabic, and Indian forms. Around the same time, society as a whole witnessed a politicalization of the masses, particularly in terms of race relations.
The next logical step was the infusion of social criticism and political content into the lyrics of popular music, long the bastion of sugary love songs and frivolous sentimentality.
This was most prominent in the offerings of conventional artists especially Bob Dylan, but a more direct line may be drawn from the Gospel tradition to its close relative, Rhythm and Blues, and their derivative offspring—Soul. A prime example is Sam Cooke’s poignant 1964 single “A Change is Gonna Come.”
Not a big hit for Cooke, over the years the song has gained mythical status due to Cooke’s death shortly after its release, and its adoption as an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.
Other contributors to the now commercially viable subgenre of “message music” included James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. These efforts were aided and abetted by a supportive network of devotees within the music industry, as noted by author, educator, and radio host Rickey Vincent.
“During the Civil Rights/Black Power era, much of the infrastructure of the Black entertainment industry still thrived on independent talent, skills and resources, so there were Black program directors, Black deejays, Black promoters, club managers and the like,” he says.
But Vincent said the more extremist elements within the Black community yearned for a more accelerated change in the status quo. The most prominent standard bearers of this train of thought were the Black Panther Party for Self Defense that formed in Oakland, Calif. in the mid-1960s.