“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.
Over time, the Panther’s nationalist status attracted a diverse following within the Black community and radical sympathizers of other races, including notable musical figures Chaka Khan, and Nile Rodgers of the disco band Chic.
Building upon this, a special cadre was formed for recruitment purposes that built upon the “doo-wop” traditions that were also a primal element to inner city culture. A basic tenant of Panther Party doctrine held that the “Lumpenproletariat” of Marxist lore would be essential to revolutionary change. The ‘Lumpen,’ the shortened form of the word, were comprised of street criminals, the dispossessed, and other members of society’s cast-offs, and were ripe for indoctrination into radical politics, and thusly this label would be fitting for the name of the Party’s singing group.
Decades later their story is now told in Vincent’s recently released “Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panther Party’s Band and How Black Power Transformed Soul Music” ($19.95, Lawrence Hill Books).
Vincent is the offspring of Bay Area activists whose last book was an academic exploration of the “Funk” music genre. And this latest manuscript is no “light” read, because Vincent touches on the background of protest songs, Bay Area politics, and the ebb and flow of the Black Panther Party and it’s influence on the circumstances that shaped it.
“I hope people see the inherent connections between Black politics and Black culture, and how the music connects the rhythm of the movement with the rhythms of the people,” he said in a phone interview. “This kind of interlocking creative interplay between politics and culture can be reapplied today.”
The singers who comprised the core of the Lumpen were Clark Bailey, William Calhoun, James Mott, and Michael Torrance. Coming from different circumstances, they shared two important commonalities: extensive musical training (formal or informal), and commitment to radical politics. Immersed in separate radical enclaves in and around the Bay Area, they gravitated towards each other and the Party, and in spite of their well-honed skills as singer/musicians, they considered themselves first and foremost revolutionaries devoted to a nationalist agenda, and the liberation of Black people from an oppressive system.
Building on the notion that the community could be better reached through active participation rather than the static conventions of traditional education, The Lumpen used the then-current vogue of sleek choreography, matching wardrobes, and rich harmonies to present the Black Panther message in song. The group remained intact for a little more than a year, and yet for that brief period they successfully engaged their audience by providing a link between
Unlike some of their contemporaries such a Gil Scott Heron, The Last Poets, and L.A.’s own The Watts Prophets, The Lumpen never achieved coveted recording contracts, or mass exposure, due in no small part to the inflammatory lyrics of songs like “Ol’ Pig Nixon,” and “Revolution is the only Solution.” Also factoring in were the intervention of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, the dysfunction within the ranks of the Panther hierarchy itself, and the especially the volatile nature of Huey Newton, which Lumpen member Michael Torrance experienced when he tried to leave the party in 1973.
Commitment to these precepts is a daunting task in and of itself, as Vincent points out.
“The political mindset of contemporary popular music is as dead as it can be,” he notes, comparing current commercial offers (music) to the cultural equivalent of the fast food industry, content on serving up “a dysfunctional Black image to the Western public.”
“That way a generation of vibrant urban Blacks is unable to see itself in true reflection through its art.”