One thing that must be celebrated during Black History Month is soul music. When listening to soul music, it feels like it embodies nearly every part of black culture. It’s conversational; it tells inspiring stories that are recognizable to anyone, regardless of race, but it can also tell appalling stories that, sadly, have been such a big part of African American lives (and often still are).
Finding its origins in African American gospel music, blues and jazz, soul music was developed in America during the late 1950s. Two of the biggest studios were Motown in Detroit and Stax Records in Memphis. Stax had a more soulful, almost bluesy, sound, with artists like Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. Motown Sound, on the other hand, was made for a wider audience, with a line-up including Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, The Supremes and The Temptations. Other great soul musicians of that time (and now comes the fear of leaving someone out) were Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and James Brown.
Thinking of soul music brings me to those legendary studios. I see a young Michael Jackson performing with The Jackson Five, stealing the show and the hearts of many soul artists. I hear James Brown’s funk and can almost feel that rhythm and the need to dance. I hear Sam Cooke’s ‘(What A) Wonderful World’. And it all creates an image of unity and happiness.
Outside the walls of those studios, however, African Americans faced great inequality – whether they were famous or not.
During the 1950s and 1960s, America became increasingly segregated and for many black musicians, it was troubling to perform. While 1960s youth fell in love with soul music and many white youths began to recognize the idiocy of their parents’ discriminating ideas, blatant discrimination continued to take place.
Motown’s touring buses would frequently be harassed and attacked. The artists would be sent away from restaurants and during their performances crowds would be segregated. Meanwhile, the divided – often young – crowd would sing and dance to their favourite Motown songs, in harmony.
Of course, the intense irony of these situations upset many artists. But they always answered with music. Protest songs that were inspired by these discriminating acts included, among others, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ and Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, which he wrote after he and his band were turned away from a hotel.
One particularly memorable moment, however, was when ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’ singer James Brown calmed a crowd after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
A day after King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968, James Brown was performing in Boston. In an attempt to keep people off the street and calm down the race riots that had been going on all night, the concert was broadcasted. But as soon as the concert started, fans began to climb onto the stage. Police officers started to push them back down, but Brown waved the police away, saying, “I’m alright, I’m alright.” He addressed the public: “Wait a minute, now WAIT,” he said. “Step down, now, be a gentleman… now, I asked the police to step back, because I think I can get some respect from my own people.”
To one kid on stage, he says, “You wanna dance? Dance.”
And he continues the concert, peacefully.
Answering tragedy with music, Brown asked the crowd to express themselves through music as well. And that’s what they did, together. Soul music is transcendent – and should therefore always be celebrated as one of the most powerful gifts from black culture.
Image: ABC Television