Soul Music & Social Politics
The Relationship between Soul Music & Social Politics
One of the most significant developments in the genre of soul music came about in the late 1960's, when the Civil Rights Movement and a growing sense of Black Nationalism began to exert an influence on pop music and culture.
By the 1960s, the arrogance and competition that were a part of Black culture had taken on newer, deeper meanings.
You could hear it all in the music:
- in the freedom songs that soared high above and sunk deep within the hearts of the marchers at Selma and Montgomery;
- in the gospel inflections of Sam Cooke’s teenage love songs;
- in Motown’s self-proclaimed sound track for "Young America”;
- in the blue eyed soul and English remakes of the Chicago blues;
- in Aretha Franklin’s resounding call for "Respect";
- in the Sly Stone celebration of "Everyday People";
- in John Coltrane’s celebration of a "Love Supreme";
- and in Jimi Hendrix’s vision of an interracial tribe.
"The Godfather of Soul"
James Brown: Soul Brother Number One
The relationship between soul music and politics is clearly evident in the mid-1960’s especially with the music James Brown performed during that specific time period.
This master of showmanship, and musical innovator was an extraordinary interpreter of the Black struggle.
Through his creative musical contributions the Negro rhythms, moods, and sentiment created an enduring cultural legacy.
Soul music was a product of the existing environment of the time in which the musicians who created it lived.
The period of Soul music is roughly defined as 1955 – 1970, which parallels the Civil Rights Movement.
During this period a new sense of pride and self-assertiveness emerged among Black people.
This was evident in the music of the time especially with James Brown.
James Brown is one musician that is considered to be among the earliest pioneers of soul music, although he, as well as others, were happy to call themselves rock&roll performers at the time.
At the forefront were Black preachers. And, like a preacher delivering a sermon, Brown half-shouted and half-sang his songs.
Like the preachers a century before calling on their congregation, Brown often shouted to his band, the JBs, for help directing songs during performances.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s Brown was a presence in American political affairs, noted especially for his activism on behalf of Black Americans and the poor.
He was seeking to reveal the underlying soul of the musical message.
His political music was written to stir Black America's emotions and motivate people to action.
In his lyrical way, his music was Black America's call to action, he was striving to generate support and create doubtfulness among the opposition.
This was not uncommon because there many artists are also social activists, reflecting upon their music as social commentary, which expresses their political and social views.
Iconic Civil Rights Soul Music
Odetta Holmes - Joan Baez
"Go Tell It On The Mountain"
Fannie Lou Hamer
"We Shall Overcome"
Pete Seeger - Joan Baez
"Times They Are A Changin"
"People Get Ready"
Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions
"We Shall Not Be Moved"
"To Be Young, Gifted and Black"
"When Will We Be Paid"
Soul Music & Political Expression
This is the time frame of the American Civil Rights Movement and the movement gave rise to Soul music, which in turn, Soul music contributed to the success of the campaign for civil rights.
At this time soul music did more than simply entertain.
James Brown used soul music as a transformational vehicle of social expression.
His single “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” became an anthem for the movement.
The song’s lyrics like,
“….Don’t quit moving, until we get what we deserve…we’d rather die on our feet, than keep living on our knees,”
were words of inspiration for those involved in the struggle for equality.
Brown addressed the prejudice inherent in being Black in America, and the opposition that the American Civil Rights Movement faced at several terms.
He proclaimed that,
"we done made us a chance to do for our-self/we're tired of beating our head against the wall workin' for someone else".
"Say It Loud", was the song which gave Black people permission to be overtly proud of their heritage; it was similar to a Black National Anthem.
Several other singles from the same era, most notably "I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I'll Get It Myself)", explored similar themes and exemplified why James Brown was The Hardest Working Man in Show Business!
The Complex Influence of Black Music on National Politics
The Politics of James Brown
James Brown Performs & Addresses Issues
Activism and Advocacy in Soul Music
James Brown's involvement with the Civil Rights Movement began in the mid 1960s.
He embraced it with the same energy that he devoted to his performances.
In 1966, the song "Don't Be a Drop-Out" urged Black children not to neglect their education.
By 1967, Brown traded in his straightened hair for an Afro, or “natural” hairstyle.
His song lyrics changed as well, the content of Brown's music began to develop along with the delivery.
Socio-political commentary on Black people's position in society and motivational lyrics praising ambition started to fill his songs.
The music also began to reflect the self-determination and pride that was sweeping across Black America.
While this change gained Brown an even greater presence in the Black conscious community, it lost him much of his mainstream audience because they could no longer truly relate to his lyrics.
Nevertheless, soul music provides a clear vision on where Black people can begin to come to terms with the burdens of their shared history.
It carried messages of resilience, inspiration, love, and unity throughout the sixties and those messages are still resounding today via other artists.
Mary J. Blige
Prince Rogers Nelson
List of Soul Musicians
- Erykah Badu
- Atlantic Starr
- Corinne Bailey Rae
- Anita Baker
- Mary J. Blige
- Tamar Braxton
- Toni Braxton
- Peabo Bryson
- Patti LaBelle
- Amel Larrieux
- John Legend
- Leona Lewis
- Little Richard
- Teena Marie
- Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
- Chrisette Michele
- Janelle Monáe
- Teedra Moses
- Musiq Soulchild
- Tracy Chapman
- The O'Jays
- The Ohio Players
- Peaches & Herb
- Teddy Pendergrass
- The Pointer Sisters
- The Delfonics
- Lou Rawls
- Otis Redding
- Della Reese
- Martha & The Vandellas
- Lionel Richie
- Smokey Robinson
- Diana Ross
- Earth, Wind & Fire
- Faith Evans
- Ella Fitzgerald
- Roberta Flack
- The Four Tops
- Jill Scott
- The Spinners
- Angie Stone
- Joss Stone
- The Stylistics
- Donna Summer
- The Supremes
- Marvin Gaye
- Johnny Gill
- Macy Gray
- Al Green
- CeeLo Green
- Anthony Hamilton
- Isaac Hayes
- Heather Headley
- Lauryn Hill
- Whitney Houston
- Jennifer Hudson
- Billie Holiday
- The Temptations
- Robin Thicke
- Justin Timberlake
- Tina Turner
- Tori Kelly
- The Isley Brothers
- Luther Vandross
- The Jackson 5
- Freddie Jackson
- Janet Jackson
- Michael Jackson
- Etta James
- Leela James
- Rick James
- Syleena Johnson
- Mariah Carey
- Dionne Warwick
- The Whispers
- Barry White
- Bill Withers
- Bobby Womack
- Chaka Khan
- Kindred the Family Soul
- Gladys Knight & the Pips
- Betty Wright
- Stevie Wonder