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Soul Music & Social Politics

Updated on May 16, 2016

The Relationship between Soul Music & Social Politics

Soul music evolved from Black American gospel music and it combines the forceful rhythms of R&B with the emotional vocals of gospel.

This distinctly Black style of music developed mainly in urban areas.

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.

Musicians of this specific time period began exemplifying social conscience by singing of Black pride, urban life, poverty, police brutality, race relations, drug addiction, etc.

By the 1960s, the arrogance and competition that were a part of Black culture had taken on newer, deeper meanings.

For people of color committed to racial justice, the sixties were a time of hope.

You could hear it all in the music:

"The Godfather of Soul"

James Brown Concert
James Brown Concert

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

Release Year
"Oh Freedom"
Odetta Holmes - Joan Baez
"Go Tell It On The Mountain"
Fannie Lou Hamer
John Coltrane
"We Shall Overcome"
Pete Seeger - Joan Baez
"Times They Are A Changin"
Bob Dylan
"Freedom Highway"
Staple Singers
"People Get Ready"
Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions
"We Shall Not Be Moved"
Ella Fitzgerald
"To Be Young, Gifted and Black"
Donny Hathaway
"When Will We Be Paid"
Staple Singers

Transformational Leadership

The Civil Rights Movement was filled with leaders that took visionary positions and inspired people to follow.
The Civil Rights Movement was filled with leaders that took visionary positions and inspired people to follow.

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

James Brown visits U.S. vice president Hubert H. Humphery at his Washington, D.C. office in 1967
James Brown visits U.S. vice president Hubert H. Humphery at his Washington, D.C. office in 1967 | Source

The Politics of James Brown

Richard Nixon and James Brown
Richard Nixon and James Brown | Source

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.

Soul, as well as other genres of music, help Black people to imagine a world where they can function consciously and stay abreast with the collective.

It carried messages of resilience, inspiration, love, and unity throughout the sixties and those messages are still resounding today via other artists.


Queen B.
Queen B.

Mary J. Blige

Queen of hip-hop soul
Queen of hip-hop soul

Prince Rogers Nelson

The Purple One; His Royal Badness
The Purple One; His Royal Badness

Billie Holiday

"Lady Day"
"Lady Day"

Whitney Houston

"The Voice"
"The Voice"

Michael Jackson

"The King of Pop, Rock and Soul"
"The King of Pop, Rock and Soul"

Mariah Carey


Stevie Wonder

"Little Stevie" | Apollo Hall of Fame
"Little Stevie" | Apollo Hall of Fame

Just curious...

Do You Like Soul Music?

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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      2 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Great hub. James Brown is a forgotten hero of the Civil Rights Movement. He really picked it up in the 1970s and spoke out on TV. Famous episode of the Mike Douglas show where he had a debate with commentator David Suskind. Check it out. Shared.


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