A Nightstick Turned into a Song

In January, President Barack Obama made his singing debut on the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. During a campaign fundraising speech, he leaned into the microphone, gently slid his State of the Union baritone up to a whispery falsetto, and nailed the opening line from “Let’s Stay Together,” the Al Green soul classic that has melted hearts and warmed sheets since its release in 1971. “I-I-I-I, I’m so in love with you,” Obama cooed. The video of his impromptu performance has logged more than four million views, and the song has become an unofficial re-election theme. Obama’s rendition is available as a ringtone; inevitably, Green showed up to sing it at an event in February. 

Yet the power of the clipped cover version was its resurrection of the ghosts of Obamas past. The serenade was a reminder not just of the subtle swagger that found Obama brushing the dirt off his shoulders à la Jay-Z back in 2008 but also of a tradition of civil rights–era black culture and politics that Obama seemed to have shed since gaining the presidency. Here were echoes of the Obama who’d been no stranger to love songs or political hope, the Obama who, as he wrote in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, stayed up late listening to Billie Holiday and schooling himself in the corrosions of American racism by reading James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. For anyone who winced just a little when Obama invited Beyoncé to sing “At Last” at his inauguration dance instead of Etta James, the road-worn R&B veteran who made it famous, Obama’s bedroom-soul-man turn was a musical olive branch and a return to form. 

“Let’s Stay Together” has never been just a love song. When Green, the son of a sharecropper in the segregated South, recorded it in Memphis, the city where Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated three years earlier, its message quickly became a gospel proposition to keep on loving, even in the face of breakups that by then were economic and cultural and stretched from Watts to Vietnam. Like so much black music of the 1960s and 1970s, Green’s songs became political because of the experience that gave birth to them and the experience they spoke to at the bloody crest of the civil-rights movement. 

As Gil Scott-Heron, the author of Black Power–era standards like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Whitey on the Moon,” puts it in his recently published posthumous memoir, The Last Holiday:

If you were alive on the planet earth and Black, particularly a Black American, in the most awkward and uncomfortable position imaginable, that of a certified, tax-paying citizen, with roots in the land around you that went back three hundred years, you still got the short end of every stick except the nightstick, and there was damn near no way you could not have political pressure on you and therefore have political opinions. 

In the face of that default politicization, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations waged what Scott-Heron dubs “a melodic form of guerrilla warfare,” turning the long end of the nightstick into a song. By the start of the 1960s, saxophonist Sonny Rollins had already hitched jazz to black liberation, and We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite had captured the sound of injustice in Abbey Lincoln’s piercing scream. In 1964, after the murder of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing that left four African American girls in its rubble, Nina Simone delivered the ferocious musical accusation “Mississippi Goddamn”—“a show tune,” she quipped, “but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” James Brown, of course, energized marches with calls of “Soul Power” and recorded “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” a personal manifesto that became a generational anthem.

 

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Music was also an indispensable part of the Black Power message, from the movement’s founding call, at a 1966 Mississippi protest, by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chair Stokely Carmichael (“We been saying ‘Freedom’ for six years. … What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power!’”) to its decline by the late 1970s. In the recent documentary The Black Power Mixtape, a collection of rare movement interviews and footage shot by Swedish journalists and spliced with modern commentary, UCLA historian Robin Kelley suggests that the boycotts, free breakfast drives, and self--published newspapers were all an expression of what Kelley calls “the Black radical tradition, a tradition of struggle, of organization.” Despite the promise of the film’s title, though, The Black Power Mixtape ends up only implying that music was central. Ahmir Questlove Thompson of the current hip-hop band The Roots provides the score, and singer Erykah Badu and rappers Talib Kweli and John Forté weigh in on the old clips. But save for an uncredited blues performance under the closing titles and a brief, stunning scene of a children’s choir at the Black Panther headquarters, turning the shimmying 1960s rock hit “Land of 1,000 Dances” into anti-cop pop (put “Guns, pick up the guns, pick up the guns and put the pigs on the run” in all the places where “Na, na, na” used to be), The Black Power Mixtape is missing a mixtape.

 

That is where Pat Thomas’s new book Listen, Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power, 1965–1975 comes in. A detailed chronicle of an era when revolutionaries preached on records and pop rebels preached in song, Listen, Whitey! is anchored by revelatory archival research as well as interviews with former Black Panther leaders David Hilliard, Elaine Brown, and Bobby Seale. It shines, though, as a showcase for Thomas’s audiovisual treasure chest: 250 full-color reproductions of LPs, 45s, and cassettes containing everything from jazz and soul to speeches, comedy routines, sermons, and accounts of black soldiers in Vietnam. Thomas is a veteran producer of reissue CDs, not a scholar, and his book, which takes its title from a 1972 Folkways album of interviews with everyday African Americans about King’s assassination, sometimes reads like impassioned fan history. Yet whether he’s unearthing the Black Panther house band The Lumpen, forgotten progressive record labels like Folkways’ Paredon and Motown’s Black Forum, or Amiri Baraka fronting his own raucous Afro-centric funk band on It’s Nation Time, Thomas shows how hard it is to separate the era’s black recordings from its freedom movements.

He reminds us that The Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” was played during the funeral of slain Black Panther Fred Hampton. The Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks, on the cover of his 1972 solo album People … Hold On, paid tribute to Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton by sitting in a cane chair while gripping a large spear. On RAP, a 1970 album issued by the SNCC, a speech by its leader H. Rap Brown shared space with a live set from psychedelic jazz yodeler Leon Thomas at the Fillmore East. Before Elaine Brown became the Black Panthers’ deputy minister of information, she released two respectable albums of poetic, agitprop soul ballads with arrangement help from Watts jazz activist Horace Tapscott. 

One of Brown’s songs, the rousing “Until We’re Free” (recalling “desperate kisses in alleyways” that “laid to waste our little lives”), is included on the book’s invaluable companion CD. Other finds include a stark piano solo version of Scott--Heron’s political weather report, “Winter in America,” and both sides of a rare, finger--snapping slice of Nation of Islam jazz poetry, “Invitation to Black Power,” from the Shahid Quintet. 

Early on in Listen, Whitey!, Thomas says that he sees his project as a rebuttal of caricatures of black revolutionaries as gun-strapped, “white devil”-baiting nationalists. The surprising diversity of the recordings he covers (including a welcome section on black women poets) certainly challenges some myths. Black Power’s political pitfalls, though, get shorter shrift here. For all of its push for what Nina Simone called “returning the black man’s pride,” the movement’s romanticizing of militant rhetoric and Maoism and even occasional spilling over into criminality have dampened its revival appeal. The era’s music, however, has aged more gracefully, and the songs and speeches Thomas surveys speak to tensions that continue in the present: prison reform, economic injustice, Wall Street greed. The era’s sepia-toned institutionalized racism also lingers, of course, sometimes in all too vibrant color. A black president may sing Al Green at the Apollo, but conservative leaders like Newt Gingrich don’t think twice about linking him to food stamps and “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.”

As Listen, Whitey! suggests, the end goal for many was a larger reimagining of American society that involved thinking across racial lines. Which is where Thomas begins, with Huey P. Newton listening to Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” and deciding it must be an American racial parable, starring the white Mr. Jones as a black ghetto voyeur. Agree with it or not, Newton’s remix was in its own way a love song for an America that didn’t exist yet, an acidic vision of a society struggling to stay together. As the singer of that new ringtone suggests, it’s a struggle that has still not left us.

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