It’s time to take a trip back to one of the most fascinating and formative decades in U.S. history. Hot on the heels of the tumultuous end the ’60s — rife with social upheaval, anti-war demonstrations, race riots and political assassinations — early ’70s soul music exhibited a dichotomy of both frustration and hope for the new and upcoming times.
“Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” – Marvin Gaye
Perhaps no other song expresses the economic and racial tensions ravaging the United States than “Inner City Blues,” the final track off Marvin Gaye’s celebrated album What’s Going On. The album itself is one of the best social commentaries on the ’70s, delving into topics such as the Vietnam War, environmental consciousness and frustration with the general malaise of the decade. Padded with lush drumming and soulful harmonies, the track addresses tense and difficult problems, exhibiting the anger prevalent in the inner city. Gaye’s starkly forward lyrics transform this track into an anthem of those downtrodden by the effects of negative race relations: “Make me wanna holler / The way they do my life / This ain’t livin’, this ain’t livin’ / No, baby, this ain’t livin’.”
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” – Gil Scott Heron
Commonly heralded as a precursor to ’90s and modern rap, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is named after a slogan originally used by ’60s black power movements within the United States. It alludes to pop cultural icons of the ’60s and ’70s — ranging from director-actor Steve McQueen to president Ronald Reagan — and to popular television series and advertisements. Heavily influenced by Langston Hughes’ poetry and delivery, Gil Scott Heron’s soulful speak-singing brings to light the confusion and anger that comes with those participating in black power movements. Highlighting the contradictions of the reality of life in the United States versus the way the United States was perceived, Heron sings, “Women will not care about if Dick finally gets down with Jane / On search for tomorrow because black people / Will be in the street looking for a brighter day / The revolution will not be televised.”
“Is It Because I’m Black” – Syl Johnson
This particular track is a discourse on the economic problems of working-class blacks, addressing the difficulties faced by those who were unable to obtain jobs, even after the revolutionary Civil Rights Act of 1964. Clocking in at seven and a half minutes, the title track of Syl Johnson’s 1970 album speaks about social injustice and urges solidarity against racism and other difficulties that blacks in America face. Highlighting the plight of those trying to find a job with the still-rampant racism that plagued the country, Johnson’s soulful and passionate crooning is accompanied by bluesy twangs of the guitar, melding into a very poignant piece of music. “I want to be somebody so bad,” Johnson wails. “But you keep on putting your foot on me / And I, I believe, I believe I can break away / And be somebody, somehow and someway.”
“Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” – James Brown
Despite the difficulties addressed by the previous tracks, “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” is a track filled with the positivity and vibrancy that only James Brown could possess. Written about embracing one’s social and racial background despite the difficulties associated with it, the track was heralded as an unofficial anthem of the black power movement. It is garnished by a powerful brass section and Brown’s distinct musicality. The call-and-response backing vocals are sung by young children, echoing Brown’s positive sentiments of hope and renewal. The chorus is an homage to the black spiritual and gospel tradition, and it gives a voice to the desire to have a black culture defined on its own terms.
“Move on Up” – Curtis Mayfield
Possibly one of the best soul songs ever written, Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up” evokes the positivity of the Civil Rights Movement, speaking about how working hard can allow for one to overcome all obstacles, racial or otherwise. Off Mayfield’s debut solo album, Curtis, “Move on Up” emphasizes black pride and hope for the future of the United States. With a length of almost nine minutes, the track is infused with musical jams, bongos, horns and lilting strings that encompass the listener in a rolling wave of sound. Mayfield’s silky voice sings lyrics that are just as applicable today as they were in the ’70s: “Hush now, child, and don’t you cry / Your folks might understand you, by and by / Move on up toward your destination.”
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