"Music is a powerful tool in the form of communication [that] can be used to assist in organizing communities." Gil Scott-Heron (1979)
This essay examines the content of political commentaries in the lyrics of Rhythm and Blues (R & B) songs. It utilizes a broad definition of R & B that includes sub-genres such as Funk and "Psychedelic Soul." The investigation is intended, in part, to address persisting misinterpretations of the manner in which R & B influenced listeners' political engagement during the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. The content of the messages in R & B lyrics is deconstructed to enable a fuller appreciation of how the creativity and imagery associated with the lyrics facilitated listeners' personal and collective political awareness and engagement. The broader objective of the essay is to establish a foundation for understanding the historical precedents and political implications of the music and lyrics of Hip Hop.
For present purposes, political commentary is understood to consist of explicit or implicit descriptions or assessments of the social, economic, and political conditions of people of African descent, as well as the forces creating these conditions. These criteria deliberately exclude most R & B compositions because the vast majority of songs in this genre, similar to the Blues, focus on some aspect of male-female relationships. (1) This is not meant to imply that music examining male-female relationships is devoid of political implications; however, attention is restricted here to lyrics that address directly the relationship of African Americans to the larger American body politic. While a number of commentators have discussed selected aspects of political ideas found in R & B lyrics, the main corpus of this political commentary has not been subjected to systematic analysis. (2)
Historical precedents and theoretical perspectives underlying the present inquiry are discussed in the next section. A typology of commentary types is then presented and used to examine selected political commentary in R & B lyrics from the 1960s through the early 1980s. The concluding section briefly considers the extent to which the typology is useful for understanding political commentary in Hip Hop music.
HISTORICAL PRECEDENTS AND THEORETICAL FOUNDATIONS
There are a variety of classical and more contemporary commentaries about the role of music in African American culture that provide useful insights for the development of a framework for understanding the political role of R & B. Early 20th century perspectives advanced by Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Alain Locke remain relevant for interpreting contemporary African American musical forms. Hurston insisted that African American folklore was the core component of authentic African American culture. (3) Extending this idea, the most authentic political commentary in music lyrics should originate in the organic everyday experiences of people of African descent. In The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois maintained that the "sorrow songs" provided one of the most useful documentations of the long history of oppression and struggle against that oppression. (4) Thus, this form of music became a bearer of historical memory, similar to the role of griots in many West African societies. In addition to the sorrow conveyed in these songs, Du Bois argued that there was also a "faith in the ultimate justice of things" and that "minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence." (5) Similar shifts in moods and assessments can be observed in R & B lyrics.
Philosopher Alain Locke went even further than Du Bois by proposing that changes in predominant African-American musical genres were closely correlated with major transformations in the sociopolitical and economic milieu for African Americans. (6) Locke's views suggest that in the absence of external efforts to shape the content of African American music, changes in lyrical content should be correlated with changes in the social, political, and economic circumstances for African Americans. Moreover, Locke emphasized that African American music was deeply ingrained in the American cultural fabric to the point that it "furnish[es] the sub-soil of our national music." (7) Locke's perspective suggests the need to explore political commentary in black music in terms of not only its impact on African Americans, but also on Americans of European and Asian descent.
Some contemporary commentators echo many of the classical positions about the special role of music in African American life and culture. Samuel Floyd asserts that "all black music making is driven by and permeated with the memory of things from the cultural past and that the viability of such memory should play a role in the perception of and criticism of works and performances of black music." (8) Applying this concept to a sub-genre of R & B, historian William Van Deburg argued that, "as an indigenous expression of the collective African American experience, [Soul music] served as a repository of racial consciousness [that transcended] the medium of entertainment [and] provided a ritual in song with which African Americans could identify and through which they could convey important in-group symbols." (9) In a similar vein, disc jockey Reggie Lavong declared, "like Blues, Soul music reflects, defines, and directs the strategies, expectations, and aspirations of black Americans." (10)
These claims about the political efficacy of R & B have been challenged by Brian Ward in Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations who argued that, "on its own Rhythm and Blues had never made mass political or social action possible, or even likely, in any direct or simple way." According to Ward, R & B "had always navigated the territory between being a cultural expression of a black insurgency, which was organized by other means and essentially shaped by other intellectual, political, and socio-economic forces; and being a surrogate for such action." (11) While resolution of this controversy is beyond the scope of this investigation, the debate signals the need to ground the current exploration in an interpretation of the general role of music as an influence on individual and collective human behavior.
Some anthropologists argue that music played a functional role in early human development by facilitating transmission and retention of information necessary for individual and group survival. This is accomplished, in part, through the phenomenon of "auditory imagery." Auditory imagery occurs when one has a "song on the brain," that is, one has the experience of hearing the song without auditory stimulation. A study by David Kraemer and others, examining how the brain processes music, found that similar to previous research regarding "visual imagery," auditory imagery is triggered when an individual is familiar with a song. When subjects heard a version of a song with some lyrics missing, the brain involuntarily supplied the missing words. Moreover, the researchers found that this imaging occurred in a specific part of the brain that was not accessed when subjects were not familiar with a song. (12)
In a broader sense, audio and visual imagery induced by music enables listeners to access related memories, an idea used by Samuel Floyd to ground his study The Power of Black Music. Floyd argued that "our responses to music are based on our reactions to the artistic embodiment of struggle and fulfillment as depicted in contrived events, relationships, refinements, and idealizations." These constructed scenarios represent analogs to the daily human struggles to achieve balance between what he describes as "various manifestations of tension and repose, including opposition and accommodation, aspiration and hope, and failure and achievement." (13)
The likelihood that listeners supply corroborative content to elaborate on the political messages in music is acknowledged by Ward, who reported that "with relatively few Soul songs and even fewer Soul singers openly embracing the organized struggle during the decades after Montgomery, black audiences sometimes found themselves bestowing political meanings and Movement messages on ostensibly apolitical songs ... and [that] sometimes involved popular readings of songs which were far removed from the original intentions of those who made the music." (14) One of the thrusts of this investigation is to document the wide variety of political messages available to audiences in using R & B as a vehicle for their personal and collective political affirmations and empowerment.
Ward's dismissal of the political potency of R & B lyrics stems in part from his emphasis on what he perceives as the limited personal involvement of R & B artists in the Civil Rights Movement, the intensifying commodification of the music over time, and the progressive disappearance of radio stations committed to political education and community development that provided outlets for songs with political messages. (15) There is no question that in a world in which black popular music is highly commodified there is no guarantee that lyrical content mirrors the realities existing within the communities from which writers and performers originate. As black music becomes increasingly subject to control by corporate interests seeking to maximize profits, both its organic linkage to community well-being and its sensibilities are weakened, particularly if the controlling financial interests are external to the social orbit of the music's core black constituency. Marc Anthony Neal cautions in Songs in the Key of Black Life that one of the principal constraints placed on black radio during the era of "hyperconglomeration" is on "the music that gets played--or, rather, the music that is never played on commercial radio stations that specialize in so-called urban formats." (16)
It is also important to recognize that new technologies have significantly reduced the effectiveness of political messages traditionally disseminated through audio recording formats. The music video, for example, has much greater potential than audio recordings to impact the listener's conscious through the combination of auditory and visual imagery. However, the dissemination of political messages through this format is even less likely than with audio recordings due to even stricter control by corporate commercial interests and associated efforts to expand markets for visual media.
As noted by Floyd, the transformation of R & B "into a racially integrated music with African Americans and whites claiming it as their own began in the 1940s" and accelerated with the ascendance of Little Richard and Chuck Berry. (17) The interracial audience of R & B raises the issue of how political messages available to any listener can be shaped in ways that target specific sub-groups. Some messages may be simultaneously intended for both black and non-black audiences. The two groups may interpret messages similarly or dissimilarly depending on the extent of the use of culturally-specific linguistic features and the degree to which conditions are perceived through comparable lenses. When writers and performers engage in intentional audience differentiation to communicate simultaneously with internal and external audiences, this reflects a modern variant of the type of double entendre reflected in many of the Spirituals sung during the era of slavery to promote resistance and provide guidance along the Underground Railroad, such as, "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." (18) In other cases political commentaries may be fashioned to target specific audiences. As an example, some integrationist commentaries are directed primarily to external, non-black audiences, such as with the "crossover" phenomenon in popular music. In contrast, nationalist, anti-establishment, and revolutionary messages are typically shaped to promote internal community political mobilization.
In general, the impact of the lyrical content on the psyche or behavior of single or multiple audiences depends on several factors. These include the forcefulness, sophistication, and creativity of the message content; the efficacy of the style of delivery; and the perceived salience of the message. These elements, in turn, are heavily influenced by changes over time in the technologies of music production, dissemination, and consumption, along with the ever-evolving social-political landscape of race relations and intergenerational differences in musical tastes. (19) In addition, the stylistic conventions that define a particular genre will, of course, set the boundaries prescribing the format of any associated political commentaries. Moreover, the conditions and events specific to a given time period will heavily influence the subjects of political lyrics and will determine the target audiences as well as the content of the commentary.
Audience segmentation is also facilitated through differences in the sites where different subgroups experience music. Guthrie Ramsey introduces the concept of "community theaters," to describe "public and private spaces [that] provide audiences with a place to negotiate with others--in a highly social way--what cultural expressions such as music mean." (20) Before and during the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, racial segregation demanded distinct spaces in which African Americans listened to and experienced music. These places included family gatherings, informal interactions among friends, parties, organizational meetings, and theaters in the community. These segregated community theaters facilitated the generation of group-specific interpretations of political messages.
The political saliency of R & B songs was further intensified by the efforts of some African American disc jockeys to use their shows as platforms for political education. Brian Ward …