Message in the Music: Political Commentary in Black Popular Music from Rhythm and Blues to Early Hip Hop

By Stewart, James B. | The Journal of African American History, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Message in the Music: Political Commentary in Black Popular Music from Rhythm and Blues to Early Hip Hop


Stewart, James B., The Journal of African American History


"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. …

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