Fighting the power 

CD Review

Black Power: Music of a Revolution
Various Artists
Shout Factory/Sony Music

Now this is the real deal: all of the best music from the radical black power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, conveniently compiled onto two rabble-rousing discs. They cover a time when artistic integrity was defined by how high your afro was and by just how badly you wanted to smash the corporate and economic state. While the (white) protest music of the ’60s is revered and mythologized, many of these songs have unjustly fallen through the cracks of time.

After a war cry from Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, the collection starts off with Marvin Gaye’s obscure “What’s Going On” follow-up, “You’re the Man.” Marvin directly addresses President Nixon and asks him, “Do you have a plan, Richard?” over a track that channels Sly Stone in a way Marvin never had done before.

The disc offers Top 40 pop disguised as radical anthems (The Chi-Lites’ “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power To the People”) and thinking-man’s funk (“Fight The Power,” one of the Isleys’ greatest moments), interspersed with hopeful anthems (“Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto”). Providing context are short soundbites from Newton, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, who taunts black musicians to “stop singing and start swinging.”

All the rest of the great anthems of the era are there, from the hopeful (Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”) to the accusatory (Hank Ballard’s “Blackenized,” in which the size of your ’fro is correlated to one’s blackness) to the downright let’s-grab-a-brick radicalism of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

Arranged in a rough chronological order, the songs on the discs trace the phases of the black power movement and its eventual fadeout during the ’70s as the FBI murdered or busted most of its leaders. It examines the self-doubt inherent in such polarizing times. Billy Paul’s “Am I Black Enough For You?” is one example, but the bravado of Johnnie Taylor’s “I Am Somebody” also reflects an uncertainty as well.

The last cut, McFadden and Whitehead’s celebratory “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” shows how radicalism is transformed into commerce. Its disco beat heralds the start of a new era, one in which battle fatigue returned the music to its let’s-party roots.

This is an essential compilation that’s geared towards historians and archivists, but the sheer power of the music wins out over its sociological significance. Combined with Sly’s classic Riot album, this compilation is a course on the most radical struggle for social justice since the Civil War. I hope future generations will listen to these songs and learn lessons from them.

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