Indiana History Center
Through Dec. 31
Actor Samuel L. Jackson greets visitors to Soul and Funk: The Naptown Sound at the Indiana History Center’s Rapp Family Gallery, evangelically hollering, “The Church of Eternal Funk is open!” from a TV screen swathed in floral orange fabric circa 1972. Outkast performing “I Like the Way You Move” starts to drown out his voice during this video from the 2004 Grammys’ Funk Tribute. It’s a booty swinging overture for a look into Indianapolis’ own unique funk scene that arose from political and cultural shifts in the African-American community during the 1960s and ’70s.
Stevie Wonder’s voice singing his 1972 hit “Superstition” greets visitors upon walking into the small exhibition space where assortments of disco lights waver in the dimness. The music bounces through the gallery. A black velvet portrait of a blue Afro-ed Stevie, Op art fabric art and an orange shag wall hanging further set the tone for the spirit of the era and the music.
Faux brick walls suggest the historic African-American Indiana Avenue strip of music clubs lost to the construction of IUPUI. More than music, this exhibit sadly only brushes the surface of what black residents in Indianapolis were challenged with during these times. Unigov, initiated by then Mayor Richard Lugar, unified city-county government and added 250,000 more whites to the voting base. City planners razed African-American neighborhoods for IUPUI and Interstate 65, leaving people displaced and underrepresented. These local events underpinned the music and culture of the time and could have been delved into further for the sake of depicting our local history in a truthful, and in this case, not so sanitary light.
But fabulous interactive components allow visitors to thoroughly engage with the funk music and musicians who created what’s become known as the Naptown Sound. Local promotional posters for Rufus Thomas, The Vanguards, The Rhythm Machine and even one for Ayr-way’s Soul Browser Center flank a room outfitted with a 1950s chrome kitchen table made to look similar to Club TBD. Pick up a phone on the tabletop and listen to Rodney Stepp, jazzman and producer formally of the Spinners, talk about buying a Beatles record on Illinois Street. Hang out at one of the Funk and Soul listening stations to hear local funk hits including The Highlighter’s famous track, “Funky 16 Corners.” Written by James Bell in the bathroom of the Ford Motor Company where he worked, this song contains what has been called the greatest soul scream of all time — that’s a heavy-duty distinction. Open a salvaged stage door and bear witness to a “Superfly Doodad” or two, like a guitar or a wide-collared stage costume. Or just boogie down on the exhibition dance floor.
Though small, this exhibit is overloaded with features and data that require a lot of time to thoroughly absorb. Despite the overstuffed, climbable, platform shoe, the show is better suited for adults than children unless your child has a penchant for funk. This exhibition, despite its success as is, could be realized on a bigger scale with even more interactive components like maps of the Westside neighborhoods or a WTLC disc jockey booth where you could select your own Naptown Sound rotation. As great as it is, it’s only halfway there. Visit www.indiana45s.com for more on the history of Indianapolis funk and soul and www.indianahistory.org for more on the exhibit. Through Dec. 31; 232-1882.