When I was eight years old I was impressed, in the physical meaning of the word that only music and lithography are capable of, by Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire,” which was a big hit in 1971. His layered shouts jumped out of the speakers and landed in my ears, and there they’ve stayed for forty years. I heard that song a lot on the radio in the mostly-white Pacific Northwest of the early 1970s. I heard “The Whole Funky World is a Ghetto,” by Bobby Patterson, for the first time last week. The two songs share shouts and echoes and loping feedback, and both jump out of the speaker. Both were dangerous, in their own way; Bobby Patterson’s was dangerous in a political way, which made it unlikely for a white kid in Oregon to hear it in 1972. It might have told me about racism, immigration, pollution, and really loud guitars, but it didn’t have a chance to.
Bobby Patterson, who grew up in Dallas, had a lot more to do with James Brown and Otis Redding than he had to do with the Black Panthers. Most of his songs, like the brilliant “If You Took a Survey” or “Quiet, Do Not Disturb” (most likely the best-ever song about coitus interruptus), were about the usual blues themes of sex, adultery, and other darker shades of love. The same, with appropriate geographical and musical and gender variations, could be said about Stevie Wonder, Camille Yarborough, Parliament, and numerous other acts I don’t have space to mention here. But the common denominator was that most of them recorded at least one honest song about the world they lived in during the early 1970s, a world that wasn’t mine at the time, and that I wasn’t likely to learn about from the TV, the newspapers, or the radio in the Pacific Northwest.
Over the last few years I’ve learned a lot more than I once knew about American race relations forty years ago, thanks in large measure to my colleague Robyn Spencer, but thanks also to catching up on what African American singers managed to sneak onto their major-label LPs at the time. One of the best-known of these eye-witnesses was Stevie Wonder, and his most telling story, “Living for the City” (1973), even got heavy airplay in white as well as black parts of the country. The four-minute radio version was telling enough, but you had to buy the album (Innervisions) to get the seven-minute version, which breaks into an agonizing short motion picture where the single ends, tracking a newcomer to New York from his Mississippi hopes and dreams, through the NYPD, to a broken family, told in an anguished voice that Stevie Wonder never, ever, would replicate again.
Camille Yarborough never tried to be on the radio like Stevie Wonder was all his life. She only released one album in the seventies, “The Iron Pot Cooker” in 1975 (another, the marvellous “Ancestor House,” appeared in 2004), and it sounds, in hindsight, more like Traci Chapman than like anything going on at the time. In other words, way too ahead of its time to stand a chance of getting airplay in the Pacific Northwest. Her closest contemporary counterparts were the Last Poets, since around half the album is spoken word with a thriving bassline. Compared to the more standard compositions, the spoken-word lyrics are more (perhaps too) obvious: “Last night, night before/ The silent majority blamed the dark and poor/ They blamed the schools, they blamed the slums/ They blamed the lazy welfare bums.” Even these ones soar, because Yarbough’s voice soared above the lesson she was teaching, full of painful emotion. But the ones that stick, now that they’ve made their impressions, are the songs that she sang: like “Ain’t It a Lonely Feeling,” which contrasts “my and me” with “we and free": in other words, the two most enduring, and conflicting, American dreams, regardless of your color of skin.
Around the same time as “The Iron Pot Cooker,” Parliament released their song “Chocolate City.” I was eleven years old in 1975, and this song would probably have had the same impact on me, at some level, as “God Save the Queen” would have a year later. They showed the latter on American TV, perhaps because the Sex Pistols were British and we didn’t have a queen. We did have a White House, and I think I would have noticed if they had shown Parliament painting it black on “Chocolate City”: I didn’t. The roll call in George Clinton’s White House of the Future is worth recounting: Muhammad Ali, president; Aretha Franklin, first lady; Reverend Ike (Frederick Eikerenkoetter, a radio evangelist), “minister of the treasure”; Richard Pryor, minister of education; Stevie Wonder, minister of the arts. At its core, this was a local song, about the black majority in Clinton’s home town of Washington, DC. The chorus, “Gainin’ on ya,” said it all. But it was also about the country, where braces of soon-to-be-suburban white people were packing, as they braced for African-American majorities and mayors of the same color in Gary, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Newark, and (for a time) New York. Just not my country, at the time.
These examples are the tip of the iceberg. Marvin Gaye (“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler,” 1971), Sly and the Family Stone (“Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” 1969), and Edwin Starr (“War,” 1970) all included a track or two on their major-label efforts in the early seventies to make sure people got the message. Since then, by and large, the intersection of black power and music has become (like most other things) a niche market, reserved for the already-converted fans of Public Enemy, Dead Prez, The Coup, and other laudable but increasingly less-relevant voices. The message didn’t go away; and we do have a president in the White House today with a Muslim last name and a similar skin tone to Muhammad Ali. But it has dispersed, in both good and bad ways, and for good and bad reasons.
In patterns that are as diverse as the world is, the turmoil that impressed inner-city anguish onto vinyl in late-60s America is daily recurring in ghettoes from Dakar to Dacca. As Mike Davis pointed out in his sweeping book Planet of Slums (2006), at least a billion souls live in shanty towns, the ongoing culmination of the largest and most rapid migration of people the world has ever seen. Many of these places have produced the same crucibles that DC, the Bronx, and LA kindled in the 1970s, which have pulled from all sorts of musical influences to send all sorts of invigorating messages. The Bongo Flava scene in Tanzania; Sen Kumpë and Keyto in Senegal (see Keyto’s video below); or Zubz (real name Ndabaningi Mabuye) from South Africa, all personify this. Zubz followed his mellowish hip-hop debut, “Listener’s Digest” (2004) with the amazing “Headphone Music (In A Parallel World)” in 2006. The very funky “Cochlea—One More Time,” which came next in 2009, played Idlewild to his earlier Stankonias. The song “Fight Back,” from the middle CD, says exactly that, and makes you want to march; “The Legend of the Golden Mic,” from the debut, spits a surrealist mythology that’s equal parts Black Athena, W.E.B. DuBois, and Dr. Octagon.
Then there are the diasporas: From India to Fiji, Guiana, Trinidad, South Africa, and eventually Britain; from Jamaica, Barbados, Lagos and Cape Town to London and New York; from Algeria and Senegal to Paris and Marseilles. (And, in all these cases, back again). An older development, historically speaking, but for that reason a producer of even richer intersections of music with how the other 95% live. Keny Arkana (see video below), born to Argentine parents and now living in Marseilles, is one the most vibrant and politically vocal hip-hop artists operating out of France, alongside La Rumeur. Here are two more examples from London: Lowkey is the son of an English dad an Iraqi mom, who says on his song “My Soul”: “I refuse to be a product or a brand, I’m a human/ I refuse to be a part of the gangsta illusion.” And Trenton and Free Radical (pictured above) is mostly Trenton Birch, a Johannesburg native who passed through Nigeria, Kenya and London before settling in Cape Town last year; their debut album, “Giant Step,” combines ska with hard-edged dance-pop and pulls only a punch or two in hummable, positive lyrics that insist on telling the “first world” about the “third” one. All this is clear enough from the song “United Nations,” which covers environmental devastation, refugees, genocide, and child prostitution, and makes you want to dance at the same time.
Not all, or even many, of these artists are on major labels, the way Bobby Patterson and Parliament were in the early 70s. But then again, it’s fair to say that any precocious nine-year-old today with internet access will have a lot easier time finding out about them than I had finding out about Bobby Patterson in 1973 with my FM radio and “Seattle’s Best Rock” on KISW. So it’s some bad news and some good news, as usual. The whole world is, increasingly, a ghetto, with little hope of a short-term reversal of that trend. But it’s also increasingly funky.
Video(s) of the week Keyto’s Nguir Gune Doon Gune, which is about so-called talibes, real-life Oliver Twists on the streets of Dakar:
And Keny Arkana, "La Rage," from her outstanding 2006 CD "Entre Ciment et Belle Étoile":