Review: ‘Listen, Whitey!’ and ‘Soundtrack for a Revolution’
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‘Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974’ and ‘Soundtrack for a Revolution’ recall the push for social change.
The cover of the compilation CD “Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974” shows a shirtless Huey Newton — movie star handsome — clutching a copy of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” as he smiles at someone off-camera. The image of the magnetic Black Panther cofounder and leader telegraphs one of the core messages of “Listen” — that the activists, artists and lay people involved in the black power movement of the ’60s and early ’70s were in conversation across genre, discipline, modes of action and race.
The choice of this particular photo isn’t to displace the movement’s centrality of blackness with the facile kumbaya multiculturalism that often passes as a progressive view on race nowadays. It’s to underscore that multiple tributaries of voices and perspectives fed the volatile push for social change.
“Listen,” out Tuesday, is the soundtrack to the 200-page coffee-table book of the same name (also released Tuesday) chronicling the artwork that accompanied the albums and singles of the movement, and whose content included songs, poetry, comedy routines and fiery sermons.
What’s remarkable about the CD is that its 16 tracks give a fairly expansive overview not just in terms of genre scope but also in the range of expression across celebrity status and even region.
Rare or obscure small label recordings such as the Shahid Quartet’s “Invitation to Black Power,” a proto-spoken word piece that is at once droll, insightful and prescient, and white English folk singer Roy Harper’s incendiary “I Hate the White Man” jostle alongside stripped-down versions of classics such as Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America” and Dylan’s “George Jackson.”
Underrated soulstress Marlena Shaw serves a blistering live performance of “Woman of the Ghetto,” whose social commentary is part jazz jam, part bluesy testifying and part arid one-liners. Eldridge Cleaver wittily, almost surgically, deflates Timothy Leary on “Tim Leary,” while the Watts Prophets and Original Last Poets clock in from opposite coasts with contributions that would eventually spawn the execrable spoken-word scene that tortures the world today.
Of special interest are cuts culled from Motown’s defunct subsidiary label Black Forum, which existed from 1970 to 1973 and released albums by — among others — Stokely Carmichael and Black Panther Elaine Brown, both represented here. (Brown proves herself a decent singer.) The label’s whole purpose was to record — and sell, of course — the politicized music and rhetoric of the moment.
A lot of music historians and collectors have long touted the imprint’s brief run as Motown’s late-entry foray into politics, but an alternate school of thought is that the Black Forum label simply made explicit the radicalism inherent in Motown’s mere existence.
Though the artists and works on “Listen” are in dialogue with one another, the collection itself is also in dialogue with another all-star compilation, “Soundtrack for a Revolution.” Released two weeks ago, it celebrates protest music that largely existed before the crystallized movement of the ’60s, being sung in black churches and political and social gatherings. It’s music that was still sung throughout the ’60s, retaining an ineluctable power today.
Sibling gospel duo Mary Mary kick things off with a soulful take on “We Shall Not Be Moved” that is easily one of the best things on the disc. Deeply moving, it reminds the listener of a time before mega-churches and diluted political purpose gutted the black church. Likewise John Legend’s piano-driven “Woke Up This Morning,” and especially the Roots’ “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” evoke Sunday mornings in sweltering, packed, spirit-filled churches.
Not everything works. Wyclef Jean’s country-inflected “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” becomes just another showcase for Clef’s showboating affectation, drowning out the effect of the lyrics. Thankfully, his track is immediately followed by the great Richie Havens singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and demonstrating just how powerful one man and his guitar can be when they work in service of the song and not their persona.
In tandem, “Listen” and “Soundtrack” channel racial pride, a political consciousness sparked by America’s anti-black racism but that unfolds into a global perspective on injustice, and lots of hope. They tap into the time before AIDS, the crack epidemic and Reaganomics took their tolls not only on the material world but also on that sense of hope. There already exists in songs such as “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Eyes on the Prize” an intuited sense that there is no finish line in the battles for equality. So the question becomes, as legendary poet Amiri Baraka asks at the close of “Listen,” “Who will survive America?”