The soundtrack to Watts, then and now


Music has always been an integral part of the black experience in America. Documentaries on the civil rights movement almost always spend time highlighting important albums or concerts. And for a lot of young people, the door to learning about black history was opened by hip-hop.

So when I wanted to learn more about life in Watts 50 years ago, my first thought was: What were people listening to?

I asked three people who watched as Los Angeles, and America, changed in the years after the violence in 1965. I wanted to talk about what they heard. I wanted to know what songs captured what people were feeling in those years.

But I also want to hear from you: When you think of Watts (or of Ferguson or Baltimore), what songs are important to you? What songs tell a story or have a message that we should know about? Let me know in the comments, or share tracks on Twitter with the hashtag #Watts50Soundtrack.

In the meantime, here’s what the people I spoke with said:

Dr. Bernard Kinsey, co-founder of the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection:

Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” just says everything. You have to remember – back then, black people still couldn’t go to most places freely. [Legally] we may have been integrated, but you wouldn’t go in there because you weren’t welcome. There were lots of places in L.A. like that, like the Jonathan Club. The only way you could go in there was if you were a technician, fixing their machines. Los Angeles, as quiet as it’s kept, as liberal as it is – had some of the same kinds of mentality that the rest of the country had.

Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” is another one, coming out of that same place. At that time, the world was changing and you could feel it. We were coming into this Black Power movement, and we were starting to really talk about progress for the first time.

Munyungo Jackson, a professional musician and artistic director of Watts Towers Day of the Drum and Jazz Festival:

— James Brown’s “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” was great. It changed a lot of people; it started making people grow. When that song came out, and James Brown started to wear a natural afro, we all started doing that. Before that, we were all slicking our hair back with that Murray’s hair grease, and James Brown did that too. But that song, and when he started wearing his hair natural, it opened up a lot of things. Man, I had my ... big natural comb, I was wearing a green army shirt with a bullet hanging from it, you know. We were all into that.

Mongo Santamaria’s “Watermelon Man” was big for me musically, when I was young. Anything that has rhythm, in the drum, my ear opens up to it. But mostly, I was into Latin percussion. I remember seeing Mongo Santamaria live and seeing those timbales. I said to myself, “Wow, this is what I want to do. I want to play like them.” I went out the next week and put a set on layaway, and spent all my money on those drums.

Tim Watkins, president and chief executive of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee:

Earth Wind and Fire’s “Keep Your Head to the Sky.” Why? It’s right there in the title – keep your head to the sky, think high, think up, you know? It’s just a beautiful song, and it reminds me of the era following the revolt. There was a kind of music at that time that lifted our consciousness, to remind us that what was happening here in L.A. was not an isolated condition, it was a national condition. And around that music, a lot of folks came together.

Kendrick Lamar’s “i” is great. I don’t want anyone to think that Kendrick is “over” because a 63-year-old guy likes his music, but I think Kendrick Lamar is a prophet. Right now we’re seeing people express some of the same thoughts we had back then in music like hip-hop, and he’s a good example of that. Kendrick is a genius in how he weaves his own life experience and his own stories into a more widespread sentiment. I understand what he’s saying in “The Blacker The Berry” and those other songs. Those songs are telling us, “Wake up, everybody! Here’s what’s going on around you.” I listen to Kendrick every day. (Warning: The video linked above contains explicit language.)

Follow me on Twitter @dexdigi for more on the intersection of culture and the Internet.

Full coverage of the Watts riots, 50 years later, from the Los Angeles Times