A tribute to five black R&B greats + connecting their powerful messages to 2020
Struggle — a product of violence, prejudice, and oppression that is inflicted upon a community — can take many forms. From Jazz in the 1920s to Hip-Hop and modern R&B today, music has been a tool for the black community to express deep emotions, political themes, and experiences with their constant struggle. In the midst of the recent events that have spurred turbulent times in the United States and the rest of the world, my eyes have opened to those struggles and the bitter reality of our current world being not so different from what it was a half-century ago.
Today, on June 4, 2020, I’m compiling below select lyrics of ‘70s R&B/Soul songs from the end of the Civil Rights Movement. The seemingly simple verses speak volumes and send powerful messages on which I will do my best to comment and reflect.
“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, 1971
Verses 1 & 2 and Chorus:
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some loving here today, yeah”
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some loving here today”
“Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Ah, what’s going on”
I encourage you all to listen to this wonderful song. An incredible black singer, Gaye expresses the poignant themes of violence and police brutality through these captivating lyrics. Today, fifty years later, I feel the song and its cogent message are more relevant than ever — what is going on? Why does the pigment in our skin still define who we are today? The third verse especially resonates with the atrocities the black community and the supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement face today. This past week — in all fifty states — supporters have picked up protest and picket signs only to experience harsh suppression from the police yet again. Gaye pleads that “we’ve got to find a way / to bring some loving here today,” because “only love can conquer hate.”
“We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” by Curtis Mayfield
“We people who are darker than blue
Are we gonna stand around this town
And let what others say come true?
We’re just good for nothing, they all figure
A boyish, grown-up, shiftless jigger
Now we can’t hardly stand for that
Or is that really where it’s at?”
Curtis Mayfield was a musical pioneer in the genre of Soul, and the politically-inspired messages in his songs reflect the struggles he and his community faced. The opening line of the chorus doesn’t just refer to the color of skin — it depicts a far deeper message. Singing the blues is generally associated with complaining about something or being heartbroken, but Mayfield expresses that his reaction to the harshness and inequality that black people face is far “darker” than just a complaint. He calls upon his community to fight against the injustice they receive and the “good for nothing”-ness they are constantly associated with, urging them that they “can’t hardly stand for that.”
“Why Can’t We Be Friends” by War, 1975:
Verse 3 and Chorus:
“The color of your skin don’t matter to me
As long as we can live in harmony
“Why can’t we be friends?
Why can’t we be friends?
Why can’t we be friends?
Why can’t we be friends?”
War is intrinsically one of the most diverse bands. Transcending racial barriers, the band contains members of multiple ethnicities and incorporates elements of jazz, rock, and Latin in its R&B songs. War strives for “harmony” because “the color of your skin don’t matter.” The hopeful message was so compelling that it was played when the U.S. and the Soviet Union linked in outer space in 1975 — breaking barriers once again. The lyric “why can’t we be friends” makes up ninety-four percent of this song. If only the whole world could hear this song and its uniting message in these times.
“That’s the Way of the World” by Earth, Wind & Fire, 1975
“That’s the way of the world
Plant your flower and you grow a pearl
A child is born with a heart of gold
The way of the world makes his heart grow cold”
As one of my favorite bands, Earth, Wind & Fire always find a way to deliver a positive message through their soulful, upbeat music. Like War, this band spices their rhythm and blues tunes with jazz, funk, and Afro-beats. In this beautifully written, poetic chorus, EWF reminds us all of the old proverb: you reap what you sow — if we propagate hate, we will receive hate; but if we spread love, that’s what we’ll get in return. The last two lines of the verse also contain a deeper meaning — that all humans are born innocent to race and its dividing aspects. While we may grow cold as society molds and shapes us to fit its categories, we must never forget that every “child is born with a heart of gold.”
“Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder, 1976
“Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands”
With riveting chord changes and beats that are inspired by famous jazz musician Sir Duke Ellington, the song contains several “shout” choruses which make the irresistible tune Stevie Wonder’s most overt ode to jazz. Throughout the song, Wonder not only delivers a tribute to jazz and its greats, but he also praises music for its universal and far-reaching qualities. This is reflected in both these above lyrics as well as the shout chorus. For those who don’t know, a shout chorus is the liveliest big band sequence in a jazz song, and in “Sir Duke,” the chorus employs the pentatonic scale, a pattern that is seen in nearly all musical cultures around the world. This deeper meaning of the song once again breaks cultural and racial barriers and sends us the overarching message that music is so uniting and all-embracing. Not to mention, the message is also sent by one of the greatest R&B/Soul musicians of all time. Fifty years later, we need this appreciation for music and for each other more than ever.
Collage of Black Artists: https://futurescribes.wordpress.com/2015/02/20/black-music-evolution-of-sound/
Curtis Mayfield: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/471611392205680207/
Earth, Wind & Fire: https://www.mm-group.org/talent/earth-wind-and-fire/earth-wind-fire/
*Specific links are embedded in song names*