Lately, between Andresmusictalk and my own blog Dystopian Dance Party, I feel like I’ve been writing a lot about Nina Simone. Not that I’m complaining, of course. Simone is one of my all-time favorite artists: a bold and daring a performer who nevertheless carried herself with an imperious dignity that earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul.” And, especially in the late 1960s, her voice as a radical Black woman made vital contributions to the very culture that marginalized her.
Take, for example, her 1966 song “Four Women,” an emotional portrait of the manifold ways African American women have been oppressed throughout history. Over an ominous blues piano line, Simone lends subjectivity to four archetypal figures: the dark-skinned slave “Aunt Sarah,” the mulatto “Safronia,” the Jezebel/prostitute “Sweet Thing,” and finally the embittered militant “Peaches.” With her last verse, she declares that the rage at the heart of the Black Civil Rights movement is both inevitable and justified by the indignities of the past; “I’m awfully bitter these days,” she admits, “because my parents were slaves.” And in inhabiting these figures–widely perceived as negative, racist stereotypes–she gives them a sense of humanity and empathy that could not be found in the women’s movement of the time.
The place of Black women in feminism has of course been contested since the days of Sojourner Truth; it remains, unfortunately, an ongoing struggle, seen most recently in debates leading up to this January’s Women’s March on Washington. But with songs like “Four Women,” Nina Simone ensured that the uniqueness of Black women’s experiences were expressed, whether “mainstream” feminism chose to acknowledge them or not. And her music continues to resonate–as evidenced by the above cover version, performed by the Berklee College of Music chapter of Black Lives Matter. It is, as ever, sad that a song written about the plight of Black women in 1966 could remain so necessary over 50 years later; things being as they are, however, at least now we can be glad it exists.
Remember to check out Dystopian Dance Party next week for five more days of music by great women artists! See you soon.
Carlton Douglas Ridenhour,better known as Public Enemy’s main emcee Chuck D,has long been part of my collective consciousness. Suppose it started when a friend my father’s came him his cassette copy of PE’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. It wasn’t something I was encouraged to listen to at 9 years old. But a little over a decade later,I checked it out on CD myself. And onward through my conversations with this blogs co-founder and friend Henrique Hopkins,Public Enemy/Chuck D have been a consistent conversational fixture in terms of hip-hop keeping the funk alive and kicking.
During Public Enemy’s nearly 30 years of existence,Chuck D has only recorded two proper solo albums. He’s preferred to focus his energies as an individual on activism and public lecturing about important matters effecting the black American community. So its been good to have PE be his chief musical focus for that message,while he does more physical work through his political activism. Having based his entire musical career on his deep love of James Brown’s funk in particular,its more than fitting that one of the songs on his second solo album The Black In Man from 2014 is a version of JB’s “Say It Loud”.
For the most part,the song is built on Chuck’s live band playing the song very close to the way James Brown and the JB’s had done it. The drums and horns start out the song before the bass/guitar interaction comes in. The chicken scratch guitar on this version is not mixed quite as high as Jimmy Nolan’s was on the original. But the round bass line is left almost completely intact. Chuck adds some more rap style vocal accents and meter to his vocal. On the bridge however,some heavy scratching changes over to Kyle Jason’s conscious rap that goes right with the theme of the song before it comes to an abrupt stop.
One of the themes of Chuck D’s music throughout his career has been the kind of thematic power different songs can have. He has often stated this about his critiques on hip-hop-that while some of the more commercially successfully music of the genre has importance as aural escapism,its vital that the potential for hip-hop to transmit positive messages of self improvement to black America needs to be better realized. In doing “Say It Loud”,Chuck brings out that the original song actually WAS hip-hop along with that message-with it’s rhythmically rapped lyrics and message. So it works on both levels.
Filed under 2014, black power, chicken scratch guitar, Chuck D, conscious rap, drums, Funk Bass, hip-hop funk, horns, James Brown, Kyle Jason, Public Enemy, rap, scratching
One of the important things I’ve learned about Curtis Mayfield over the years is the extent of which his social consciousness evolved. This was also an important factor in America’s silent generation as a whole-extending across the nations color and economic lines. Starting out as mainly the composer/guitarist for The Impressions,Curtis soon became the bands lead singer as well. He became something of a windy city whiz kid-writing and producing for other acts as well. This not only changed the entire trajectory of his musical career. But re-focused the thematic priorities of himself,Sam Gooden and Fred Cash as well.
Throughout the 1960’s,this Chicago powerhouse vocal trio continually churned out songs such as “Keep On Pushing”,”Amen” and of course “People Get Ready”-all anthems of the civil rights movement and released between the march on Washington and the murder of Malcolm X. With later songs such as “We’re A Winner”? It was clear the confidence of the civil rights movement was evolving into the black power movement-for America and The Impressions. In 1969,following the murders of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy a year before? Donny Hathaway co-produced the bands 1969 album The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story,which included another powerful song in “Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)”.
First thing heard on this song is an enthusiastic,youthful applause before a thundering drum roll inaugurates the calling outcry of the Memphis soul style horn section that does a call and response dance with Curtis’s gurgling wah wah guitar. Throughout the main body of the song? The rolling beat is accented by a JB style mid pitched rhythm guitar. Before the horn sections emerge again,there’s a brief low blues guitar as well. On the chorus of the song,a sustained gospel style organ comes in to keep pushing the main melody of the song forward. Towards the end of the song,before the chorus closes out the song,the vocals of The Impressions completely recede while Curtis does a full Albert King style amplified blues solo.
In all honesty? Today is the first day that I’ve ever actually heard this song. Sometimes however? A first impression (pun more intended than I was hoping it to be) can say a thousand words. On two very important levels? This song speaks to two viewpoints of the cultural changes in race relations at that time. Musically the song is just about at the perfect intersection between the contemporary funk explosions of James Brown and the Chicago style urban blues that was coming out of the Chess label only a decade earlier. Lyrically it’s a similar situation. On one hand Curtis is very earnest in schooling the young that the power structure of America will be weakened as “we’re killing up our leaders” and “we all know it’s wrong”. By the end of the song he muses “if your cut you’re gonna bleed/might I get a little deeper/human life is from the semen seed”. This song musically and lyrically speaks so deeply into the primal nature of racial violence? It deserves to be understood in 2015 as much as in the late 60’s.
Filed under 1960's, black power, Blues, Bobby Kennedy, Chess Records, Chicago, civil rights, Curtis Mayfield, Fred Cash, Funk, funk guitar, horns, James Brown, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Sam Gooden, The Impressions, wah wah