Music, with its diverse emotions and life experiences, is a mighty form of human communication that deeply connects with us. Across cultures and eras, music has been intentionally adapted to reflect current situations. In today’s world, black music—specifically Soul music—shines by showcasing our shared humanity through conveying hope, pain, joy, and passion in an irresistibly captivating way that engages audiences worldwide.
The connection between Soul music and the civil rights movement can be likened to that of the chicken and the egg. Classic Soul, which mainly refers to the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, coincided with the American Civil Rights Movement. The music and culture during this era reflect the impact of significant changes occurring within the movement. It is accurate to assume that the Civil Rights Movement influenced the emergence of Soul music, just as Soul music contributed to the success of the campaign for civil rights. In its prime, Soul music went beyond mere entertainment; it provided motivation, strength, and education for African Americans during a time filled with turmoil and tragedy.
Throughout US history, segregation had hindered public awareness of African Americans’ accomplishments. Soul music aimed to shed light on this neglect. Songs like Donny Hathaway’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” were revolutionary in seeking to instill pride in one’s history while inspiring a new generation to strive for greatness. Hathaway argues that informing our youth about their immense opportunities is crucial by emphasizing teaching black pride. This concept was widely embraced in black communities during the 60s and 70s (Hathaway).
James Brown’s influential song “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud” served as a symbol for the movement (Brown).The lyrics of the song provided inspiration to those who fought for equality, with powerful lines like “Don’t stop moving until we receive what is rightfully ours” and “We choose to die upright instead of living in submission.”
The dominant focus of rhythm and blues was love and other human relationships, while soul singers expressed concerns about social injustice, racial pride, black militancy, and forms of protest (Southern 517). Eileen Southern’s statement on soul music accurately describes the works of Hathaway and Brown at that time, but it was not limited to just these two artists. This was a time when soul music was deeply influenced by the environment in which its creators lived. Hathaway’s “Ghetto” and Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” both depict the harsh realities of life in the inner city (Hathaway/Gaye). Soul music often focused on societal issues and political unrest, and Gaye’s work particularly exemplified this. His album “What’s Going On” served as a commentary on the social problems of the era and greatly contributed to the growing social awareness. Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” gave voice to the despair felt within the black community, addressing themes such as inflation, taxes, unemployment, and police brutality. The line “this life ain’t worth living, makes me wanna holler, throw up both my hands!” best conveys the feelings of hopelessness in the song (Gaye).Save the Children raises the question of who is willing to save a world destined to perish, but also urges us to live for the children and save them. Despite the overwhelming despair, Gaye and other artists in his genre believed that change was possible.
Ball of Confusion, which made its debut in 1970, showcased the Temptation’s perspective on the various social issues affecting their era. It delved into topics such as white migration to suburban areas, urban riots, and politicians, capturing the overwhelming sense of chaos prevalent during that period. The song encapsulated the idea that all these elements merged into a confusing and tumultuous state. Notably, the lyrics emphasize that the preacher is the sole individual discussing love and the teacher is the only one interested in learning (Temptations). This portrayal conveys the message that love and education hold the key to addressing society’s problems. Moreover, on a deeper level, it suggests that people should shift their attention towards finding solutions rather than dwelling on the despair-inducing problems.
In 1966, James Brown released the song Don’t Be a Drop Out, which conveyed a powerful message about the importance of education to young people. The song tells the story of a dropout who compares himself to friends who continued their education, highlighting their perseverance through challenges and realization that things are not as difficult as they once seemed (Brown). Despite lacking formal education himself, James Brown understood its significance firsthand and established a program encouraging students to stay in school while offering scholarships for higher education. He also dedicated efforts to improving education in urban areas. Furthermore, Brown produced two anti-drug songs, King Heroin and Public Enemy No. 1, after witnessing the destructive impact of drugs on the black community. These songs served as educational tools for raising awareness about drug abuse among black individuals. Through his music and commitment to the black community, James Brown became an influential role model for young black people by exemplifying the lessons conveyed in his songs.
Brown’s conservative message of improving existing systems for change was seen as less radical than other artists. For instance, The Last Poets believed that revolution was the only way to bring about change and expressed this in their song “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution.” Similarly, Gil Scott Heron addressed media omission of black issues and explained the process of change in his work “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The Chi-Lites’ song “Power to the People” originated from the Black Panther Party’s slogan. Artists like Nina Simone, the Impressions, and Edwin Starr also united the black community through songs raising awareness about social issues. Soul music will always endure, adapting to current times while maintaining its essence of passion, pain, despair, love, and hope – essential elements of human experience. Hip-hop artists such as De La Soul, Public Enemy, and Arrested Development also conveyed powerful messages of social change. However, these artists faced limitations as the black American climate began to slightly shift.Today, pioneers like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu are at the forefront of a newly labeled genre called Neo-classic soul. They delve into discussions about revolution, the state of the black community, and relationships. In her track “On and On,” Badu conveys her belief that we enter this world amidst constant struggles with the metaphor “my life keeps going like a rolling stone.” She also alludes to her perpetual battle by mentioning being born underwater with three dollars and six dimes. This symbolic representation encapsulates her unending strife. Conversely, D’Angelo addresses the prevalent use of marijuana in his song “Brown Sugar,” expressing his desire for more as it elevates his mood. He further mentions having bloodshot eyes as a consequence. Additionally, his song “Devil’s Pie” delves into themes of drugs and money. Both Badu and D’Angelo touch on toxic relationships in their respective tracks “Tyrone” and “Shit, Damn, Mother Fucker.” Badu’s composition titled “Other Side of the Game” even explores her involvement with a man involved in drug dealing while questioning whether she wants her child to be part of that lifestyle. The subjects explored by these artists shed light on many challenges faced by today’s generation—some unique to their experience compared to previous generations.
Music is a representation of life, therefore, it can only mirror life’s encounters. Soul music directly addresses the human experience by confronting the troubles we face and understanding our suffering while also celebrating our joys. Skillfully adapting to meet our contemporary needs, it has evolved in terms of rhythm. Yet, the essence of soul, the message it conveys, will forever endure.