Last year Denise Sullivan, music journalist and online columnist for Crawdaddy!, published her fourth book titled ‘Keep on Pushing’. In this fascinating and thorough overview, Sullivan discusses the marriage of music and social change throughout the twentieth century and shows that the Black Power Movement which grew out of the Civil Rights Movement, provided the model for others that came afterwards, most notably the gay rights and women’s movement.
She combines oral testimonies of musician-activists like Yoko Ono, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Solomon Burke, with solid archival research, making this narrative informative yet intimate and personal. The political and social history comes alive through a detailed description of important musical moments in this era. Although the focus is on the 1960s and 1970s, Sullivan presents a multilayered story covering many years and genres, from blues, folk, and jazz to disco, reggae, punk and hip-hop. The resulting book could be described as ‘a soundtrack to the revolutions of the twentieth century’.
Journalist Billy Jam noted that your book could easily be filed under American political history, but you think it should be filed under American music history. Why?
“Because I work primarily as a music journalist and historian, going into the project, I felt entirely comfortable with my ability to handle the musical and artistic content, but wouldn’t dare call myself an expert in American social and political history (for the record, my degree is in media studies). So in the interest of serving my subject—where music intersects with social and political movement from 1960 forward, it seemed best to go with the designation Music/History/African American: Music is history and when we are talking about American music for change, it is tied directly to the African American struggle for freedom and equality.”
Was acknowledging this connection between arts, culture, society and politics the starting point of your project?
“My questions going into the project were, given the cultural climate and socio-political problems of the present, why aren’t more musicians voicing the issues in songs, as they had in the past—particularly in the 60s and ’70s protest eras, and throughout history—and why aren’t people singing them in unison anymore? These were my main questions, but as I dug deeper, the answers were opening doors to all sorts of things and the book started to become not so much about answering my main question, but about asking more questions—an inquiry into what had happened to the message in the music—and an attempt to identify the forces that had largely contributed to silencing direct protest from reaching the mainstream of music. As a journalist, it’s what I’m comfortable doing—I ask the questions and I investigate. I don’t necessarily come up with answers all the time, but my subjects revealed many of those answers in the telling of their experiences, and in their songs. I hope the text provides food for thought and discussion, and opens things up for researchers and singers of the future.”
I had intended to write a book specifically about the music of the black power era that spanned from approximately 1967-1975, but soon realized it would be impossible for me to tell that story the way I wanted to without providing the historical backdrop
‘Keep on Pushing’ is very different from your previous books. It is much more academic (which is probably why Billy Jam thinks it should be filed under American political history). How did the nature and complexity of the subject of your book influence your methodology and your project as a whole?
Thank you for saying so—in the five years it took me to research and write it I like to think I could’ve completed the coursework for an advanced degree or two. The project evolved. I had intended to write a book specifically about the music of the black power era that spanned from approximately 1967-1975, but soon realized it would be impossible for me to tell that story the way I wanted to without providing the historical backdrop for how such an extraordinary sound developed, emerged, and found success across a broad spectrum of people. I’m not a scientist, but I like people and have spent my professional life talking to them and collecting their stories. It seemed important to me to provide context for the lives I was talking about, not only for younger readers, but to give my subjects their due. People like Len Chandler, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Solomon Burke, to name but three of the musicians I talked to, who played a role in that history, but were at risk of being written out of it. There were others like them, some I talked to, some I didn’t, whose stories I wanted to include, which is when the project got unwieldy. It was at that point, I decided on the broader overview and laid out what happened to the musicians and the music before, during and after the Black Power era. Hopefully, the overview completes the picture of how culture empowers people—and what happens when it does, as well as when it shifts or disappears.
Your subtitle is: ‘Black Power Music -From Blues to Hip-Hop’. Would you say that this title actually covers the initial project, but maybe not so much what the project became in the end?
“I fought very hard for a different subtitle. Titles and subtitles are tied to marketing considerations and those are the kinds of decisions that are made in business meetings that often don’t involve the author at all. You have to consider that this was well before the Occupy movement though obviously many of the ideas put forth in the book had been in the air for years, though they were reaching critical mass again. I thought it was more important to get the book into circulation rather than waste any more time in a boardroom battle over its title. That said, the artists featured in the book regardless of their gender, class, sexual orientation or race are singing for equality and freedom for all people; matters of social justice concern everyone, or at least those of us who believe humans are one race. I’ve noticed that people who can see the similarities between the artists and their songs, the shared histories and traditions, are able to make the leap and conceive that the subtitle dovetails with the spirit of the book.”
The book can be divided into two parts. Part one discusses the era of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Arts Movement and Black Power. Part two explores what came afterwards. You marry the two by stating that Black Power became a model for other movements that followed. Can you elaborate on this?
“Scholars widely agree that the Black Power movement provided the model for the women’s movement, the gay liberation movement and other political and cultural minority empowerment movements to move forward and gain some political traction. Because I study music and the people who make it, I was generally interested in the threads of the songs of liberation, throughout time, and what the Black Power era’s musicians took from those traditions and added to them. I was also interested in what the socially and politically-motivated musicians who followed the ’60s and ’70s carried forward into their songs. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, the tradition of writing songs to free the people lived mostly in the poetic and political strains of punk and hip hop—though those songs weren’t necessarily heard on the radio. I also make the point that among the more mainstream message songs that were heard (“We Are the World”), though widely considered banal by critics, they fulfilled an important role in a dysfunctional society that was becoming increasingly free of compassion for its people. I maintain that the style known as the “freedom song” or as I like to call them -the freedom blues- (after the Little Richard song), reached its zenith during the Black Power era. I mean the songs of Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron, Curtis Mayfield–which is where the title “Keep on Pushing” comes from– and What’s Going On? by Marvin Gaye pretty much say it all: war, environment, poverty, sexism, racism…still problems we have today, and they addressed all of them, and so artfully. Forty years later, if a listener can’t get to what they were singing about then, if it doesn’t make them feel something, it may be an indication that the spirit is asleep and it’s time to wake it up.”
The Black Power Movement (like many other single issue movements), peaked before it disintegrated into little factions. Did you see a similar development within the music scene that was part of the Black Power Movement?
“I’d like to be really clear that the dissolution of the Black Power movement involved a combination of forces and its disintegration was complex; there was a concerted effort to destroy it and the facts support that. As for the music, I found the musicians I spoke to united by similar goals of progressive, and some might say- idealistic change, which they attain by exercising their right to freedom of expression; they encourage discussion and they encourage participation in community and in the democratic process. I observed that musicians of conscience also seem to be bonded in a brother and sisterhood of musicians who sing the language of the heart. Because I am interested in the lives of artists and specifically the lives of musicians, I’ve studied up close and firsthand where they come from, what motivates them, what makes them tick. What I found among the politically and socially aware and motivated musicians I spoke to, though different stylistically, personally they were very similar, with similar character traits, family, and economic backgrounds.
Music has an impact on the brain—science supports that. So while people might not get what they need when you or I, an activist or a politician speaks to them, they might get the urgency of a message in a song, or in the sound of a horn
Race and gender doesn’t seem to make a difference—though one thing they also have in common is they love people, human beings, and they choose to express their concern through art. Often it is at great risk to their own careers and reputations, but they lay it on the line, speak their minds and reveal the contents of their hearts for their causes, in songs, because it’s what they do—they are called to do it. They are criticized and in some cases cast aside, but they keep on singing. The songs, in turn, become important documents of history; they are tellers of stories, and containers for information, ideas, and inspiration. And because they communicate in the universal language of song, people who may not otherwise get the message are able to hear it. Music has an impact on the brain—science supports that. So while people might not get what they need when you or I, an activist or a politician speaks to them, they might get the urgency of a message in a song, or in the sound of a horn. And if that song is sung by someone with a mainstream profile, that really opens up the possibility for a change of heart. For example, you can tell people voting is important, that people died for the vote and so on, but until they feel it in a song, they might not actually exercise their hard won right to it.”
The famous British folksinger Ewan MacColl dismissed Bob Dylan’s protest songs as “puerile – too general to mean anything”. Do you think protest songs need to be specific in order to be powerful?
“I think that clarity is key, but poetry is divine which is why a song like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” is so beloved, powerful and timeless. Not all musicians are poets, and not all are politically engaged or even inclined. And yet, a song can convey something through experience, emotion and poetry that propagandizing and sloganeering cannot. It simply has to use words that are clear and distilled, and usually, there is a unified melody. Nina Simone was not always able to convey her political position without angry outbursts; she was prone to extreme emotional highs and lows. But when she sang a song and played the piano you knew exactly what she wanted to put across. The music transcended the never-ending political debates and problems that didn’t seem to have solutions. I am not so naive as to think that music is the ultimate or only path. But it is a start toward opening up people’s ears and minds and changing their consciousness to the degree that they may wake up and change their immediate surroundings, their community and the wider world. A listener may be inspired to use his or her own gifts effectively as a result of hearing a song.”
Why was the Black Power Movement so successful?
“Well, I should probably stick to speaking to why the music of the movement was so successful: It spoke to larger truths that connected people with each other, with their higher consciousness and higher selves. This is the part that people don’t really want to hear in our increasingly secular society but just as the movement was rooted in social programs—people were fed, educated, organized–there was a moral outrage in the content of the songs, a righteous indignation that things just weren’t right. There were spiritual truths and principles in the work that conveyed you can’t continue to treat people, your brother and your sister, a fellow human being so poorly and unjustly–things have got to change. The civil rights, free speech and anti-war movements combined with Black Power involved student leadership, clergy, community organizers , veterans, everyday people, and singers who lived and believed in the struggle. It helped that there was consensus on these matters and the three major television networks were broadcasting the activity with a degree of competence. Of course now we see and hear very little and hardly anyone sings about it and if they do, you won’t hear it on the radio—you have to search it out. I apologize if I didn’t answer the question, but that wasn’t a question I set out to answer: I went in search of why there aren’t more songs that speak to the questions of our time and to do that I had to go back. What I found was that the struggle for jobs and equality rights and justice is an ongoing one, that the desire for improvement to society didn’t go away, but it was forced to go underground until it rose again, and that in my opinion, the movement could use a few more good songs.”
When you look at some of the people of influence in the world, they too came of age in the hip hop and punk era
In your book you establish that in the 1970s there was a narcissistic turn, in music in particular, but also in society as a whole. Would this be the reason that whatever movement is formed now, it will never be as strong as the Black Power Movement? It seems music is no longer about having a powerful voice, it has become about making money, which feeds this narcissism?
“I don’t see things in terms of one reason or another, black or white; it’s a combination of forces and certainly the ’70s, as the Me Decade, as it’s known, had its ups and downs. The move from enlightenment and engagement, of which introspection is a part, toward navel gazing, narcissism and numbness or complacency is perhaps what we’re talking about. So while in a sense, it’s heartbreaking for me, as someone from the ’80s punk rock and hip hop generations, to see two extraordinarily vibrant cultures become mass marketed as lifestyles, both music movements did succeed in carrying forward some extraordinarily positive legacies alongside their negatives. Certainly, I bought into the cynicism at different times; but I went back to the well—to the people who never stopped pushing—to receive their wisdom and inspiration and to pass it on; I’m just telling you what I found.
When you look at some of the people of influence in the world, they too came of age in the hip hop and punk era. They are self-starters and positive thinkers, with “do it yourself’” combined with “we can do it together” mentalities. I am talking about Barack Obama, Bob Geldof, Bono and Russell Simmons, to name a few high profile examples of people who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, who believed in making things happen and did; imperfectly sometimes and easy to be cynical about them, but making a difference nonetheless. But the cynicism that emerged after the ‘one-step-forward-two-steps-back’ experience of the ’60s, the nihilism of punk rock, the culture of fear and doom is entrenched; certainly the election of Ronald Reagan, the debilitation of the media, the dissolution of the culture, the corporate corruption, the growth of the prison and military industrial complexes, and on an on, all contributed to that climate—so many forces have combined to neutralize people. And then I look what Leymah Gbowee did organizing women in Liberia and how non-violent resistance and singing played a role in that struggle, and I am filled with faith and awe and restored to being an idealist. So you see, and I stress this in all my work, things are rarely just black or white: I am simply presenting the pressure points and shedding some light in the various corners of arts and culture, and how those points relate to the potential for political and social change.”
It’s strange that with so much technology at our fingertips, there isn’t more message music changing hands
When it comes to lyrics, it seems that underground and mainstream music weren’t that different from each other in the sixties and seventies. A lot of critical songs discussing subjects like women’s rights, racial inequalities and other social issues, made it into the mainstream. Nowadays it seems that mainstream music is so fundamentally different from what is produced in the underground. Women in particular, in popular music such as hip hop and gangsta rap, are often portrayed in a very negative way. Where are the alternative voices?
“There are still alternative female musical voices—I’m thinking of M.I.A. and Santigold and Ani DiFranco, though as you say, they don’t often make it into the mainstream. Chuck D. of Public Enemy has asked why more women aren’t involved in hip hop and has called for them to get involved, though like many of the other matters he’s brought to the table, from economic justice for musical heritage artists to the homeless population of LA, it’s like he’s a voice in the wilderness. Of course there are people in the underground creating hip hop of the conscious variety. I am always listening for new voices. At my readings, I ask poets and musicians to participate and we speak to the audience, ask their feelings about things and ask them to tell us what’s going on in their communities. We have a dialogue and I hope it warms hearts in a world that can be cold. Like punk rock and early hip hop times, or the early Greenwich Village folk music days, people came together, by word of mouth, in playgrounds and parks, dorm rooms and coffeehouses, record stores and nightclubs. That was the way the music was distributed. There is an opportunity to do that again. It’s strange that with so much technology at our fingertips, there isn’t more message music changing hands. But it’s out there and people are connecting with it, sometimes one song, and one musician at a time.”
When you look at different music genres today, which one is the most promising when it comes to protest music and critical voices? Or are there critical voices across the board?
“You can find exciting new developments in every area of music. I like to listen to music from around the globe, especially from Africa, where there is a tradition of speaking in songs about what’s going on. You won’t hear critical voices on the radio or in the big arenas; they rise from the underground—the MC with the boom box, the DJ with the turntables and the folksinger with the acoustic guitar on the street corner. All music has content, from folk and blues to hip hop, there are messages in all of it, the question is what is it saying? I believe the listening experience is greatly enhanced by knowing if, say, a Kanye West sample or rhyme is rooted in poetic, black protest tradition, and that he is part of a literary and musical legacy that connects him to Gil Scott-Heron and Amiri Baraka. It’s important for listeners to know that when Tom Morello is singing a song, it may have roots in the American labor movement—as it happens, he is the kind of singer who will let you know that! But to answer your question, the songs are coming from all over the world and they develop at the grassroots level. When I interviewed artists from the previous generations, they were so kind about the new singers, preparing to carry the torch and follow their path. They know the pitfalls and potential harms in the way and they feel protective of their musical offspring. It’s one of the reasons writing the book was a wonderful experience for me, as someone very critical of the popular culture and choices made by my generation and younger, I learned from these singers the secret to continued effectiveness in activism and art is love and tolerance. The fact they were open, and allowed me to tell their stories, considering what some of them had been through as artists and activists, was amazing. Their work remains inspirational to me, and I too have faith that the Millennial Generation of musicians and activists will keep on pushing.
Denise Sullivan is the author of three previous titles: in 1998 she published ‘R.E.M. — Talk About the Passion’, followed by ‘Rip It Up, Rock’n’Roll Rulebreakers’(2001), which is a collectioin of twenty interviews with rulebreaking musicians including Ike Turner, Wanda Jackson and the Talking Heads and in 2004 she published ‘The White Stripes, Sweethearts of the Blues’. Her music reviews, profiles and reporting can be read at www.crawdaddyarchive.com and atwww.denisesullivan.com.