I often bemoan the lack of protest music being made today. It seems as if there are a lot of people who think that we’ve reached an age where there isn’t a need for it anymore. I call bullshit on that. Music seems to have become depoliticized at a time when we need it most. Even if we disregard global politics for a moment, there’s a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in America, there are still disenfranchised people who are not given their civil rights, and as much as some folks would love to put a “post-racial” smiley face on this country (hey, our President is Black! Racism is over!!) every once in a while something like the Trayvon Martin incident happens to remind us all that things aren’t solved yet.
The compilation Listen, Whitey! (released through Light In The Attic–the same label that brought you the excellent Betty Davis reissues several years back) is the companion to a coffee-table book that takes a look at the racial protest music of the late Sixties and early Seventies. During the early part of the time period covered in the book and CD, the Black Power movement began in earnest, and various events-from the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy to riots in major cities nationwide to the shootings at Kent State University, raised a fuss in the artistic community. While the music included in this CD isn’t always easy to listen to, it’s a fantastic document of an era that I wasn’t around for and a reminder of both how far we’ve come in the last half-century and how far we still have to go.
There are several things to note when discussing Listen, Whitey! First is that while there were certainly protest songs that made it onto Top 40 radio during this time period (songs from Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye immediately come to mind,) the songs included here are a) less well-known and b) more pointed in their lyrical approach. While artists like Gil-Scott Heron and The Last Poets (who would probably be the first names that would roll of your tongue in any discussion about music of the Black Power movement) are represented here, you also get to hear songs from lesser-known artists (or at least artists lesser known for protest music) like Marlena Shaw, whose “Woman of the Ghetto” is one of this compilation’s better tracks. There are also spoken-word/commentary tracks from the likes of comedian/activist Dick Gregory and prominent Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.
Another thing to note is that it wasn’t just Black artists making this kind of protest music. Listen, Whitey! contains songs from Bob Dylan (an acoustic version of “George Jackson”) as well as John Lennon & Yoko Ono, whose “Angela” (dedicated to the Movement’s most recognizable female face, Angela Davis) is another highlight of the compilation. The thought of two of the era’s biggest stars making such pointed political music is a concept that’s almost unfathomable these days. Who would picture, say, Adele or Coldplay making music like this, to say nothing of artists like Lady GaGa or Justin Timberlake. When the closest thing to aggravated social consciousness to come down the pike in the past half-decade or so is “Waiting For The World To Change,” we have a problem, Houston.
Not to say all the music included on Listen, Whitey! is great (c’mon, you’re asking me to sit through spoken word pieces here) and some of it is certainly uncomfortable to listen to (all the post-racial people will have an aneurysm getting through this one,) but it’s an important reminder of how artists can use their voices to call for social change. It’ll be interesting to see if the current state of the country spurs a revival in music like this.