Funk Power

“We’ve been brainwashed. Everything good is supposed to be white. We look at Jesus, and we see a white with blond hair and blue eyes. We look at all the angels; we see white with blond hair and blue eyes. We look at Miss America, we see white. We look at Miss World, we see white. We look at miss universe, we see white. Even tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he’s white. White Owl Cigars. White Swan soap, White Cloud tissue paper, White Rain hair rinse, White Tornado floor wax. All the good cowboys ride the white horses and wear white hats. Angel food cake is the white cake, but the devils food cake is chocolate. When are we going to wake up as a people and end the lie that white is better than black?”
Muhammad Ali, circa,1967
When we look at some of the keys facts in Funk we can look towards its African origins but I’d like to look at some factors that I feel paved the way for Funk to emerge and also explain why it arrived when it did to become a force to be reckoned with in America. It’s been said that British Satire has always been strongest whenever there is a Tory Government in power. Funk seems to be the same, whenever an American President wanders off the track. Interestingly enough in the heyday of British Satire “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was written and recorded by James Brown in 1965 and created a timeless piece of British comedy by Peter Cooke And Dudley Moore who performed a satirical skit “Mama’s Got a Brand New Bag” in which the duo deconstructed the lyrics. Critics could argue that sadly, instead of trying to understand the lyrics they used it to mock the Black American style of speech, a bit like the rumour that when the movie “Kes” was shown to Southern audiences over here, it had to have subtitles. Sadly I remember seeing a documentary about James Brown in his later days when the programme did have subtitles to help the viewer understand his strong accent. We sometimes make things easier to stay divided.
Where, though, were the Black heroes? Those positive role models that Muhammad Ali looked for? Well, if we look briefly at one individual, Paul Robeson, actor, singer and political activist, we can see how difficult it was for a man of colour to make a change in the post-war America of the 1940’s and 50’s. Robeson spent a lifetime trying to right the wrongs done by others who had perpetrated myths about Africa and consequently the slaves who had been dragged across unwillingly from that Continent but who should have by now been accepted simply as Americans. From 1941 to 1974 Robeson was under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI until the Bureau decided that “no further investigation of Robeson was warranted” but because of the controversy surrounding him, Paul Robeson’s recordings and films lost mainstream distribution. During the height of the Cold War it became increasingly difficult in the United States to hear Robeson sing on commercial radio, or to see any of his films. Robeson spoke out against racism and openly condemned segregation both in the South and also the North. In 1946 he founded the American Crusade Against Lynching. Something that was remarkably still prevalent in America. In 1956, Paul Robeson was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) after he refused to sign an affidavit affirming that he was not a Communist. In response to questions concerning his alleged Communist Party membership, Robeson reminded the Committee that the Communist Party was a legal party and invited its members to join him in the voting booth before he invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to respond. Robeson lambasted Committee members on Civil Rights issues concerning African-Americans.
“My father was a slave and my people died to build this country, and I’m going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?”
Paul Robeson
I think it was the Jazz musician Dave Sanborn who said that you can only think outside the box if you know what’s inside the box. Who, in the 1940’s and 50’s had the right to say what was Un-American? Was it in fact just a reflection of who sat on the committee? And did it imply that it was the American way to continue to ignore segregation and to allow lynching to carry on. In 1957 Althea Gibson became the first African-American tennis player to win the Women’s singles and double championships at Wimbledon and in 1959 Berry Gordy Jr was about to close the decade with the formation of Motown Records in Detroit. However, a Nation of Black heroes and role models were preparing to ignite the 1960’s politically and creatively and it would also be the decade that saw the birth of the first African-American President, Barack Obama, born 4th August, 1961. Making him, in my mind, the Funky President as foretold by George Clinton and James Brown and not the Hip Hop President as some would have us believe. President John F. Kennedy gave a Civil Rights Speech on June 11th, 1963 asking for legislation,
“giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public-hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments,” as well as “greater protection for the right to vote.”
By November he was dead but his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the bill on July 2nd, 1964, outlawing major forms of discrimination against African-Americans. It brought to a close unequal vote of registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, places of work and facilities used by the general public. In 1965 Martin Luther King led a campaign to register Black voters in Selma, Alabama and the country’s most severe race riots took place in Watts, Los Angeles with over 30 people killed and 1,000 injured. On February 21st of that yearMalcolm X was assassinated in New York and a year later, in 1966,James Meredith became the first Black student to enrol at the University of Mississippi and was shot by a White segregationist. In the same year, whilst England was celebrating World Cup victory at football, CORE (Congress Of Race Equality) was adopting a resolution endorsing the concept of Black Power whilst the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) disassociated itself from the term.
Martin Luther King started a campaign to make Chicago an ‘open City’ and two days later rioting broke out. Rioting also broke out in Cleveland, Ohio resulting in 4 deaths and 50 injured. Across on the West Coast the Black Panther Party was formed in Oakland, California as were Sly & The Family Stone. “Revolution Rap” by Cal Green was released in 1967 on the Mutt & Jeff label shortly after the Black Panther Party had been formed in Oakland, California, on October 15, 1966. The line-up for the track included James Gadson on drums with Cal Green and Joey Jefferson on guitar whilst the female vocalist who sang ‘Revolution’ came from a Los Angeles based youth choir. The phrase was Green’s idea and was just meant to give a sense of the sign of the times. Guitarist Cal Green played with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Jack McDuff, Lou Rawls, Ray Charles and Esther Phillips and was inspired by one of the all time great Jazz guitarists, Wes Montgomery.
Over 90 people were injured in Boston when a riot broke out. The long, hot summer spawned riots in Newark, New Jersey, Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, Milwaukee, New Haven, Cambridge (Maryland) amongst others.
Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton published ‘Black Power – The Politics of Liberation in America’. Astronaut Robert H. Lawrence became the first African- American to be selected for the U.S. Space Programme and Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight boxing title after refusing to join the U.S. Army on religious grounds. Sly & The Family Stone released their first album “A Whole New Thing”, Eddie Hazel joined George Clinton’s Parliaments as lead guitarist and James Brown released the instrumental “Funky Soul – No. 1”.
In 1968 three Black students were shot dead in Orangburg, South Carolina during a race riot at South Carolina State College. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4th by White segregationist James Earl Ray.
Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles and Race riots occurred in Cleveland, Ohio and Miami. At the Olympic Games Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute and The Last Poets, so named after South African poet Willie Kgositsile’s prose, were formed in Harlem on May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday. The Funkadelic Record Label made a brief appearance in Detroit whilst in Los Angeles The CRIPS (Community Revolutionary Inter-Party Service) was formed by Raymond Washington after being influenced by Black Panther member Bunchy Carter. James Brown released “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” as well as “Just Plain Funk”. On the West Coast Sly & The Family Stone released “Dance To The Music” whilst in Chicago The Impressions released the singles “This Is My Country” and “Mighty, Mighty Spade and Whitey”.
As the 1960’s came to an end Funk began to express the views felt by Black America more strongly and to question the country’s feelings towards elements of its population. In 1969Police in Chicago raided the Black Panthers headquarters killing two leaders in their beds, James Brown released “Ain’t It Funky Now” and Sly & The Family Stone ‘crossed over’ at Woodstock. These were turbulent times, times that would change America forever. The country was turning its back on the war in Vietnam and President Nixon had his own troubles nearer to home with the Watergate scandal.
Having debued in 1973 on the Wand label Chicago’s Southside Movement released “Movin” on the 20th Century label. The track, “A Poor Man” mixed a monologue with a musical tour of music that was of the common man. In the dialogue it referred to the poor man being responsible for the building of America, San Franscisco’s Golden Gate and probably some flood gates but would have to be the world’s biggest fool if he had anything to do with Watergate. In November 1972 the group War had released ‘The World Is A Ghetto’. By February 1973 the album had reached the top position both in the Soul and the wider Pop chart, giving the group its first Gold disc. Despite the newer liberal times the group was still finding narrow-minded journalism a problem, with one interviewer suggesting that ‘The World Is A Ghetto’ related simply to Black issues, when in fact the group was referring to the whole world. As well as the message in the title track it was another track that painted a bleaker picture of slum life in America, “Beetles In The Bog”, whilst “Four Cornered Room” touched on the bleakness of solitude and resonated in the minds of those returning from Vietnam. Funkadelic’s album, “Cosmic Slop” also contained the track “March To The Witch’s Castle” that bravely dealt with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Lyrically it was the Vietnam War’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, the most celebrated First World War poem by Wilfred Owen. “Dulce Et Decorum Est” from the Latin meaning that it was a great honour to fight and to die for your country. In 1973, most Americans had begun to disagree with those sentiments.
The March To The Witch’s Castle – Funkadelic 1973
February 12th, 1973 the prayers of thousands were answered.
The war was over and the first of the prisoners returned.
Needless to say it was the happiest day in up to thirteen years for most
Others, the real nightmare had just begun.
The nightmare of readjustment and for those, we will pray.
Father, bless the soldier who has returned home from the war.
He has fought with all his might yet he knew not for what or who he was fighting for.
Death waited in the shadows as he crawled by night for his country, his enemies was many including the habit he still cannot break.
Father, we pray that we might understand what has happened to his mind
and help us understand his reaction to the changes that has taken place here at home.
And Father, smile upon us with your grace, for we will need you more than ever.
Help him understand that when his loved ones remarried they were truly under the impression that he was dead and would never return.
Oh Lord, we pray.
And Father, why must wars be fought?
Someone said this war ended with “Peace with Honor” but can that truly be?
Is there such a thing?
Thousands of boys gave their life, and for what? Do anybody know?
Oh Lord, give us the strength to undertand ourselves, for we are a mysterious animal, man.
And as the boys march home to the witch’s castle they will all need your help.
I can hear them calling, calling out to you Father for there is no one else that can help.
Smile upon us, oh Lord For we are very weak. Very weak, very weak, very weak, very weak.
Perhaps we are due for an increase in more good funk. The down side to that though is that it means that the world is in deep trouble.