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A soundtrack to revolution?

Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday: A Memoir

Edinburgh: Canongate, 2012. ISBN: 978-0802129017.

Denise Sullivan, Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-hop

Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-1556528170.

Pat Thomas, Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975

Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2012. (Soundtrack album Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974, Light In The Attic, LITA 081.) ISBN: 978-1606995075.

These studies highlight the centrality of music to African-American social memory and struggle. Indeed, from the first blues and jazz through to hip-hop, this most elementary form of collective expression became highly politicised in a context of enduring state repression, social exclusion and political disenfranchisement. In one way or another, these works also reflect the commercialisation, institutionalisation and domestication of street voices by hostile political and corporate forces. A case in hand is Curtis Mayfield's Keep On Pushing, the informal anthem of the Civil Rights Movement that was brashly appropriated by Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

The same song provides Denise Sullivan with the title of her ambitious study of black protest music. Despite the sub-title, by tackling folk, rock and punk, Sullivan bites off more than can be feasibly analysed in under 250 pages; for instance, there is no discussion of the overlap between punk and anarchism, so crucial for a generation of (albeit predominantly white) activists on both sides of the Atlantic. Equally, the treatment of hip-hop is rather thin. Ultimately, the core of this book assesses the 1960s counter-culture and the focus goes beyond African-American music; for instance, there is a fair amount of material on Bob Dylan and Native American Buffy Sainte-Marie, both of whom figure far more prominently than contemporary 'raptivists' Public Enemy, who have now notched up over twenty-five years of social criticism. Certainly, in the sense that Dylan was a hero for many of the Black Panthers, his inclusion is not unreasonable; however, this points to another set of problems: the absence of an overarching interpretive framework and, more specifically, the lack of analysis of the relationship between white and black protest music. This is a shame, for Sullivan has conducted some excellent research, including many valuable interviews; but ultimately the devil here is in the excessive detail, as the book stumbles into anecdotes and a disparate narrative: in a desire to be inclusive, a few pages are devoted to political music outside the US. This is vexing when political rappers The Coup, whose albums include 'Kill my Landlord' and New Orleanian Christian Scott, an outspoken critic of policing and post-Katrina policies and whose efforts to drag jazz into the twenty-first century certainly make him a radical, go unmentioned.

A further example of Sullivan's problematic approach is when she touches on the institutionalisation of revolutionary voices by the music industry without fully exploring the processes at play. For instance, she correctly notes the 'insurgent' content of early NWA and their intimate ties with the Los Angeles dispossessed; yet the process whereby their initially fierce anti-police message was muted, and the accent placed on their rhetoric of homophobic, sexist and male violence so characteristic of 'gangsta rap', goes unmentioned. The end product was the manufacturing of a ghetto version of the American dream, a marketing ploy that conveniently did much to disarm socially contestatory rap, while, curiously, becoming immensely popular with suburban white youth, much to the benefit of record companies.

Although also casting his net wide enough to include a range of genres, Pat Thomas's Listen, Whitey! is a far more coherent work. The focus here is African-American protest music from the crest of the wave of protest that saw the radicalisation of a section of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and its rejection of the Civil Rights Movement until its nadir, a decade later, with the switch of the Black Panther Party to electoral politics. For Thomas, a curator, music historian and producer, Listen, Whitey! was a labour of love which he nurtured over a six year period that saw him relocate to Oakland, the BPP's birthplace, where he interviewed and befriended several key protagonists. The result is a rich and detailed study of the politicised music of the era: as well as exploring the work of giants like Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Archie Shepp, Thomas has also unearthed many rare and forgotten recordings of poetry, speeches and songs, a selection of which are to be heard on the CD companion to this attractively packaged coffee table-style publication.

Given the author's sympathy for the BPP and, since this is a book essentially about the intersections between music and politics, Thomas is largely uncritical of this notoriously hierarchical, macho organisation, albeit one that was, at times, capable of promoting impressive direct action and self-help community initiatives. Thomas does, however, point to the restrictive nature of BPP's organisational culture when he discusses attempts by Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas, to promote 'organic' musicians in order to spread the party's message. One example was Elaine Brown, an activist, pianist and, for a brief time, BPP leader. Before stepping down in protest at the sexism within the organisation, Brown was commissioned by Douglas to record two albums, one of which included 'The Meeting', the BPP anthem. Douglas also provided much of the inspiration for The Lumpen, an R&B vocal outfit consisting of BPP members, which, during 1970-1971, was the party's 'official' band or, as it claimed with its typical vanguardist bravado, the 'people's band'. Unsurprisingly, Stalinist-inspired, 'Third Period' style musical projects did not flourish among their target audience: then, like today, the African-American music that was truly revolutionary, both in lyrical and in sonic terms, was generated by artists who enjoyed genuine artistic independence. Indeed, The Lumpen, with their matching outfits and vocal harmonies, were somewhat conservative for their day, far removed from the cutting edge of black music, as is clear from Thomas's discussion of their contemporaries, proto-rap performers such as The Last Poets, The Watts Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, whose lyrical power and innovative style are eloquent testimony to the febrile creativity occurring in the revolutionary maelstrom of urban black America. Indeed, The Last Poets's 'Niggers are scared of revolution' was, arguably, an infinitely more realistic appraisal of the insurrectionary strengths and weaknesses of the black urban working class than the party-directed paeans of The Lumpen. To be sure, the next big African-American musical revolution--rap--borrowed far more from BPP direct action philosophy than from the music of The Lumpen.

This brings me to Gil Scott-Heron's beautifully written, poignant memoir, The Last Holiday. Dubbed the 'Godfather of Rap' and 'the People's Poet', Scott-Heron led an intense life: having published two novels by the age of twenty-one, he established himself as one of the most important and prolific musicians of his generation, releasing fifteen studio albums, often defying musical categorisations, prior to his tragic and untimely death in 2011, aged just sixty-two. Across four decades, he was a leading social and political commentator, his intensely rich lyrics and poetry constituting a trenchant commentary on the experience of the dispossessed ('Blue Collar'), the black experience ('Angel Dust'), the spectacle ('The Revolution Will Not Be Televised') and political life in the US ('H20gate Blues') and further afield ('Johannesburg'). Yet very often his lyrics paid testimony to human frailty ('Ain't No Such Thing As a Superman'), something he grappled with all too often in others and in himself, along with the impact of his troubled upbringing ('On Coming from a Broken Home').

Scott-Heron's cruelly curtailed genius and fragility is writ large in The Last Holiday, a truncated, uneven work that was completed for posthumous publication by his editor and friend, Jamie Byng. There is much focus on Scott-Heron's early life: we see the impact of his grandmother, who, in the 1950s, baulked at giving up her place to whites in queues; and his own inevitable initiation into radicalism--at school in the early 1960s he led a brave struggle against segregation. He also comes across as engagingly humble and modest: 'I've always looked at myself as a piano player from Tennessee; I play some piano and write some songs'. But his much-publicised troubles of the last two decades of his life are largely absent: how his personal conflicts culminated in drug addiction, isolating him from family and, importantly, friends, both real and potential; how his growing addiction made him more erratic, particularly as a live performer, ultimately leading to his incarceration and his contraction of HIV. He remained a critical, dissident voice until the end, but he was detached and, increasingly, alone. He would never become the public intellectual his prodigious intellect and talent suggested he would be.

As Scott-Heron noted: 'when you stop reaching, you die'. These words weigh heavily as one reads The Last Holiday, the title of which reflects Scott-Heron's active participation in the campaign to establish Martin Luther King Day. By this time, he himself had ceased to reach for the same heights: the young man who expected change to come in the streets, and who predicted 'the revolution will be live', was now agitating merely for the commemoration of earlier struggles for a set of goals far less ambitious than those for which he had initially fought and dreamed.

Chris Ealham, Saint Louis University (Madrid Campus)
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Title Annotation:'The Last Holiday: A Memoir', 'Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop', 'Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 and 'Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974'
Author:Ealham, Chris
Publication:Anarchist Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
Words:1541
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