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Posted under: Music News

These 5 Songs From The 1970s Still Ring True To Today's Revolution

There's a riot going on, like, right now.

From negro spirituals to protest songs, Black music has traditionally been used as a catalyst for social change. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, popular artists like James Brown encouraged people to stand in their Blackness with songs like "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud" and Nina Simone challenged politics with "Mississippi Goddam." The revolution in the songs ever-present as systemic change was being widely demanded.

By the turn of the decade, songs became more fun as Black artists moved from obvious protest-inspired lyrics to funk, disco and what is now known as classic soul, where they buried the revolution under infectious grooves. Parliament-Funkadelic laced in extraterrestrial costumes and psychedelic drugs told audiences to lay their socio-political burdens on the funk. And smooth-crooning, sex symbol Marvin Gaye challenged the Motown machine to put out a Vietnam War-themed project that followed his brother Frankie home from war to the land of "trigger happy policing."

As the old saying suggests, history always repeats itself. When it comes to social issues facing Black folks in the United States, the lyrics in these songs are not so much a matter of history repeating as much as they are a prophecy of what was to come or the story of what had never truly ended. 

Here are five songs from the '70s that remain relevant to today's revolution.   

"Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" -- Marvin Gaye

According to The Guardian, the late Marvin Gaye fought tooth and nail and risked his career to create his 1971 multi-platinum album, What's Going On. At the time, Gaye, a sensual crooning sex symbol, had been making music requested by mogul Berry Gordy for more than a decade. But according to acclaimed music biographer David Ritz, when his brother Frankie returned home from Vietnam exhibiting the characteristics of a changed man confused by what America had become while he was away, Gaye knew he could no longer record what he considered to be meaningless music. Gaye threatened to never sing another note for Motown unless he was given the ability to create his socio-political album chronicling Frankie's return home. 

While the title track is well-known as a song for any revolution, the equally-charged, "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" describes the scene in America for Black folks who want to get ahead but find conflict at every turn. As the prophet, Gaye, details with lines like, "trigger happy policing/panic is spreading/God knows where we're heading," Black Americans today could easily close their eyes and see visions of Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, and Ma'Khia Bryant, among countless others. To Gaye's point, in 1971, 93 people were killed by police officers in America.

The Washington Post, which has created a database of police shootings, recently reported that 946 people have been shot and killed by police just in this past year. The overall number is now a staggering 6,200 and counting. 

"Living For The City" -- Stevie Wonder

Following the success of Gaye's highly-lauded What's Going On, fellow Motown artist, Stevie Wonder, too, found himself demanding Gordy allow him to create a socio-political project. What came of it was his acclaimed 14th studio album, Innervisions, a collection of smooth funk and melodies, released in 1973, that challenged then-President Richard Nixon, systemic racism, inequality, and drug use with a few sprinklings of the love songs for which Wonder had by then become known. 

Among the tracklisting is "Living for the City," the story of a Black family in rural Mississippi who are respectfully doing whatever they can to make ends meet in a place where Black folks are grossly undervalued. This song of the south did not end with slavery and it certainly didn't end with Wonder's last note. Lyrics like, "to find a job is like a haystack needle/because where he lives they don't use colored people," among other scathing realities are just as present today as they were in the 1970s. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' May jobs report shows unemployment among Black Americans at 57% higher than the national number and 78% higher than the white Americans. 

"There's A Riot Going On" -- Sly & The Family Stone

A concept project, There's A Riot Going On, titled as a response to Marvin Gaye's What's Going Onis the fifth studio album by funk and psychedelic soul band, Sly & The Family Stone. While not exactly a song, the full project challenges American politics, charges the disfranchised with making change and calls out systemic wrongs across America. The album cover famously features the American flag on the front with suns in the place of stars. The back cover showcases a collage of protests with the U.S. Capitol prominently placed. The title track, itself, doesn't actually exist but is listed as a song on the album. In a 1997 interview, Sly told reporters, "I did it because I felt there should be no riots." 

When the album was released in 1971, it was widely criticized, even by fans of the group for its sound quality and lackluster production. However, in 2009, a revisited review of the album by BBC Music hailed it as a masterpiece "for its unique sound, for its bleak tone and wasted mood, summing up the unease and menace of its era as perfectly as their earlier hits had captured the positivity of the late-1960s."

"People Make The World Go Round" -- The Stylistics

Creating songs of observation was such a big part of '70s music. While The Stylistics' "People Make The World Go Round" from their self-titled debut album in 1971, chronicles observations of life in the '60s and early '70s, it could easily be a new song on the radio today.

Lyrics like, "trash men didn't get my trash today/oh, why? Because they want more pay" could very well highlight the pandemic-induced changes to the workforce and the ongoing threat of an economic recession. The blame the younger generation game for all the problems of the world is also nothing new when considering this song has an entire verse that suggests big men sitting back without care while "Wall Street losin' dough on every share/they're blaming it on longer hair."

Back then, the blame was on hippies, today it's millennials and Gen Z. 

The incredibly charged lyrics highlighting the ways of the world sang smoothly over a thumping beat may not outwardly scream revolution, but in order to make a change, you've got to know what you're up against. Musician and educator, Sean Clapis, who examined the song for a 2019 series titled Songs That Matter, wrote that it "is a brilliant piece of art that doesn’t draw attention to itself. It’s informed without telegraphing its virtues. It doesn’t patronize or preach, nor does it accuse. It lays bare the issues of the day, issues that remain relevant, and draws us to look inward at deeper questions." 

"Someday We'll All Be Free" -- Donny Hathaway

Donny Hathaway recorded "Someday We'll All Be Free," for his Extension Of A Man album in 1973. While the song features the title lyric written by Edward Howard as a mantra to Hathaway's diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, it was never interpreted that way. Instead, "Someday We'll All Be Free" quickly became a freedom song for the ongoing Civil Rights Movement of Black America, cementing its place as such after being featured in the Spike Lee film, Malcolm X, sung by Aretha Franklin in 1992. 

The lyrics very much lend themselves to the revolution reminding listeners to "get yourself in gear, keep your stride/never mind your fears/brighter days will soon be here," followed by multiple refrains of "take it from me, someday we'll all be free." In 2018, musician and music writer, Jack Gulielmetti, wrote in a brief ode to the song his interpretation that it "speaks about being a Black man in America, and the power that love has to triumph hate. It talks about the importance of holding yourself strong in the face of adversity." 

As Black America continues this ongoing fight, the hope that Hathaway's words will ring true is as prevalent as folks stomping through Black Lives Matter protests for basic human rights. The struggle may be real, but the songs set forth to power us through it all are eternal. 

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Leslie D. Rose is a Jersey-born, Xavier-educated, veteran journalist, editor, photographer, and poet. She is also a lipstick aficionado, Babyface superfan, loving cat mother, and her whole Blatina self at all times. She formerly served as the Copy Editor and Weekend Editor at Blavity News.