Emerging from the civil rights movement in the USA, Curtis Mayfield is one of the best exponents of radical soul music and his music lives on, writes John Wheeler.
Politics can be strengthened by music, but music has a potency that defies politics.
Nelson Mandela, 1995
For a white-boy in the whitest of seaside towns in the late seventies, growing up in a lower working class family, the political music that attracted me was made by other angry white-boys: The Jam, The Clash and later the multi-racial mix of The Specials and the other Two Tone acts. My conversion to The Clash made it easy for me to get into militant reggae and Two Tone turned me on to Ska. But running parallel was another musical passion – for Soul and Tamla Motown, dating from when my uncle gave me a Mary Wells LP he no longer wanted. At that time, I thought soul was for one mood and shouty white-boys were for another.
Curtis Mayfield must have come into my consciousness when The Jam started performing ‘Move On Up’. Move On Up could be Curtis’ best-known song – an uplifting call to positivity. For me, it would start an avalanche in my music taste that would lead me to find out about songs such as Marlene Shaw’s ‘Woman of the Ghetto’ (if you have not heard that – listen to it now), Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Winter in America’, Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner City Blues’, and, as they used to say on the K-TEL TV adverts – ‘many many more’.
Curtis Mayfield first came to prominence alongside Jerry Butler in the Impressions, a vocal harmony group in Chicago. Curtis soon came to be known for his falsetto singing voice and innovative guitar playing. Early and great songs such as ‘Minstrel’ and ‘Queen and Gypsy Woman’ gave little indication of the social themes he would explore in his later music.
By 1968, Curtis had set up Curtom Records, his own label, which gave him the freedom to record what he pleased. The first release on the label was an album entitled ‘This is my country’. The title track stood out strongly. An excerpt from the lyrics:
Some people think we don’t have the right. To say it’s my country
Before they give in, they’d rather fuss and fight
Than say it’s my country
I’ve paid three hundred years or more
Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back
It’s difficult to imagine a more uncompromising lyric and it’s as relevant today as ever, though of course now it would be closer to 400 years for many underprivileged African-Americans. All delivered with beautiful soul harmonies that proved that you don’t always have to shout to get yourself heard.
By the time the seventies arrived, Curtis had left the Impressions and embarked on a solo career, in which his racial, political and social concerns only deepened – and all the time, in the funkiest way imaginable. His 1970 track ‘We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue’ addressed racial concerns in a sophisticated and poetic way. Since listening to Curtis I have dug deep into the wonderful well of political soul music but haven’t met many songs that also embrace Asian people of colour as in these lyrics:
This ain’t no time for segregatin’
I’m talking ’bout brown and yellow, too
High yellow gal, can’t you tell
You’re just the surface of our dark, deep well
It’s a song I have listened to with my two half-Asian daughters, and it really caught their attention. The songs resonate with a white-boy from the South Coast of England too – even though our oppression was of a far different magnitude and scale from that which Curtis was singing about. The multicultural theme of the song doesn’t need its relevance to be stressed by me right now, either.
A major breakthrough for Curtis was the soundtrack to the movie ‘Superfly’ in 1972 – an essential album for any soul fan, whether politically inclined or not. The songs addressed the rise of the drug trade in the black community but Curtis knew where a lot of the real blame lay, and criticised the politicians and the pushers rather than the drug users themselves. As he sang in the tune ‘Little Child Running Wild’:
Where is the mayor? Who’ll make all things fair? He lives outside our polluted air
I can’t go through every great song or every great lyric created by Curtis Mayfield right now, but I hope I have given people who don’t know him enough incentive to explore his work. He performed live until a tragic on-stage accident ended that part of his career. He fought hard until his death in 1999, even recording more music and collaborating with Ice T on a reworking of Superfly. Among the many artists who have sampled Curtis’ work some worth a mention are Kanye West, Jay Z and Snoop Dogg, though honestly the list is endless.
Not every song has to be a manifesto or a hard hitting policy analysis of course. Many just lift you to Higher Ground or to a more human and humane place. Don’t go the rest of your life without hearing ‘Miss Black America’, ‘Keep on Keeping on’ (did someone nick that title?) or ‘The makings of you’. After that just continue to explore for yourself: there is a lot to explore.
‘Miss Black America’ is Curtis’s take on a very unpromising theme for progressive people, which was the Miss Black America beauty pageant. The song itself swings as a vibrant affirmation of black female power with the lyric ‘People we’re so very proud. Of that natural look we see among the crowd’ – a promotion of African heritage. ‘Keep on Keeping on’ and ‘The makings of you’ are mature reflections on family and parenthood, but the family values being promoted here are not the ones of the conservative right.
In 1988 a very much in awe (and rightly so) Paul Weller tried to ask Curtis in an interview (catch it on YouTube) if his music was political or radical. Curtis answered with humility, ‘In my music I speak my mind – my music is about love’. He goes on to talk about ‘righteousness and positivity’ and talks about his own involvement in local politics.
If you watch the video, or the excellent documentary on Curtis which is also on YouTube you will see that Curtis was never much of a shouter or self-promoter. Weller, in the interview, was at the heart of his Style Council explicitly political phase and was eager to press Curtis on his political activity. ‘Just a few things, local and national’, he quietly said.
His music speaks for him and his commitment to racial equality, economic equality, gender equality and the currently unfashionable, basic human decency. Musicians aren’t politicians and some of those that try to be can end up disappointed or disappointments. Listen to Curtis if you haven’t already and you might find yourself even more motivated towards the righteous action you are involved in right now.