As author Pat Thomas puts it, “Every revolution needs a soundtrack!” And in the late-'60s/early-'70s, the soundtrack and the revolution were often one in the same. In hs new book, Listen, Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 (Fantagraphics), and companion CD/double-LP of the same name (Light in the Attic), Thomas examines the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, the explosion of creativity happening across the musical spectrum at the time, and the now-obscure Black power protest anthems that resulted from the two movements intertwining.
A writer, producer, and musician, Thomas has also worked at Water and 4 Men With Beards, where he began his research for the Listen, Whitey! project. Surely the crate-digging chops he honed while at those labels came in handy when tracking down some of the impossibly deep musical relics from the heyday of the would-be black revolution (most notably Black Panther house band The Lumpen).
It’s almost shocking that no one has explored this topic in depth until now, given the longevity of the Black Power aesthetic and our continued obsession with "The '60s." When taking into account the rocky state of our nation (politically, socially, and culturally) and the fledgling Occupy movement creeping into the mainstream, it seems not only timely but essential. (Although one shudders to think what a consensus-driven Occupy soundtrack might sound like.)
Where does your interest in the musical wing of the Black Power movement come from?
Well, I’ve always been a huge music fan—especially of 1960’s and 1970’s material, mainly rock, then folk, then later jazz and soul. So after exploring everything from English folk to krautrock, there wasn’t much left in my wake, except African-American social-political material
Was there a particular track or album central to the movement that really peaked your interest?
I think it kicked off when I heard Black Panther Party member Elaine Brown’s 1969 singer-songwriter album Seize The Time, then I heard the Watts Prophets—and it all started from there (also I worked on getting both of those artists full length albums reissued on CD several years ago).
I read something many years ago about the Black Panther party of Oakland (the founding chapter) having a house band. Do you know anything about this?
My pal Rickey Vincent turned me onto that band, they were called The Lumpen. He’s written a whole book about them that’s coming out in a couple of years. But yeah, I found the single, and the A side is included on the Listen, Whitey comp CD that I put together.
How did the party itself use music to promote their platform?
As one of the Lumpen said, “Not everybody reads, but everybody listens to music.”
A lot of jazz musicians looked to Black Power for aesthetic and philosophical inspiration. How do you see musicians like, say, Archie Shepp, Phil Cohran, and the Art Ensemble, to name a just a few, fitting in to this story?
Well, they did dig the Panthers, but the jazz musicians generally embraced the more Black Nationalism side of things—which meant they believed in looking toward their African roots, in terms of clothing and sometimes changing their names—adding traditional African names to their given “American” names.
You include some fairly well-know white artists on the album, John and Yoko chief among them. Do you see Black Power in retrospect as more of an all-encompassing people's movement?
Mainly, I wanted to show that Black Power crossed paths with the white counter-culture and rock/pop culture.
I've always been interested in the various offshoots of Motown. Can you talk a bit about the Black Forum subsidiary? To what degree do you think this represented genuine solidarity on the part of Barry Gordy with the Black Power movement and to what degree was it a cash-in? Certainly, one doesn't think of Motown as a politically oriented label.
Barry wasn’t that political, that label was started by other Motown execs that were more militant than he was—he green lighted it, paid for it, but it wasn’t a cash in. None of the Black Forum records sold in large numbers, the other Motown execs did it because they were angry at MLK’s death (and rightfully so) and wanted to speak out with getting these more "out-spoken" recordings out there in the market, except that the main problem was Motown’s chain of indie distributors generally refused to stock the albums, so they didn’t make it into stores.
While there are politically oriented artists out there today (dead prez and Immortal Technique in hip-hop come to mind), you don't really see many expressly political statements being made in music these days. Certainly not in the mainstream, and not much in the underground either. Are protest songs a thing of the past? Is this a good thing or bad thing?
I think it’s a bad thing that there is not more politics in pop music. But look at the change in the media, there was a time when Rolling Stone magazine was a symbol of the counter-culture (pick up an issue from 1970 and see what I mean), a time when pop culture and the counter-culture were almost the same thing. There’s no more counter-culture (except in areas that I don’t know enough about to speak on record) and pop culture, is what, Lady Gaga?
Do you think potent political activism needs an artistic and musical component in order to be successful?
Every revolution needs a soundtrack!
Are there any tracks that you were forced to leave off the set you would have liked to include?
There were some tracks from the Flying Dutchman label—early Gil Scott Heron and some wacky Stanley Crouch spoken word stuff (when he was LEFT wing, rather RIGHT wing, as he is today) that I really wanted, but it got tied up in legal issues and what not.