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After recently exploring black American soul music of the 1970s, I found it very different than I expected. I started by listening to the album in which the song "Lean on Me" first appeared and was stunned by how ... abnormal everything seemed. It almost sounded like a set of Sesame Street episodes ... but with a groovy beat.

Then I listened to what seemed like a related album, Pieces of a Man, by Gil Scott-Heron. Aside from the first track, it seemed like more of the same! Obviously the style is different: it sounds like Scott-Heron is more into poetry and less concerned about traditional musical forms. The picture of Gil Scott-Heron on the album cover made me expect a seventies version of Dr. Dre or Snoop Dog, but the lyrical and musical content were so different!

Were 70s soul musicians really seeking to improve community life through their music, as their lyrics suggest? What kind of tradition is this? Is this the shape that their reaction to contemporaneous political actions took?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Bebs, kl78, Dom May 3 at 16:15

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    This question reads more like a rant, and I’m flagging it as VLQ. – Brahadeesh Apr 16 at 0:56
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    Hi, you know well Stack Exchange, so you know how it works... please restrict your question to one topic and try to avoid personal opinion. Then you should also specify what you are talking about with links and sources. For now, I have no idea what you are talking about. – Bebs Apr 16 at 11:24
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    @ChrisSunami Thank you for taking the effort to improve this question and answer it! – Brahadeesh Apr 16 at 18:58
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    Thank you all for guiding me and helping to shape the question! – Limited Atonement Apr 17 at 12:35
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Soul music started as a secularized form of gospel music, and tended to retain from its roots a certain spiritual quality and concern with moral uplift, although it also added a physical sensuality, and often dealt with themes of romance, lust, and occasionally vice. Although the genre began in the 1950's, with artists like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, it really came of age in the late 60's and early 70s. This was a time of great political upheaval and rapid social changes in America, particularly centered in the black community around the fight for civil rights. The political victories in the late 60s paved the way for a new sense of black pride and unity as the 70s matured. All of this inevitably made its way into the lyrics. Everyone from Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and the Temptations began to put veiled or explicit expressions of black pride, political activism and general uplift into their lyrics. This paralleled a similar trend in mainstream American pop music, with artists like Bob Dylan, the Beatles and CSNY all putting out politicized anthems.

The musical echo you hear in Sesame Street is a reflection of its contemporaneous beginnings (1969) --Sesame Street often sounds like the 1970s. Similarly, the bold African-American hairstyles and fashions of the 70s were enormously influential, and were often adapted by later artists such as Snoop Dogg, even when the music was quite different. Poets like Scott-Heron were also a major influence on the development of rapping, which is essentially long-form narrative poetry over a beat. Nor did the political activism entirely die out --there's a long and continuing tradition of politically conscious hip-hop, although typically with a more militant edge, and a less hopeful and positive outlook.

It's worth noting that the now pervasive narrative of black family dysfunction is NOT native to the black community. It was imposed externally by the mainstream media, and hadn't yet been internalized in the 70s the way it was for the generation that matured in the 80s and 90s. (This was also before the crack epidemic, and relatively early in the hypocritical and racist "War on Drugs," which combined to cripple the previously stronger black family unit.) In the 70s the black community was vocal about external oppression, but largely feeling very positive about itself and its chances of advancing and succeeding --a feeling perhaps best encapsulated by the iconic anthem "Ooh, Child". In truth, there was a lot to feel good about in the 70s. Over a decade of difficult, dangerous and often deadly struggle had finally brought about an end to legalized segregation and discrimination. The slogan "Black is Beautiful" had begun to gain traction, even among white tastemakers, and black artists were beginning to be able to achieve crossover success without the heavy concessions or outright whitewashing of previous generations. The 70s rhetoric was a direct response to centuries of disempowering messages aimed at the black community in the slavery and post-slavery eras: Black is weak, ugly, inferior, powerless, divided, despised, servile, obedient and doomed. Therefore the messages you hear in this music are aimed directly at countering these. These songs are saying that black is strong, beautiful, superior, powerful, worthy of respect, resistant, rebellious, and aimed at a brighter future.

  • Incredibly helpful answer, thank you! You mentioned "general uplift", and it's this that caught me off guard. Is the thinking along these lines: "Black families and lives are torn apart by racism, so we need to give them encouragement to pull together and form stable, respectable family units [with songs like Save the Children and Lonely Town, Lonely Street]."? Or another sentiment I've seen in a modern setting (but never in song or verse) is a disgust at the state of family dynamics and social decay; perhaps it's this disgust that helped generate this kind of music? – Limited Atonement Apr 17 at 12:32
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    @LimitedAtonement I started to answer your comment here, but it got long, so I ended up editing it into the answer, above. – Chris Sunami Apr 17 at 13:28
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    Excellent, thanks! I would upvote it several times if I could! – Limited Atonement Apr 18 at 15:06

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