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Soul Power

Tracing the African-American experience through popular music

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In May 1971, Marvin Gaye released his groundbreaking album What’s Going On. Just five months later, Sly and the Family Stone had an answer with their next LP: There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

The exchange is just one example of black musical artists in conversation with one another throughout the latter half of the 20th century and the early 21st century. The issues they address are political and social; their language, musical.

“Music can be a text through which you understand the African-American experience,” says  Claudrena Harold,  a UVA associate professor of history who teaches From Motown to Hip-Hop. She describes it as a survey of the African-American experience “from the Montgomery bus boycott through Ferguson” as understood through music.

Claudrena Harold Dan Addison

One figure dominates the first decades of this period: James Brown. “He’s the anchor,” Harold says. “There’s no understanding without him.”

Musically, he is the bridge from late ’50s rhythm and blues to early ’60s soul, late ’60s and early ’70s funk and ’80s hip-hop. The development of these styles mirrored and helped drive the political and social dynamics of their eras.

As ministers like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about civil rights from pulpits, Brown moved R&B music into the soul era by infusing it with the sensibilities and sounds of gospel. In 1964, as Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, Brown pushed music in a new direction with the release of “Out of Sight.” The song “reflected the dynamic nature of U.S. politics,” Harold says, going in “a more funky direction” that put the emphasis “on the One,” the first beat of the musical meter.

“This sonic transformation continued with his release of ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,’ released in 1965, the same year we get the Voting Rights Act,” Harold says. Later, in the 1980s, rap artists would pick up on Brown’s sounds, sampling him with abandon until copyright protections were more strongly enforced.

Many artists captured and challenged the prevailing issues of the day. When Gaye, a clean-cut singles crooner, grew a beard and took on issues like poverty and the Vietnam War in a concept album—What’s Going On—Berry Gordy at first didn’t want to release it. Gordy, the Motown record label founder, feared the political turn would ruin Gaye’s career. The album sold millions and is now considered a classic.

“It captured the political mood and inspired others to release not just singles but whole classic albums,” says Harold, pointing to Stevie Wonder’s albums of the mid-’70s.

Listen to some of the songs discussed in Harold's class.

The broader story her course tells is often of “progress versus not-progress,” she says. Michael Jackson had difficulty getting his Thriller album videos on MTV, a reflection of early Reagan-era racial attitudes. Singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman addressed race and poverty with her eponymous 1988 debut, but the materialism evident in some rap music, which was then exploding in popularity, quickly drowned out her working-class themes.

In the wake of Prince’s death, Harold calls him an artistic genius on par with Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. “All of the paradoxes—black/white, gay/straight, sacred/profane—he negotiates them and transcends them,” she says. “I think the genius of Prince is that he gave kids growing up in the ’80s permission to cross boundaries. That feeling that you have to be stuck in one spot, he challenges that. He gave us so much genius you can always continue to grow into him.”

For the final exam, students must craft a 10-song compilation called The Evolution of African-American Music, covering 1979 to today. Students must choose a variety of genres and artists—and write liner notes that explain their choices.

One student who took the course in Fall 2015 was Alicia Klinko (Col ’17), who had a list that was still 84 songs long a week before the assignment was due. “Getting the freedom to bring together types of music that I love was an awesome experience, but narrowing it down to 10 songs was no small task,” she says. “Hands down, this was my favorite class I’ve ever taken at UVA.”