1968: Soul Music and the Year of Black Power

James Brown – Soul Brother Number One (Erik Veland, Flickr).

James Brown’s iconic song “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” was released in August 1968, seemingly a fitting coda for a spring and summer that had been dominated by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. Released months after violence erupted in Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., it wouldn’t be until October of that year that “Say It Loud” would sit atop the R&B charts, solidifying its status as the anthem for the Black Power Movement.

In the late 1980s, “Say It Loud” inspired Hip-Hop artists Public Enemy and NWA. Songs like “Fight the Power” and “F**k tha Police” became anthems for those who came of age in Reagan-Bush years. “Say It Loud” still resonates as millennials faced with daily examples of police brutality against Blacks and the seeming hourly erosion of the Civil Rights gains, are looking for their own anthems.

The songs that topped the R&B charts in the intervening months between King’s assassination and the ascent of “Say It Loud,” from April to October 1968, highlighted the complexities of Black life in the aftermath of tragedy and anger. Black communities were navigating emotions of grief, rage, resignation, suspicion, and defiance and Black music on the national and local levels reflected those emotions.

Black music has long been thought of as a balm for Black trauma in the United States, to the point that there is a certain expectation that what Black musicians choose to produce, should easily map onto the political realities of the time. It’s part of the reason folk keep hoping and wishing for truly transformative Hip-Hop artists to speak truth to power in this moment, often lowering the bar for those artists who seem to come close enough. The generation of Black folk living and surviving in 1968 were not any less woke than the so-called Woke Generation of 2018, but they also weren’t necessarily waiting for James Brown or Aretha Franklin to save the day.

It didn’t mean that Black folk in 1968 weren’t in their feelings.

The role of the music charts as an index of Black life in the 1960s was complicated. In the decades before Nielsen SoundScan and streaming services, chart position was generally dictated by sales reports from mom and pop stores in Black communities and the spins records received at local radio stations. While Black radio DJs were of course attentive to listeners requests, they were also beholden to station managers, station owners, advertisers and the record companies.

Such was the case in March 1968, a month before King’s assassination when The Impressions’ “We’re a Winner” topped the soul charts. While the group had been known for racial uplift songs such as “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushin’,” a song like “We’re a Winner” captured a more defiant mood, more closely resembling the energy coming from SNCC and the Black Panthers during that era. A few years later, performing the song at the New York City club, The Bitter End, The Impressions’ Curtis Mayfield recalled that some radio stations flat out refused to play the song because of its militant tone. By the end of March, Otis Redding’s posthumously released “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” ascended to the number one position for three weeks. It was prescient, as Memphis, Redding’s label home, would soon again be a site of mourning.

When the dust settled a few weeks after King’s assassination, it was James Brown who sat atop the Billboard soul charts, but not with a song you might expect. “I Got the Feelin’” is mostly remembered for being featured on The Cosby Show and as the song that The Jackson Five used in their Motown audition tape. For Brown, who never had a number one pop hit during the course of his five-decade career, “I Got the Feelin’” was one of his highest charting pop songs, coming on the heels of his celebrated post-assassination concert in Boston where he was seen as tempering the anger of Black youth. As Albert Goldman wrote in the New York Times in June 1968, “To whites, James is still an off-beat grunt, a scream at the end of the dial. To Blacks, he’s boss—the one man in America who can stop a race riot in its tracks and send the people home to watch television.”1

Brown was clearly at the peak of visibility, if not his creative power, and by the end of the summer of 1968, “Mr. Brown,” as his band always referred to him, would put that to the test.

During the summer of 1968 some of the songs that topped the soul chart captured the array of emotions that Black America was experiencing. The Intruders, “Cowboys to Girls,” produced by a then-relatively unknown duo of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff for the even less-known label Gamble Records, seemed to pivot on childhood nostalgia. “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell and the Drells of Houston, Texas—as they announce in the song’s intro—was some classic summertime funk based on a local dance called the “Tighten Up.” (Perhaps anticipating another Houstonian’s call for a “formation” nearly 50 years later.) Famously, Olympic Gold medalist Wyomia Tyus, was seen performing the “Tighten Up” in the moments before she stood on the blocks for the 100-yard dash at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

The songs that sustained their top-of-the-R&B-chart status for multiple weeks during the summer of 1968, perhaps capture the most telling view of how Black Ameria was experiencing the summer of Black Power. In the months before “Say It Loud” peaked at number one, four other songs held the top position on the R&B chart for at least three weeks: Aretha Franklin’s “Think” (three weeks), Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” (four weeks), The Dells’ “Stay in My Corner” (three weeks), and Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” (five weeks). The latter song by the Motown duo, was number one longer than any single during 1968, with the exception of “Say It Loud.” Additionally, the sounds of Soul music began to impact other Black expressive arts such as poetry. Nikki Giovanni’s collections Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgment were both published in 1968, as well as Don L. Lee’s (Haki Madhubuti) Black Pride. Both liberally drew from the emerging Funk of the era in their poetic rhythms.

In many ways 1968 was the year of Aretha Franklin. “Think” topped the R&B chart, along with “Chain of Fools” and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” The chart rise of “Think” coincided with the Time Magazine cover story “The Sound of Soul” in which an illustration of Franklin appeared on the cover.2 Franklin was legitimately the most well-known soul singer in the world, and she carried with her the political gravitas associated with her father, a Civil Rights movement insider, the Rev. C.L. Franklin. As such, she sang “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral.

Even as “Black Power” became the slogan for a generation, there were still real limits on Black expression in the late 1960s. The power of Black music was as much symbolic and cathartic, as it was confrontational. So a song like Masekela’s instrumental “Grazing in the Grass,” which topped both the R&B and pop charts, could have represented notions of Black freedom, and even more so, a notion of shared Black freedom given South African-born Masekela’s own protest of against apartheid. A year later The Friends of Distinction recorded a jazzed-up version of “Grazing in the Grass” with lyrics provided by group member Harry Elston.

“You’re All I Need to Get By” was the last of the great duets by Gaye and Terrell, as Terrell’s health began to fail, making it difficult for her to record. Terrell succumbed to brain cancer in 1970, but not before this song of intimacy became a theme for Black audiences. The Dells “Stay in My Corner,” and its demands for loyalty, was an update of a song the group had recorded three years earlier, harkening to their earlier days as a Doo-Wop group. The updated version—twice the length of the original—was reflective of a symbolic transition from Negro to Black, or musically from rhythm & blues to soul. In any event, both songs reflected communities seeking shelter from the heat of the summer and the political heat of that historical moment.

And James Brown was also feeling the heat.

Brown might have been “Soul Brother #1” but there were those who felt that with that status came more responsibility than creating a funky beat. Young Blacks were not only questioning Brown’s political commitment, but also his blackness. As RJ Smith shares in his biography, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, one Baltimore Afro-American reader asked “If James Brown is so soulful, why does he still wear that konk in his hair?”3 Though Brown himself  never got an afro—his hair stylist gave him what Brown called a “processed afro”—he did write the song “How You Gonna Get Respect (When You Haven’t Cut Your Process Yet),” for label mate Hank Ballard.

The most sustained pressure on Brown was coming from the increasingly influential Black Panther Party which was under assault by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO. With Huey Newton on trial for the murder of Oakland police officer John Frey, the organization was looking for high-profile allies. There were subsequently several sit-downs between Brown and the Panthers throughout the summer of 1968.

“Say it Loud” was cut on the West Coast on Aug. 7, only days after the police shootings of Black Panthers Steven Bartholomew, Robert Lawrence and Thomas Lewis.4 Of the refrain, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Smith writes, “The words were a reaction to a variety of elements: to the state of black life, to the pressure Brown was receiving from the activists who said he wasn’t black enough.”

The Black Panther Party and other young activists might have found their timeless anthem, but not everyone was initially thrilled with this turn in Brown’s career. When KGFJ, a Black L.A. radio station, refused to play “Say It Loud,” Brown took out two full-page ads in the Los Angeles Sentinel to openly challenge their decision to silence his “message from James Brown to the people of America.”  Not surprisingly, it was while Brown’s band was on the road that the song began to gain national momentum.  Brown even got shout-out from the Queen of Soul’s dad, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, who delivered a sermon at his Detroit New Bethel Baptist Church called, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which Smith describes as a “nuanced discussion of separatism and self-love.”

For six weeks beginning Oct. 5, 1968, “Say It Loud” was the most popular song in Black America, even cracking the top-ten of the nation’s pop chart.  As Smith writes, “If a Huey Newton or Angela Davis had expressed the idea, it would have been marginalized as utterances from the Black fringe,” but with James Brown, “Here was the angry fringe and the smiling mainstream coming together.”

Soul music would never be the same.

Many will recall 1968 as the year that soul music found its political voice. By 1971, when Gaye released  What’s Going On!—arguably the most sophisticated political album of the period—and  by 1972 when Franklin was covering Nina Simone’s “Young Gifted and Black,” soul artists were expected to offer political commentary in their music.  Indeed with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, which launched  in 1972, the packaging of danceable social commentary on songs like Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes “Wake Up Everybody” or The O’Jays “Give the People What They Want” was part of what it made it a national brand.

  1. Albert Goldman, “Does He Teach Us the Meaning of ‘Black Is Beautiful’?,” The New York Times, June 9, 1968.
  2. “Lady Soul Singing It as It Is,” Time Magazine, June 28, 1968.
  3. R.J. Smith, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 206.
  4.  10 Panthers, 5 Police Killed In Clashes Is Paper’s Probe Findings, Desert Sun, Volume 43, Number 124, 29 December 1969.
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Mark Anthony Neal

Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Distinguished professor of African American Studies at Duke University where he chairs the Department of African and African American Studies and hosts the weekly webcast, Left of Black. He is the author of several books including 'What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture' (1999); 'Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic' (2002); and 'Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities' (2013). Follow him on Twitter @newblackman.