Between 1964 and 1968, eruptions of civil unrest in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, Newark, and other urban areas drew the nation’s attention to problems that had plagued black neighborhoods for decades. But even after the uprisings, residents in these places often felt themselves to be largely invisible and without a voice in mainstream popular culture. By the early 1970s, this situation caused many within the black community to question the extent to which the Civil Rights movement had changed American life. Many African Americans still struggled to survive in increasingly poverty-stricken neighborhoods across the country. Statistically, de facto segregation in inner cities had increased during the years of the Civil Rights movement as white city dwellers migrated to more prosperous suburbs — a process known as “white flight.” As a result, city populations became increasingly black, with many African Americans living in communities with failing schools, poor housing, and strained relationships with police.
Responding to Black America’s struggle to be seen and heard, artists including James Brown, George Clinton, and Curtis Mayfield helped to develop a musical style known as Funk, a genre that specifically addressed black audiences and black circumstances. Built around a prominent bassline, deeply percussive instrumentation, and polyrhythms (from guitars, horns, keyboards, and drums), Funk was constructed to make people stand up, feel the groove, and express themselves on the dance floor, while also responding to the often harsh realities of urban life. Songs like James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” (1970) exuded a sense of community awareness set against a musical backdrop where every musician in the band treated his instrument as if it were a drum. At the same time, George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic released albums in the 1970s with titles like Chocolate City and America Eats Its Young. These titles, along with accompanying album art that satirized such iconic national symbols as the Lincoln Memorial and the Statue of Liberty, reflected the frustration felt by many African Americans that the “genuine equality” advocated for by Dr. Martin Luther King had still not been realized. The music and images of Funk served to empower African Americans by allowing urban black communities to make themselves seen while telling their own stories in their own ways.
In a parallel to what was happening in music, in the world of movies, African-American artists also began to portray black urban life, with films that often featured a Funk soundtrack. Since the beginning of the film industry in the early twentieth century, roles for African Americans had been limited, and often based on stereotypes with black actors often relegated to onscreen roles as servants or comic relief to white movie stars. As of 1970, only three black performers had received Oscars (compared to 191 whites), an industry award that had been given out since 1929. Even in 1963, when Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win the Best Actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field, his character was the only person of color among an otherwise white cast. But as a new generation of black filmmakers began to appear, a new sub-genre of film emerged known as “blaxploitation” — a combination of the words “black” and “exploitation.” These movies, including Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972), and Foxy Brown (1974), portrayed a gritty, crime-ridden vision of the inner city, often with a vigilante black protagonist operating outside laws established by “the Man.” Musicians including Isaac Hayes, James Brown, and Curtis Mayfield contributed Funk scores to several of these films, including Mayfield’s soundtrack for Superfly, which went to No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart in 1972. Like Funk, blaxsploitation films allowed for African-American artists to address the state of their communities through a distinctively black voice and visual aesthetic.
In this lesson, students investigate a collection of musical performances, television interviews, and movie trailers, discussing how black artists of the 1970s, including James Brown, George Clinton, and Curtis Mayfield, addressed black audiences through the music and aesthetics of Funk, casting a light on all that the Civil Rights movement could not do for a racially divided America.