FUNK ASSERTS ITSELF: BLACK ART FOR BLACK AUDIENCES
How did 1970s Funk respond to African-American life in the decade following the Civil Rights movement?
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.
Video pages: Parliament-Funkadelic - Give Up the Funk (1976) | Parliament - Chocolate City (1975) | James Brown - Get Up, Get into It, Get Involved (1971) | Lilies of the Field Trailer (1963) | James Brown - Man to Man (1968) | Superfly Trailer (1972) | Watts Riots Newsreel (1965)
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
1. Display an image of an editorial cartoon published in the Washington Post during the 1970s.
2. Display a graph of census data illustrating "Population Changes in Metropolitan Areas, by Race: 1950-60 and 1960-70."
3. Ask students if they have ever heard the phrase “white flight.” What do you think the phrase might refer to? (If necessary, clarify that “white flight” is a term used to describe the migration of white populations from cities to the suburbs, a phenomenon that began in the years after WWII and continued through the 1960s.)
1. Play clip of a newsreel story showing the Watts Riots, which broke out in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965.
Discuss as a class:
2. Play clip from a interview with poet, writer, and activist Amiri Baraka on the Merv Griffin Show in September 1965. Tell students that this interview occurred just one month after the Watts Riots. Students should take notes on Baraka’s views on integration between the races. [Note to teacher: end clip at the 2:20 mark.]
Point out that violent demonstrations of civil unrest also occurred in several other inner-city neighborhoods during the 1960s, including Harlem (1964), Newark (1967), Detroit (1967), and Washington D.C. (1968).
3. Play clip from the James Brown documentary Man to Man (1968). Students should take notes on how James Brown describes his role as an entertainer and his relationship to inner city audiences.
4. Play audio clip of "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved," a Funk song recorded by James Brown in 1970. While listening, students should pay attention to both the lyrics and the musical elements (instruments, rhythms, vocal quality, etc.) of the song.
5. Read the following quote from James Brown aloud to the class: “I had discovered that my strength was not in the horns, it was in the rhythm. I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums. I had to find out how to make it happen. On playbacks, when I saw the speakers jumping, vibrating a certain way, I knew that was it: deliverance. I could tell from looking at the speakers that the rhythm was right.”
6. Display two album covers by Parliament-Funkadelic, a Funk collective founded by producer and bandleader George Clinton in the early 1970s. Key members of Parliament-Funkadelic included bassist Bootsy Collins, guitarist Phelps “Catfish” Collins, trombonist Fred Wesley, and saxophonist Maceo Parker -- musicians who had also performed in James Brown’s 1970s-era Funk band, the J.B.’s.
7. Distribute Handout 1: Blaxploitation, a film genre from the early 1970s that complimented Funk as another manifestation of black art for black audiences. Invite a student volunteer to read the handout aloud to the class.
Ask students to examine the graphs at the bottom of the handout, then discuss as a class:
8. Play trailer for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, for which Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. Students should pay special attention to the music used in the film, as well as the setting and characters.
Discuss as a class:
9. Next, play trailer for the 1972 blaxploitation film Superfly. Students should once again pay close attention to the music, setting, and characters.
Discuss as a class:
10. Play the first four minutes a 1967 interview with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the Merv Griffin Show, recorded less than a year before his assassination in 1968. Students should take notes on what steps Dr. King says are necessary in order to achieve “genuine equality” in the United States.
Discuss as a class:
In the interview clip, Dr. King describes the Civil Rights movement as having “given the Negro a new sense of dignity, a new sense of somebody-ness.” Play a clip of Parliament-Funkadelic performing “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” in 1976. Ask students to write a one-paragraph response to the clip based on one of the following writing prompts:
How do you think Dr. King might have responded to this song and performance? What elements of Parliament-Funkadelic’s music, lyrics, costuming, and staging do you think convey a sense of African-American “somebody-ness?” Explain your reasoning.
1. Listen to an excerpt of the song “Chocolate City” by Parliament-Funkadelic (1975), using the lyric sheet as a guide. As a class, discuss connections between the song and any themes from the lesson, including “white flight,” African-American representation in art and politics, etc.
Write a short essay discussing how "Chocolate City" addresses “white flight” through the eyes of a black artist. The essay should address the following questions: How does Parliament-Funkadelic use ironic humor to address both the positive and negative aspects of growing black majorities in American inner cities during the 1970s? What might be the significance of the repeated line “Gainin’ on ya”?
[For a more in-depth writing assignment, assign students to include independent research into the 1970s-era political leaders and racial demographics for one or more of the cities mentioned in the song: Newark, New Jersey; Gary, Indiana; Los Angeles, California; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, D.C.]
2. Research the career of Sylvester Stewart and his group Sly & the Family Stone, who along with James Brown, George Clinton, and Curtis Mayfield is considered one of Funk's innovators. Write a short paper comparing Sly & the Family Stone's 1968 single "Everyday People" to their 1969 single "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." In what specific ways does the group's music shift away from mainstream Pop towards a Funk sound? How do the messages of the two songs compare in terms of their respective approaches to the themes of self-identity, race, and community?
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies for Grades 6-12
Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)
Core Music Standard: Responding
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.