Pat Thomas, the author behind the book Listen Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 and curator of this soundtrack to that book (spanning 1967-1974), has done a lot of good work for the rest of us. Through extensive research and digging into archives, he has come up with this expansive, wide-open historical document. And that’s really what it is, not an album so much as a varied yet representative cross-section of the voices that rose up as the Black Power Movement began and took hold in America.
Sounds is the right word to use in the title of a collection like this, because this is not just about music. This collection includes speeches and stand-up comedy right alongside music of all kinds. Stokely Carmichael’s “Free Huey” speech, given at a rally for Huey Newton in 1968, introduces in bracing fashion an idea that comes up often on Listen, Whitey!. He says he wants to talk about Huey Newton as part of the struggle for black people as a whole, so that “our people will survive America.” Note the careful distinction he makes here—Amiri Baraka makes the same distinction on album closer “Who Will Survive America”—between surviving ,in America and surviving America itself. The impression here and elsewhere on the record is America not as a country but as an unnatural construction, a system of control that one must breakdown in order to survive.
Those elements of control are laid bare through the voices on Listen, Whitey!. Dick Gregory brilliantly breaks down the rhetoric around Black Power. “White folks in this country dirtied the word ‘black’,” he says at one point. “Not us.” He goes on to point out other sinister twists of language, like how Angel Food cake is white, and Devil’s Food is black, his examples perhaps trivial but in his delivery they are both funny and devastating. Marlena Shaw’s brilliant live version of “Women of the Ghetto” shows the plight of women and children in the ghetto—itself an imposed construction—but pulls free with powerful bursts of improvisational scatting between verses.
As the performers challenge and strive to pull free of these elements of control, they also pull free of conventional sounds. There’s great straight-ahead soul like Elain Brown’s “Until We’re Free”, but the most intriguing sound are the more avant-garde sounds. The Watts Prophets, for example, loop and overlap spoken-word vocals to bracing effect on “Dem Niggers Ain’t Playing”, moving from a confusion of voices to a strong cohesion when the voices come together in the end and exclaim, “We know for sure them niggers ain’t playing…and we ain’t either.” Amiri Baraka’s own spoken-word take, “Who Will Survive America”, is an unruly and beautiful soul-jazz tune over which Baraka’s fervor and energy grows, his voice bursting exuding power at every turn. Eddie Harris, on a beautiful live version of “Silent Majority”, blurs the same lines between soul and jazz, but does so with a clearer eye on melody, turning Nixon’s infamous phrase into a convincing chorus while he spits at it in the verses.
Seemingly the strangest inclusions on Listen, Whitey are the white performers. But what their inclusion points out is that this movement was not only about race, but more about the color of power, a color artists like Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Roy Harper constantly fought against. Dylan’s songs here, “George Jackson”, was released just two weeks after the activist Jackson was killed in prison, and represents his topical songwriting at its best. Dylan eulogizes Jackson, but also recognizes his tenuous position in standing up for him as a white man. He equates the whole world to a prison, before stating “Some of us are prisoners, the rest of us are guards.”
If Dylan and Harper are aware that they are stuck in the middle—Lennon gives no indication he’s aware on “Angela”—Harper attacks from a deeper historical perspective, taking on long-practiced imperialism on the excellent folk sprawl of “I Hate the White Man”. If Dylan captures the moment, Harper captures all the moments that led to it, and though they may be in a more privileged position to speak out, there’s nothing cheap or condescending in the music. They get the problem, even if they can’t fully exclude themselves from it.
In all these great performances—rising out of all kinds of different traditions and innovations—perhaps none is more striking than the solo version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America”. It is sweet and strong, both powerful and isolated, simmering with fury yet quaking with hope. As he describes birds in bare trees, watching the fray from above, he insists “If somebody want to know, tell them it’s winter in America.” Like so many performances here, Scott-Heron is presenting a wake-up call, a demand to see things as they are, to get a clear view and start the major repairs from there.
Even if grasping the historical context here is tricky—Thomas does a great job keeping us up to speed in the liner notes, suggesting that the book may be essential reading—there is no doubt that these voices resonate today. If they are of their time, they have also transcended it. In that way, Listen, Whitey is as much about how voices resonate—about the power of the right words, about how the most powerful weapon in a revolution may be a microphone or recording equipment—as it is about what they say. Outlets like the Motown imprint Black Forum, represented on several tracks here, took political voices and made them into documents. You can pretend you don’t hear a voice when spoken in public once. But a document, a voice that can be repeated wherever and whenever, that’s much harder to ignore.