Roiling R&B and Rebellious Rock ’n’ Roll in 'Keep on Pushing'

Denise Sullivan paints with condensed strokes, documenting in succinct sections how the music segued with powerful protest movements to smash disfranchisement and rouse sometimes fleeting victories.

Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-hop

Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Length: 224 pages
Author: Denise Sullivan
Price: $16.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-07

In an era when the conscience of pop, hip-hop, and rock ’n’ roll music is often off-shored to fundraising events and galas where million of dollars are shared in the limelight, this close scrutiny and survey of a more radicalized music period -- especially the '60s and '70s -- reveals how songs themselves used to be the vehicle for concerns. Narratives of empowerment, and refrains of social critiques, no longer invade FM radio in the same style or manner.

Sure, Green Day’s screed against American idiocy was provocative, barbed, and pointed, but will future kids spin those iTunes with the same gusto that still reverberate with “Fortunate Son” and “War (What is it Good For!)”? Will Green Day go gentle into the not-so-good digital night?

Tellingly, Sullivan paints with condensed strokes, documenting in succinct sections how the music segued with powerful protest movements to smash disfranchisement and rouse sometimes fleeting victories, daring “to question the new freedoms and the quality of life ‘freedom’ brought in the face of liberty’s inconsistencies and … costs.” Sure, some of the music was tranquil, but beneath the surface was a piercing passion knotted to the concerns of the women’s movement, Black Power struggles, the American Indian Movement, Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committees, and the National Farm Workers Association.

On the other side, and there is always another side, rested the concerns of hegemony; the military-industrial apparatus, the forces of American apartheid, FBI plots and local policing, and repressive schools, shifting under foot in the times, much to the dismay of old-timey teachers and administrators.

She focuses on the whole diaspora of black music en masse, from Calypso’s insurgent narratives to the ‘courage’ of jazz, from gospel and slave songs to roiling R&B and rebellious rock ’n’ roll, which loosened the shackles of youth culture. The women of the broader civil rights and black nationalist movements, like Odetta and Nina Simone, hold sway and never surrender; even Billie Holiday, often associated with a bygone generation, provides her “Strange Fruit” as a kind of template, a way to ignore simple plaintive sentiment and jazz-spiel in favor of concerns for justice and a probe of history, with all the pain intact. Sure, Richie Havens fused the bright light of folk music with percussive, dynamic playing, but the women, to me, carried the burdens even deeper.

Simone sung in French, borrowed songs from the hills of Appalachia, delved into Duke Ellington, and yelled god damn at the state of Mississippi; meanwhile, her children still wrestle with a world where black men are more likely to head to prison than college classrooms, women still make substantially less than male counterparts on the same job sites, and war is rampant from the drug-prone American borderlands to the insurgent-swept Middle East. One step forward, two steps back, I suppose. Still, Simone’s succor and vision, her sentiment and slyness, do not retreat, even today. The songs endure.

Sullivan makes readers aware of Simone's context, the tumult that became the daily bread of her songs, the strains and passions that netted up inside her and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Phranc, and Penelope Houston from the Avengers as well. High priestess of soul, Cree Indian song crafter, buzz-haired lesbian counterculture icon, and punk poet provocateur all merge into the story of how the trauma of the times rippled and shaped works of critical and creative depth, urgency and unction.

Sullivan certainly does not shortchange men, either. Though she may bypass long looks at Public Enemy and Bad Brains in favor of sketching the breadth of Spearhead/Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, the point is not to offer an all-inclusive, push-button reference book, but to examine the oft-overlooked underdogs whose work is powerful and challenging. On the way, she relays the affairs of Solomon Burke, the soul man who challenged the powers-that-be to consider different business strategies, like bolstering a sense of community rather than simply staking profits.

Furthermore, she aptly documents the concerns of Little Richard and James Brown to make popular music with bite, and use profits to steer hope and change; the efforts of Archie Schepp, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane to explore outside the box of comfy commercial jazz, to place inchoate art in the center of the revolution; the woozy many-colored hybrid otherness of Funkadelic; and the sincere visions of Stevie Wonder, who retained a sense of the wondrous. Even blaxploitation soundtracks and the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins find a meeting ground with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Phil Och’s sonorous lefty sentiments.

Sullivan’s book, fortunately, is wily, not winded. She does extend her reach and utilize an umbrella approach, but she never forces juxtapositions. She melds the time of assassinations and Weatherman anarchy with the time of Motown and Otis Redding with aplomb.

This was a time rife with ricocheting revolt, unmatched even in the days of punk, when CBGB's hardcore matinees commingled with beatbox rap and funk-punk Clash ran headlong into Sandinista agitprop, the revolution in Iran, and the blistering years of President Reagan. I may not be nostalgic for hippies, whom I was trained never to trust in the folklore of punk, but I do admire, and sentimentalize, a time when music existed not as mere commodity but an authentic and popular soundtrack to the streets.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.