Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop

Denise Sullivan

Joining authentic voices with a bittersweet narrative covering more than 50 years of fighting oppression through song, Keep On Pushing defines the soundtrack to revolution and the price the artists paid to create it.

The New Sound in Jazz

Right round the time Odetta threw down the hot comb and picked up the guitar, alto saxman Ornette Coleman was saying with his horn what words could not describe. Fusing blues and jazz to African forms, he began the work that would prepare the way for his albums Something Else!!!! The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, expressions of the new sound in jazz. His experiments were dubbed free jazz, and its angular horn squonks and unorthodox rhythms easily fit with the stirrings of pride and power bubbling beneath the surface of the fight for civil rights. Coleman’s music wasn’t easy; his transposed notes and unorthodox harmonies voiced frustration, despair, elation, beauty, and tears, as well as sheer rage. He avoided ideology, but his music unleashed an energy that could be heard by those tuned into its message. And like liberation itself, his experiments in avant-garde and free jazz were met with resistance by the establishment. Recalling the poverty and racism of his Forth Worth, Texas, upbringing, Coleman was inspired to join the fight in which his jazz forebears Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk had landed their own blows to racism. They had also been victimized by it. On a break from his set at Birdland in 1959, Miles Davis escorted a white woman to her taxicab. While enjoying a cigarette before his next set, he was asked to “move along” by the beat cop. After refusing the officer’s request, he was beaten, arrested, and hospitalized, and his cabaret license was revoked.

Making more overtly political music and linking up the music directly with politics seemed to be the path toward achieving greater liberty.
Surviving harassment, crossing color lines, resisting authority, forging new areas of sound with the invention of bebop, and moving jazz from nightclub entertainment into realms of high art was the work of these past masters and key players in jazz’s liberation. As with Coleman, the jazz forerunners had left their impression on musician and playwright Archie Shepp, who from an early age was inspired by the possibilities jazz offered a young black man. “As a younger man, being exposed to modern music—black music—was really quite important to me, in the forming of my identity, in the forming of my goals,” he says. Shepp’s music-loving family—his father was a blues fan and his grandfather a banjo player—moved from Florida to Philadelphia in the early 1940s. Shepp also played the banjo, but the sound of Jimmy McGriff’s alto sax floating through the neighborhood inspired him to switch instruments. “Even giving the blues all its due, people like Parker and Gillespie, Monk, actually provided younger black people with another image of themselves. They were really role models for me; they gave me somewhere to go.”

The Freedom Suites

Two albums credited for fusing the politics of black liberation with the new sound are Sonny Rollins’s Freedom Suite—the first experiment—and Max Roach’s Freedom Now—the fulfillment of the form. Freedom Suite, the 1958 album on which saxophonist Rollins was accompanied by bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach, was the first to take a giant step toward political-musical fusion. Its first track, “The Freedom Suite,” was an original piece by Rollins, partially composed of standards and characterized by changing tempos and variations on improvised themes. The nearly twenty-minute song was the first jazz instrumental to claim social issues as its inspiration. “America is deeply rooted in Negro culture, its colloquialisms, its humor, its music. How ironic that the Negro who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own is being persecuted and repressed. That the Negro who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence is being rewarded with inhumanity,” proclaimed Rollins in the album’s original sleeve notes.

Roach’s album, which followed in 1960, its complete title We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite was larger in scope. The work was conceived as a performance piece to coincide with the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, and freedom was its through line, right down to the cover art featuring three African American men at a lunch counter with a white waiter on standby. The intense project, with lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr. and vocals by Abbey Lincoln, captured the sound of exploitation, degradation, and, ultimately, freedom. The album made a radical statement—politically as well as sonically—and is a cornerstone recording in the history of contemporary black liberation music. Making a link between the oppression of blacks throughout the world, Roach and other politically motivated American artists like Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone were seeking to parallel the civil rights movement in the United States with the unfolding liberation of Kenya, Ghana, Congo, and Algeria. The year 1960 was dubbed the Year of Africa, and independence from France, Britain, and Belgium signaled hope that human rights, dignity, and economic health would be restored throughout the continent.

In South Africa, apartheid was still many years away from resolution, and music played a significant role in the struggle. Merging regional music and church music, South African musicians had established a tradition of freedom singing in the forties; the movement gained momentum as singers took their music and their cause to world stages.

Inspired by the political works of singer-activist Paul Robeson, Belafonte reached out to foster a cross-cultural alliance with South African artists like singer Miriam Makeba and trumpeter and composer Hugh Masekela. On the Greenwich Village music scene, Belafonte had familiarized himself with traditional folk songs. In 1956 he had released Calypso, which later sold millions. By no means an easy-listening experience, calypso is a potent form of anti-imperialist expression, a fact that is often concealed by its breezy steel drum sounds. The actor and singer who popularized “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” would, like fellow calypso artists Maya Angelou and Louis Farrakhan, successfully cross to another stage. Belafonte’s entertainment career was ultimately eclipsed by his humanitarian efforts. He financed civil rights movement activities, helped organize the March on Washington, and was a confidant of Dr. King. Belafonte supported the work of world-class players like Masekela and Makeba, introducing the South African musicians to his American audiences. The musicians in turn introduced him to the breadth and depth of Africa’s music. As a member of the Jazz Epistles featuring Dollar Brand (also known as Abdullah Ibrahaim), Masekela traveled the globe, leaving South Africa shortly after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.

Mama Africa, as Makeba was known, also toured the world. In 1960, as she attempted to return to Africa for her mother’s funeral, she found her passport had been revoked. It was during this period of exile that Makeba and Nina Simone struck up a friendship that would last their lifetimes.


Just as the groundbreakers before them had, Coleman and Shepp encountered obstacles and extreme reactions as their work hovered in the outer reaches of so-called acceptable musical society. But the music was finding an audience with the tuned-in, hip, intellectual crowd, and people who could hear and appreciate free jazz as the new art form that it was—the musical equivalent to abstract expressionism and the Beat movement. As a horn player, Shepp grew up searching for John Coltrane in Philadelphia, though instead he found Cecil Taylor in New York City. After studying theater at Goddard College, he arrived on the scene at the end of 1959 when a chance meeting on the street with avant-garde pianist Taylor landed him his first professional recording date and a stint with Taylor’s band.

“Cecil opened up a number of doors for me intellectually—made me understand that music is an intelligent pursuit, not one that’s dominated by people that couldn’t do anything else,” Shepp says. “He dropped that on me quite clearly since he was so much more brilliant academically than people I knew who thought they were pretty smart!”

Inspired by “the new thing,” John Coltrane explored the new languages and landscapes being forged by Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, and others experimenting with breaking free of old codes, though the new thing wasn’t entirely popular with his existing audience.

“The established jazz people called John Coltrane anti-jazz and hated the fact that the musicians were experimental and trying to change forms,” explains John Sinclair, a writer, poet, and music fanatic who soaked in the new jazz sounds. As a freelance contributor to the jazz journal Downbeat and music editor and columnist at the Fifth Estate, Detroit’s underground paper, “I was among about four people in America who had a good opinion of it and started to write about it. There was another white guy and the black guys A. B. Spellman and LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka].

“The jazz cats were all here first, at great risk to themselves and their career and with no possible benefit that you could have as jazz artists,” says Sinclair.

“This recent music is significant of more ‘radical’ changes and reevaluations of social and emotional attitudes toward the general environment,” wrote Amiri Baraka of Coleman, Taylor, Coltrane, and the explosion in jazz. “But I cannot think that the music itself is a more radical, or any more illogical extension of the kinetic philosophy that has informed Negro music since its inception in America. Negro music is always radical in the context of formal American culture,” Baraka said in Blues People, his classic book on black sounds. Making more overtly political music and linking up the music directly with politics seemed to be the path toward achieving greater liberty. From the sustenance hymns of slaves, to bop, and now in avant-garde, African American musical output kicked against the pricks, and the effort yielded varying degrees of freedom as well as suffering.

Starting in the mid-fifties, jazz players served as cultural ambassadors and public relations tools as part of a US government program to export American culture overseas at the height of the Cold War. Confronting the inevitable questions on US race relations and desegregation, the presence of bandleaders Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie outside of the United States essentially backfired when everyone was forced to admit that the jazz musicians, some of America’s greatest cultural exports, weren’t exactly handled like national treasures at home, a point reinforced by the early 1960s reports of racial hatred on southern soil. The bandleaders were forthright about their experiences, and the music did the rest of the talking, whether traditional, bebop, or avant-garde. The very invention of jazz was liberation, and playing it was a statement, a creative expression of something entirely new. Not only did jazz serve as a device to throw off the European classical tradition on which it was partially based, it became a showcase for African melodic roots and its contributing influence on the music of the American south. It was beboppers who noted the connection first, finding kinship between their highly disciplined form and that of the ancients. While performing with a traditional dancer, a cast of Afro-Cuban drummers, and Max Roach at an African cultural event, “Charlie Parker and I found the connections between Afro-Cuban and African music and discovered the identity of our music with theirs,” writes Gillespie. “The music proclaimed our identity. It made every statement we wanted to make.”

Post-bop modern jazz was associated with other modes of expression, such as painting and poetry, and other regional music, specifically that of India and the Far East. The study of religion and philosophy became a part of jazz discovery. Distancing themselves from Western religious practice and seeking sanctuary from racism, jazz artists found the road to enlightenment by developing an interest in Islam or converting to one of its branches.

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