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Civil rights, soul music

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Issue 1678

In my view

Civil rights, soul music

By Martin Smith

CURTIS MAYFIELD, the black soul singer, died on Boxing Day. He produced some of the most inspiring music of the last 30 years. Songs like “Move On Up” and “Keep On Pushing” became rallying cries for Martin Luther King and the US civil rights movement.

Like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield began his musical career as a gospel singer. But in the search for commercial success he turned towards secular soul music. In 1958 he helped form the Chicago-based band The Impressions. Inspired by folk singer Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield pushed the band towards making overtly political music.

In June 1964, just as the Civil Rights Act passed into law and the Freedom Summer gathered momentum, The Impressions’ hit song “Keep On Pushing” captured the mood. According to Bob Moses, a leading civil rights activist, the song was sung as the students marched to jail. Throughout the 1960s The Impressions produced songs like “People Get Ready” and “We’re A Winner”. All of them celebrated black pride and became anthems for the civil rights struggle.

When he was asked by the NME music paper in 1966 to comment on why his music was full of political references, he said, “My job is to educate as well as entertain.” The Impressions got involved in the struggles they sang about. They organised benefit concerts for Martin Luther King and played at anti Vietnam War demonstrations.

In 1970 Curtis Mayfield went solo. The album most people associate with Curtis Mayfield is his 1972 film soundtrack Super Fly. It was one of a number of “blaxploitation” action movies of the time. Many of those films showed the harsh realities of life for working class black Americans, but they were also full of sexist rubbish.

The soundtrack made Mayfield a small fortune. Despite this success he refused to bow to commercial pressures. He turned down several lucrative offers to write and produce songs for more mainstream artists. Instead he continued to produce albums condemning the US government and argued that it was time to launch a new civil rights movement against racism.

During the 1980s Mayfield’s musical output dwindled. But in 1987 he sang with the British band The Blow Monkeys. The track, “Celebrate The Day After You”, was banned by the BBC because it was a political attack on Thatcher. In 1990 he played a benefit concert highlighting bad housing in Brooklyn, New York City. Tragically a lighting rig collapsed and fell on him. He was left a paraplegic. Undeterred, he recorded the critically acclaimed album New World Order. Because of his poor health he had to record the album one line at a time.

It would be wrong to see Curtis Mayfield as just a political songwriter. He could perform a love song to match any of the best soul singers. But his determination to release an album like New World Order with its uncompromising stand against injustice sums up the qualities that made him an inspiration. When asked to comment about the changes he witnessed during his life he said, “To talk about the 1960s almost brings tears to my eyes. We changed the world. Barriers broke down for us. I mean, to have lived through that and to have been part of that is more than anyone can ask.”

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