Song of the Week – Music in Blaxpliotation Films

Ignored           Obscured            Restored

In the early ‘70s, a film genre called Blaxploitation emerged.  Wikipedia explains:

The films produced in the 1970s were generally considered a form of exploitation because non-black producers, writers, and directors sought to tell Black stories, and to sell these potentially inauthentic stories to Black audiences. The films, while popular, suffered backlash for disproportionate numbers of stereotypical film characters showing bad or questionable motives, including most roles as criminals resisting arrest.

That’s not the whole story.  There was indeed some backlash from those that objected to the criminal stereotypes of many African Americans in the films.  In fact, BANG (Blacks Against Narcotic Genocide) picketed theaters that were screening the film Superfly, even though it was the first Blaxploitation film to be fully financed by black producers.

But many moviegoers from the African American community welcomed seeing black actors in roles that portrayed strong, assertive (male and female) characters like Shaft (Richard Roundtree) and Foxy Brown (Pam Grier).

But one thing that most of the Blaxploitation films had was excellent soundtracks!

The most popular was the Isaac Hayes “Theme from Shaft.”

“Theme from Shaft” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of 1971.  The next year the song took home the Oscar for Best Original Score – making Hayes the first African American to win the award.

Listeners are immediately drawn in by the drum intro of sixteenth notes played on the hi-hat, followed by that funky wah-wah guitar.  And who could forget the line:

You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother (Shut your mouth)

Curtis Mayfield, no stranger to political message songs, put together a masterpiece for the soundtrack to Superfly in 1972.  The best song on the album is “Pusherman.”

“Pusherman” is interesting because the lyrics could be construed as glorifying the role of inner-city drug dealers.  But knowing Mayfield and his politics, he was more likely attempting to show how being a pusher may often be the only way out of poverty for blacks, who wanted to provide for their families, when living in the ghetto in the ‘70s.

I’m your mama, I’m your daddy

I’m that ni**er, in the alley

I’m your doctor when in need

Want some coke? Have some weed

The “Godfather of Soul” wouldn’t miss out on a chance to take part in this trend.  He contributed a great work – the soundtrack to Black Caesar (1973).  My choice from this soundtrack is the melodramatic ballad “Mama”s Dead.”

In the movie, this song plays as lead character Tommy Gibbs mourns the death of his mother.  Brown’s heartfelt vocal nails the emotional heft of the scene.

Mama’s dead, never again would she hold my hand

Never again to hear her call my name

But now she’s gone, her troubles are over, the pain is gone
I wish, I had made her proud to call me son

All of these soundtracks (and many others) deserve to be heard all the way through.  Give them a try!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Billy Jack & So in Love, Curtis Mayfield

Ignored           Obscured            Restored

February 28th brought Black History Month 2019 to a close.  Perhaps it was fitting that last Sunday’s Academy Awards were amongst the most diverse ever witnessed.  Oscar nominations and winners in many categories included films focused on African American casts/themes such as Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, and If Beale Street Could Talk.  And in a surprise to most, Green Book walked away with the award for Best Picture.

This is progress, though still more needs to be done before we achieve a truly color-blind society.

This subject caused me to reflect on the work of Curtis Mayfield, a pioneer in writing and recording songs that reflected the condition of Blacks in the US.  Long before Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On, “Inner City Blues”) or Stevie Wonder (“Living for the City”) were laying it out there, Mayfield was releasing gospel-tinged, message songs like “Keep on Pushing” (1964), “People Get Ready” (1965), “We’re a Winner” (1968), “Choice of Colors” (1969), and “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” (1970).  Some of these may have even inspired James Brown to become more politically strident with songs like “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968).

I was tempted to select a song from Mayfield’s soundtrack to Super Fly, in keeping with the Academy Awards theme.  But instead, I’ve chosen something you’re less likely to have heard, in keeping with the black history/political songs (and SotW) themes.

The consistency of Mayfield’s catalog is impeccable.  Despite the steady quality of his releases, shortly after the success of Super Fly, his already modest audience began to wane.

In 1975, Mayfield released the terrific There’s No Place Like America Today.  Even before you get to the music, the album cover conveys that you are about to hear something special.  It is a variation on a famous photograph taken by Margaret Bourke-White called “At the Time of the Louisville Flood.”

Mayfield’s team colorized it and changed the wording to fit his album.  But the1937 image still suited the status of Blacks in 1975 (and may still be relevant today).

There’s No Place Like America Today is a slow burn.  This album is a single malt Scotch, nightcap – not a Cosmopolitan.  It moves at a pace that reminds me of Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (though it’s not similarly as druggy or dark).

My first SotW is “Billy Jack,” the album’s lead track.

This is a funk workout with effective use of congas and a stellar horn arrangement.  There’s a lot going on and a lot to like on this track.  The lyrics deal with the issue of gun violence in the ghetto (another situation that remains as common today as it was in ’75):

There can’t be no fun, can’t be no fun
To be shot, shot with a handgun
Your body sprawled out, you without a doubt
Running people out, there on the floor

Sad bloody mess
Shot all up in his chest, shot in his chest
One-sided duel, gun and a fool, ah
What a way to go

As a change of pace, the next SotW is “So in Love.”

This song departs from the social commentary of the rest of the album’s selections.  It is a simple love song – nothing more, nothing less – sung in Mayfield’s gentle falsetto that must have influenced scores of soul singers, from Al Green to Prince, and beyond.  It too has a fantastic horn arrangement and was Mayfield’s last release to manage to reach the pop chart (#67) in the US.

The choice of Green Book as the Oscar winner for Best Picture has generated quite a bit of controversy.  One of the most consistent complaints was that it followed the formula for “white savior” films.  Personally, I don’t see it that way (though admittedly from a white guy’s POV).  To me, it was a story of two people who started out from different worlds and grew to know and respect the others’.  Curtis Mayfield once said:

“Segregation will only end when people get to know the people they think they hate.  To start to know somebody is to respect them.”

That’s the message I heard!

Enjoy… until next week.