A soundtrack to revolution?

Author:Ealham, Chris
Position:'The Last Holiday: A Memoir', 'Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop', 'Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 and 'Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974' - Sound recording review - Book review

Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday: A Memoir

Edinburgh: Canongate, 2012. ISBN: 978-0802129017.

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

Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-1556528170.

Pat Thomas, Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975

Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2012. (Soundtrack album Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974, Light In The Attic, LITA 081.) ISBN: 978-1606995075.

These studies highlight the centrality of music to African-American social memory and struggle. Indeed, from the first blues and jazz through to hip-hop, this most elementary form of collective expression became highly politicised in a context of enduring state repression, social exclusion and political disenfranchisement. In one way or another, these works also reflect the commercialisation, institutionalisation and domestication of street voices by hostile political and corporate forces. A case in hand is Curtis Mayfield's Keep On Pushing, the informal anthem of the Civil Rights Movement that was brashly appropriated by Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

The same song provides Denise Sullivan with the title of her ambitious study of black protest music. Despite the sub-title, by tackling folk, rock and punk, Sullivan bites off more than can be feasibly analysed in under 250 pages; for instance, there is no discussion of the overlap between punk and anarchism, so crucial for a generation of (albeit predominantly white) activists on both sides of the Atlantic. Equally, the treatment of hip-hop is rather thin. Ultimately, the core of this book assesses the 1960s counter-culture and the focus goes beyond African-American music; for instance, there is a fair amount of material on Bob Dylan and Native American Buffy Sainte-Marie, both of whom figure far more prominently than contemporary 'raptivists' Public Enemy, who have now notched up over twenty-five years of social criticism. Certainly, in the sense that Dylan was a hero for many of the Black Panthers, his inclusion is not unreasonable; however, this points to another set of problems: the absence of an overarching interpretive framework and, more specifically, the lack of analysis of the relationship between white and black protest music. This is a shame, for Sullivan has conducted some excellent research, including many valuable interviews; but ultimately the devil here is in the excessive detail, as the book stumbles...

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