'Listen, Whitey!' book/CD looks back at Black Power music

Feb 27, 2012

There's a new book and CD that looks back at the potent soundtrack of the Black Power Movement. Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power, 1965-1975 (Fantagraphics) is the first book by Bay Area-transplant and Seattle author Pat Thomas.

"It's a book about how the music inspired the movement and the movement inspired the music," he said.

You can download a PDF of part of the book here.    

Thomas, a musician and music historian who's always been interested in the counterculture, got started with the project when he moved to Oakland about 10 years ago. Oakland was the birthplace of the Black Panther Party in 1966.

In an interview with KPLU-FM, Thomas said upon moving to Oakland he looked up former Black Panther party members, folks like David Hilliard who eventually introduced him to Elaine Brown.
  

"Her main legacy is the fact that she became the only woman to become chair of the party," he said.

"Elaine’s other legacy is that she recorded two albums, one in 1969 and the other in 1973. And what makes the '73 album so interesting is that it was released by Motown."

Brown's "Until We're Free" is included in the compilation CD produced by Light In The Attic Records.

In both the book and CD, Thomas chronicles a lost chapter in black music history: Motown's Black Forum label.

"After the death of Martin Luther King Jr., some employees went to (Motown's) Berry Gordy and said, 'Martin Luther King has been shot. The Black Panther party is out there and it's time for us to take a stand," Thomas said.

"Berry wasn’t going to mess up his formula with The Supremes and The Temptations and turn them into black militants. But what he did do is he allowed a few employees to start their own label within his company."

The Black Forum label released speeches by Stokely Carmichael and King; spoken word by Langston Hughes; music by Brown; and interviews with black soldiers fighting in Vietnam.

But the records remained largely underground, Thomas explained, because while they had Motown backing, music distributors were not interested in the material.

"At the end of the day, that was the main thing that killed off this label. They couldn't get the records into the stores," says Thomas, who interviewed a former Motown company employee as part of his research.

Thomas spent years on the project and trolled the Internet to obtain obscure recordings from the period.
His book looks at how popular music and culture intersected with the more political material -- how "The Partridge Family" TV show, for example, in an early episode once paid homage to the Black Panthers.

And how the famous photo of Black Panther Huey Newtown, sitting in a wicker chair holding a spear in one hand and a gun in the other, has been mimicked by rappers.

But it's the CD that transports you back to the era: the jazzy grooves of a song called "Invitation to Black Power" by the Shahid Quintet;the fiery Carmichael in a 1967 speech given in Oakland on behalf of Huey Newtown; and the impassioned voice of poet Amiri Baraka.

Baraka's "Who Will Survive America?" is included in the compilation CD.

While Thomas says most of the people he reached out for the project were supportive, Baraka refused to be interviewed.

"Amiri is a man of very words and when it comes to speaking to white journalists, he has less than few words," Thomas said.

Baraka was resistent to even giving Thomas the rights to one of his songs until Thomas, working through a middleman, got the permission.

Thomas says he deliberately included a range of obscure material on the CD, from stuff that's "soft and fuzzy" (the Brown song, for example) to other more provocative songs that "might even turn some people off."

"At the end of the day, to evoke racial change, to really make a different it's not about being warm and fuzzy," he said. "It's about being confrontational. That's what the Black Panthers taught me. 'We needed to step up to the plate. Running around and giving out kisses and hugs wasn't going to change anything.' So I wanted to include some songs that reflected that message of 'Hey, Listen Whitey! This is how we feel.'"

Author Pat Thomas will discuss his book at 7  p.m. March 1 at Washington Hall, 153 14th Ave. in Seattle. For more information about the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas event go here.