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Black Enough for You

A compilation makes history, and fiction, of the black power movement's greatest hits

Huey P. Newton's voice is high, clear, unhesitating, and authoritative. His sampled speech lasts 27 seconds, applause included.

"The Black Panther Party calls for freedom, the power to determine our destiny. The Black Panther Party calls for full employment for all our people. The Black Panther Party calls for an end to the capitalistic exploitation of our community. The Black Panther Party calls for decent housing for all people. The Black Panther Party calls for an educational system that will tell us the true facts about this decadent society."

Then comes another clear, high voice, also authoritative, but with hesitation built into its sense of rhythm. Marvin Gaye's "You're the Man" went No. 7 r&b in 1972 but flopped pop, and I'd never registered it before: "Don't give us no peace sign/Turn around and rob the people blind/Economics is the issue/Do you have a plan with you?" Two parts, six minutes, immediately intensified by a forgotten r&b No. 4 from 1977: the Philadelphia International All Stars' impeccably forward-moving "Let's Clean Up the Ghetto," which--without casting aspersions on striking sanitation workers or rats hustling chow--advocates preemptive garbage removal that will also "make the streets safe for women to walk." Capped by a few seconds of Kathleen Cleaver, these two rediscoveries provide Shout! Factory's Black Power: Music of a Revolution with a liftoff that keeps on pushing through two CDs.

The selections and segues are by 38-year-old Jonathan S. Fine, who as it turns out also fabricated two less noble compilation-worlds I've fallen for: K-Tel's bouncing, rocking, skating Roller Disco, and Robbins Music's porn-lite Strip Jointz. Good songs make such projects, of course, but so do sequencing and framing. "You're the Man" gets lost on the German Trikont label's patchier two-volume 2003 Black & Proud, which also resuscitates the three message-laden nonhits--Segments of Time's "Song to the System," Sons of Slum's "Right On," and S.O.U.L.'s "Tell It Like It Is"--that follow Cleaver in Fine's version. All three signify more powerfully here, in part because they're picked up by Earth, Wind & Fire's "Mighty Mighty," where Maurice White's air pudding gains force and gravity from his intricate part writing and unerring beat. Then two more striking semi-obscurities--the secular skepticism of Les McCann & Eddie Harris spun around by the gospel activism of the Soul Children--lead into an inspired run of four speech squibs and five songs, the latter a representative mix of totemic, memorable, and strange. Only the strange one--Hank Ballard's James Brown-powered "Blackenized"--shows up on Trikont.

Black Power's second disc begins with actual "music of a revolution"--Last Poets and Watts Prophets as well as Gil Scott-Heron's inevitable "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." But quickly defiance turns questioning (Billy Paul's "Am I Black Enough for You?") and beleaguered (Eddie Kendricks's "My People . . . Hold On"), then retreats into William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful for What You Got" and a succession of anthemic closers longer on advice than program, including "Express Yourself," "Respect Yourself," and McFadden & Whitehead's climactic "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," theme song of the 1978 Philadelphia Phillies until they lost the playoffs to L.A. The set adds up to a convincing portrait of a world Fine is neither old enough nor, as Billy Paul might note, black enough to have experienced firsthand. It's an exciting world where political ferment fed both into and off musical expression, where speeches became songs and left-wing agitators raised artists' consciousness by cultural osmosis, and I'm glad it exists. But it's no less a fiction than the neurotic erotica David Toop conjured from slightly later r&b on his Sugar and Poison comp--or for that matter than the Subtle Distinctions, the not-for-sale '70s soundtrack Jonathan Lethem pieced together to buttress The Fortress of Solitude.

The undated speeches all appear to be from the deep '60s--Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, H. Rap Brown equated violence and cherry pie in 1966, etc. The 29 songs, on the other hand, are mostly '70s--just six from 1969, and only Kim Weston's solid if not stolid gospel revival of James Weldon Johnson's 1900 "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" recorded earlier. Typically, Weston's track didn't break (to No. 50 r&b) until 1970, when the '60s were over but nobody knew it yet. Although protest had hit a wall and real income was commencing a disastrous slide, rhetoric continued to heat up, in culture at least as much as politics. Fine includes the loose-limbed live solo version of the Impressions' 1968 "We're a Winner" (No. 1 r&b, only No. 14 pop), recorded in 1971, where Curtis Mayfield recalls incredulously that three years before some stations had denied airplay to what is now remembered as the civil rights movement's greatest hit. This was the era when the Chi-Lites got to "Have You Seen Her" via "(For God's Sakes) Give More Power to the People," when labels signed S.O.U.L. and Sons of Slum, when the Wattstax movie and album that generated Fine's Soul Children cut made black-owned Stax look like a million bucks as it spent itself broke. For a few years, even after the McGovern debacle, progressivism was a strain of conventional wisdom. But like the dream of determining your own destiny, that didn't last.

These nuances emerge from Black Power only if you know where to look. Fine senses them, else he wouldn't have proceeded from revolutionary poetry to inspirational generalizations, and he's savvier historically than the Maoists manqué at Trikont, who cite "Blackenized" as evidence of Hank Ballard's radicalization when it mostly proved he'd do any damn thing for a hit. But Fine's strictly educational goals are modest: "I hope a young person who's into hip hop and has heard these names will want to learn more about them," he says, meaning the Panthers et al., not Syl Johnson waxing cultural. The Panthers didn't know as many true facts about this decadent society as they thought. But they knew more than the average thugarooney, and if Fine's fiction generates a few wannabe politicos, good. If it doesn't, well, it's still every bit as wild a theme-park ride as Strip Jointz.

Village Voice, July 20, 2004