The Black Power Movement in Song
The passive resistance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference characterized the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This movement won respect for the civil rights campaign and brought several de jure reforms for equality, but at the end of the 1960s, blacks found themselves in nearly the same de facto position as ever: penniless and victims of the prejudice of white government and business leaders. By the end of the decade, especially after the assassination of King in 1968, many blacks had joined the black power movement, whose leaders included Stokely Carmichael and Huey P. Newton, which called for greater racial consciousness and revolution against the establishment. The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron were members of this movement and contributed to it through their music. The songs “White Man’s Got a God Complex” and “Niggaz Are Scared of Revolution” by The Last Poets and “The Bottle” and “Winter in America” by Gil Scot-Heron call for consciousness, equality, and self-determination among blacks while pointing out individual obstacles to this freedom in the stark, realistic style that characterized the 1970s black power movement.
In “White Man’s Got a God Complex”, The Last Poets indict the white race for marveling in its technological advances while doing nothing to save blacks from decadence and despair. The song describes a black community that is buckling under its own weight in alcoholism, drug addiction, and crime. The whites tell the blacks to help themselves and turn their backs on this sociological decay. The Last Poets admonish whites to take a more active role in helping blacks achieve freedom.
The group shifts the blame to the black community in “Niggaz Are Scared of Revolution”. The song catalogs the black community’s obsession with white culture and says that while blacks are busy watching television, whites are stealing all their rights. The song charges that African-Americans are quite willing to thump their fists for black power but are afraid to enact the true change needed to create a functioning society. The Poets call for the black community to end its dependency on the soma of mass media and create its own culture and identity. “White Man’s Got a God Complex” and “Niggaz Are Scared of Revolution” give different scapegoats for the decay of black society, but both call for a revolution to improve the lives of blacks.
Gil Scott-Heron gives a more personal perspective of the crisis of black society in his song “The Bottle”. In it, he describes black families paralyzed by alcoholism. Though this song does not mention the revolution by name, it says that doom will come to black culture if it does not cast out its social demons.
In “Winter in America”, Scott-Heron says it is not just black families, but the entire nation that is in decay. It is a requiem for a United States of America which has lost the vivacity of its early days and is on the road to irrelevancy. Scott-Heron calls for renewed activism in America in order to save the lives of the entire population, not just blacks.
These songs by the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron give different reasons for the decline of black society, but all call for activism in order to bring about a changed and equitable America.