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V/A - Listen, Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974

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Artist: V/A

Album: Listen, Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974

Label: Light in the Attic

Review date: Mar. 6, 2012

An angry directive that largely fell on deaf ears during its heyday, the phrase “Listen, Whitey!” projects a fair amount of humor today, especially when one considers how effectively the musical end of the spectrum accomplished the same goal often with invective intact. This relative disparity between speech and music is one of the guiding themes of a Light in the Attic’s collection covering a cross-section of afro-centric and civil rights-minded anthems. Compiler Pat Thomas breaks with convention, avoiding a predictably narrow focus of soul and funk cuts and opting instead for a more expansive purview that encompasses spoken word, folk, rock, and other genres in the mix.

The disc, an aural companion to Thomas’ recent tome of the same title, opens strong with an extremely rare two-part rap from the Shahid Quintet that combines cool jazz backing with a clever and comparatively even-handed treatise on black power dynamics only to be revealed at its close as a radio-ready recruiting ad for a mosque. The Watts Poets’ “Dem Niggers Ain’t Playing” covers similar thematic ground but artfully mixes caricature and conviction through its round-robin of recitations. An excerpt from Dick Gregory’s stand-up bit “Black Power” runs down the roots of inequality through color-specific semantics. Kain’s “I Ain’t Black” tries for a similar territory by combining bombastic freak rock with a shambolic repetition of the title phrase as self-reflexive mantra, but wears out its welcome well before its six-odd minutes expire.

Bob Dylan is present, both on the compilation cover (cradled in the hands of a shirtless Huey P. Newton) and in the rotation with his acoustic ode to fallen Panther George Jackson that, lyrics aside, sounds pretty much like every other dedicatory piece in his repertoire of the time. John & Yoko, in full-bloom hippie mode, pay colorful homage to Angela Davis. Roy Harper puts a British folk rock spin on the historical legacy of white supremacy. In each of these cases, the songwriters demonstrate just how well the messages of empowerment were at bridging racial and musical boundaries.

The Last Poets leave much less to interpretation in their voicing of amped-up animus “Die Nigga!!!,” and that sort of hyperventilating hyperbole ends up working as an abrasive dating agent on the song.

Similarly, Stokely Carmichael’s spoken polemic “Free Huey” has lost much of its mobilizing luster in the ensuing years. The ire and urgency that fuels his observations is palpable but ultimately undermined by the slew dubious connections and conflations he makes in planting blame at the doorstep of boogeyman Whitey. Eldridge Cleaver’s spoken-word “Tim Leary” is an even more arduous artifact; it finds the Panther leader rambling on about the reasons behind his falling out with the titular psychedelic guru.

Much better are the more universalist tracks like Elaine Brown’s gospel-inflected “Until We’re Free” and especially Marlena Shaw’s “Woman of the Ghetto” an unequivocal classic culled from ‘74 Live at Montreux LP ripe to bursting with a Rhodes and Fender driven groove. Gil Scott Heron’s “Winter in America,” rendered with just voice and Rhodes, works as a perfect companion piece, rich in vivid abstract imagery and pathos. Amiri Baraka’s “Who Will Survive America” gets a boost from the ace funk band at his flanks, but the painfully hip lyrics still come across as cut-rate Gil Scott by comparison.

Thomas is careful to distinguish his selections from contemporaneous Blaxploitation staples. Detailed annotations on each track go deep into explaining historical and cultural context. Mostly as enjoyable as it is edifying from start to finish, the program repeatedly underscores that without artistry of expression, associative anger and the demonizing of one’s enemy, however righteous, rarely lead to lasting empowerment for a person or a people.

By Derek Taylor

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