Monday, June 14, 2010

Blaxploitation and The Negro Groove.

When it comes to soul music the name Isaac Hayes shows up on everyone’s radar (everyone in the know that is). Younger readers may remember him as the voice of Chef on TVs South Park. Hayes and his seminal work he did on the soundtrack for the cult blaxploitation film Shaft (1971) earned him an Academy Award and defined the voice of an era. He set the tone of subsequent films of the era; faint hints of Hayes can be heard in Solomon Burkes work in Cool Breeze and others of course.

About this time Hollywood begun to realise the existence of an emerging Black middle class in cities. They didn’t watch white movies (Gone With the Wind Anyone?) but they sure had money to spend. The black hero was born. A man that embodied all the hopes and dreams and aspirations of a people with no roots and no heroes. Their Man of Ebonite Steal! Similar things were done in Apartheid South Africa. Think a triumphant Black man returning to his roots (Bantustan) to the rejoicing of his people. He sheds the clothing of the oppressor and the film ends like an Yvonne Chakachaka video from the 80s. With booze.

Anyway the point is I love the Shaft Soundtrack. Tracks like Soulsville offer the first real urban narrative on the ghetto subculture (and the Black experience) that we now attribute to the more politically charged hip-hoppers like Nas and The Roots. The song is atypical of the era, brassy, a hypnotic guitar riff, the wailing of the backup singers and the husky baritone of Mr. Hayes as he dolefully proclaims You can never touch the sky coz your in Soulsville! Soulsville like Main Street in Anyplace America is where dreams were lost except in a differently. The Blacks had Soul and that was enough, the ghetto that idealised place of gangsters and liquor stores was the grave bed of aspirations, the cradle of drug culture, the crackpot of boiling debauchery and dysfunction and all that is wrong with Negro in America.

Every Sunday morning I can here the old sisters sing; Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, trust and praise the Lord!

The most poignant song penned down by Hayes who in the same album calls Shaft a Black sex machine. But maybe he didn’t strive to be political, or maybe he did so subversively, no matter the case Soulsville carries in it the dying hopes and dreams of a people in a way that Shaft never could, perhaps it boils down to authenticity and the years of experience that Hayes had when he penned down the lyrics. So here is a paradox, the stereotypical savagely powerful and sexually endowed Black Man fighting The Man and a Black Philosopher allegorically lampooning The Man on Main Street. A song for the masses without the Black Panther (esque) polemics of say James Brown.

Hayes voice drifts down as if from heaven and into the mind working his magic as the music slowly lures us into an unbearable and profoundly sad truth. The feelings of a generation; one man’s stereophonic Groove against The Man.

Black man, born free

At least that’s the way

It’s supposed to be.


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