50-year-old Motown protest songs still relevant today
By Cary Darling, Staff Writer (San Antonio Express News)
June 4, 2020 Updated: June 5, 2020 7:14 a.m.
A group of demonstrators holding signs reading 'Union Justice Now', 'Honor King: End Racism!' and 'I Am A Man' march in protest soon after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis, TN, April 1968. (Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)
Many commentators have drawn parallels between the unrest that has rocked the U.S. in the last week with what occurred in the late ‘60s/early 70s when the combustible combo of anger over the societal mistreatment of black Americans, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War exploded like a molotov cocktail across the streets of America.
One big difference though is the soundtrack that accompanied it. A half-century ago — well before Spotify, Apple Music or even the Internet itself — commercial Top 40 radio reflected and compounded the changing mood in a way that’s unimaginable in our era of individualized playlists and niche-casting. Nowhere was this more true than at Motown whose slogan of youthful, unabashed optimism — “The Sound of Young America” — took on an undertone of defiance and dissent.
Goaded along by the artistic restlessness of many of his label’s key artists and producers who felt trapped by the sonic straitjacket of the classic early ‘60s Motown sound, Berry Gordy allowed his performers to dabble in social commentary and musical experimentation.
The results, often with a sharp message swaddled in a comfortable, radio-ready formula that could be played across middle America, remain some of the most stirring and commercially successful examples of pop meets protest all these years later. In a five-year span from 1969 to 1974, Motown turned out one classic after another that could be heard blasting from car radios to cafés.
Motown even briefly went deeper, launching the Black Forum subsidiary for poetry, speeches and music from the likes of Langston Hughes and Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. In fact, that label’s debut recording, a Martin Luther King speech called “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” won a spoken-word Grammy in 1971.
Here then are 11 of the notable Motown protest and social-commentary songs:
What's Going On, Marvin Gaye; Ball of Confusion, The Temptations; War, Edwin Starr
Living for the City, Stevie Wonder; Friendship Train, Gladys Knight and the Pips
I Should Be Proud, Martha and the Vandellas; Message from the Black Man, The Spinners; To Be Young Gifted and Black, Bob and Marcia; My People ... Hold On, Eddie Kendricks; Come On People, The Rustix