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The 1960s were a turbulent decade in the realm of political and racial tensions. A momentous time for the civil rights movement, African Americans were starting to become more integrated in society—given more rights with implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the right to vote through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and equal housing opportunities through the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. successfully led many nonviolent protests from the inception of the movement, but as African-Americans felt frustration from the little results produced by their actions, they were taken under the wing of Malcolm X, who believed that violence was the solution to change. King optimistically believed in inevitable and gradual change, while Malcolm X believed that no progress was being made and radical efforts must be conducted. Both of their movements were counter-hegemonic, fighting the ruling classes’ belief in white supremacy; however, their differences were reflected in their methods of fighting the dominant culture. After King was assassinated in 1968, the movement rejected ideas of negotiation and moved towards isolation. African-Americans fought for high taxes, more government regulation, affirmative action, and focused more on racial-economic issues such as schools, housing, and police brutality that affected the individual. These programs contrasted the beliefs of the “silent majority,” which embraced conservative populism and believed that government intervention “coddled” the poor and minority groups. These conservative populists eventually brought President Richard Nixon into office, who favored the middle class by reducing taxes, therefore reducing welfare programs and making minority housing worse.
Despite the control of the government at the hand of the white supremacists and upper middle class, African Americans still had more rights and privileges than before. All these legal enactments were a big leap in the right direction in creating a more equal America; however, the shift from civil rights to Black Power paralleled with the Vietnam anti-war movement created a chasm in the fight against the hegemonic ideology of white supremacy. The clash of race and foreign relations brewed a violent climate which was reflected in the continuous conflict between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Black casualty exceeded white casualty, creating more tension between blacks and whites, now overseas. The result of the civil rights movement did produce a slightly equivalent society with more opportunity for the black community, yet on the other hand, it failed to address all the perpetual societal and economic issues that African-Americans faced with the war, housing, and poverty.
Music is a rich indicator of the political, social, and religious climates in a period of time. It reflects the dominant and subordinate ideologies, and in the case of the 1960’s, it reflected the radical variety of politicfal and racial views of the country. A testament to the diversity of reactions to the civil rights movement, Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 song “Whitey on the Moon” and Nina Simone’s 1969 song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” were made popular in a time when not all African-Americans believed they had the same level of equality. Heron and Simone’s songs’ divergent perspectives about the outcome of the civil rights movement mirror the conflicting divide of ideologies between peaceful protest and the Black Power movement in order to revert subordination of the black community.
Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Whitey on the Moon,” released in 1970, portrays a bleak view on the outcome of the civil rights movement, and focuses on the contradiction of how white supremacy still holds the upper hand in the black communities’ racial and economic issues. This overall view of the movement for equality is shown in the formal elements on the song. Considered a pioneer of rap in his genre of R&B/Soul music, Heron’s style of song aligns with spoken word, making his words—rather than the music—more enunciated and significant; like a political statement, rather than a song. The passion of Heron’s feelings is heard through the anger, rage, and disappointment in his voice, as he appears to be weary of the obstacles he must overcome due to the color of his skin. Similarly, the lack of instruments in the background music in emphasizes the little effort he makes in glorifying the black condition. As Malcolm X’s following was built off the feeling of isolation that African-Americans felt, the simplicity and lack of accompaniment in the song aligns with his values. Lyrically, Heron’s repeated use of the word “whitey” parallels a white man’s use of “nigger,” in both its derogatory nature and it synonymous use in hateful slurs. A counter-hegemonic jab at both the pursuers of the civil rights movement and the white community, it highlights how African-Americans are suffering at the hands of white individuals, not only in America, but also overseas in war, influenced by historical exploitations as slavery and de jure segregation. An early form of rap, which is derived from the counterhegemonic nature of hip-hop, his song embodies Heron’s fight to challenge society. He highlights a very important contradiction in which white individuals are surpassing the requirements of a rudimentary life with advanced technology to send a space shuttle to the moon, whereas African-American individuals are not even able to gather basic necessities to stay alive, such as food, housing, and medical care, as he claims, “I can’t pay no doctor bills/ But Whitey’s on the moon” (Lines 5-6). His claims emphasize the failures of the purpose of the civil rights movement, which was to make blacks more equal members of society. Shown by African-American’s role in the army, although they are legally equal, they are socially unequal—put on the front lines to be killed first and not given many opportunities to succeed in life.
Contrastingly, Nina Simone’s 1970 counter-hegemonic song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” celebrates the black community and all that obstacles they have transgressed in order to reach the level of opportunity and equality. Unlike Heron’s song, which has few musical elements, Simone’s jazz song has an accompaniment of background singers and four instruments in her song, showing unity and strength in her voice and purpose. The pace of her song is in a slow, profound, and directed manner much like a hymn or a motivational speech, especially when singing the lines “To be young, gifted and black/Is where it’s at” (Lines 21-22). “Young, gifted, and black” are enunciated and paired with a beat so the central message of the song is apparent to her audience. Her song is similar in creed and tone to “We Shall Overcome,” the phrase and song of the civil rights movement made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as it references to the past but focuses on the power of progression. It reflects King’s ideology on unity, who believed in the strength of “nonviolent direct action on an enlarged scale” through black empowerment, not violence (King). She not only believes in the empowerment and progression of black people, but believes that the world should learn this message through a highly portable and shareable method—song. It serves as counter-hegemonic art, as it counters the idea that blacks are inferior socially and intellectually, and notions to the segregation and discrimination pushed upon by white supremacy, with lines such as “There are times when I look back/And I am haunted by my youth” (Lines 19-20). However, she challenges the prevalent feeling that blacks feel inferior by instead celebrating the role of blacks in the community and inserting King’s positive influence in the subliminal message of her words.
Both “Whitey on the Moon” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” embody emergent ideologies, as they challenge the dominant ideology of white supremacy that is embodied by the ruling class (Williams 123). However, within their roles are emergent ideologies in the same historical moment of the 1960’s, they are divergent. The ideologies within Gil Scott-Heron’s song can be considered residual—beliefs derived from archaic times in history—to the emergent ideologies of the black community because the idea of black inferiority stems from the 1500’s and is still an underlying conviction in America today. Residual ideologies continue to be pervasive throughout time even after society transforms its political, religious, and environmental beliefs (Williams 122). In this context, the idea that blacks are inferior is a prevalent and underlying part of society today, and is reflected in “Whitey on the Moon.” Contrastingly, Nina Simone’s song is solely an emergent ideology, as it completely disregards this residual ideology of black inferiority and instead focuses on the triumphant advancement of the black community to break through oppression. Just as Dr. King and Malcolm X had divergent beliefs of how to fight the hegemonic power in midst of the same movement, Simone and Heron have different interpretations on the results of the civil rights movement and the progression of the black community in those conditions.
The portable and shareable nature of song is what makes it so influential and reflective of the social climate in the 1960’s. Both Gil-Scott Heron and Nina Simone accurately depict the feelings of African-Americans by emphasizing the oppressive nature of the white middle class and the advantages they hold. More importantly, the discrepancy between two songs in the same time frame expresses how divided the black community was due to continued segregation caused by the Vietnam War and how the pervasive issue of black inferiority—which was previously subdued by major civil rights propaganda—was heightened in the late 1960’s by the presence of war and more opportunities for the ruling class to implement inequality. The power of song to relate current feelings to past events, such as the civil rights movement, is what makes it an effective tool of analysis when studying the sociohistorical context of the 1960’s.
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