Politically, Listen Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power is a powerful reminder of our ugly and not-so-distant past but also that the American Civil Rights movement was one that relied on a multitude of crucial figures, not just the names that get bandied about every February. Musically, the album recalls a time when some of the most radical, intelligent and courageous musicians and activists in the country were elevated to iconic status in popular culture. Somewhere along the way, things done changed.
This is far from a slapdash collection of well-known protest songs. On the contrary, archivist Pat Thomas painstakingly assembled the pieces of this puzzle. Along the way he “befriended key leaders of the seminal Black Power Movement, dug through Huey Newton’s archives at Stanford University, spent countless hours and thousands of dollars on eBay, and talked to rank and file Black Panther Party members, uncovering dozens of obscure albums, singles, and stray tapes.” The effort was not in vain. Some of these recordings have never been released on CD before, while others recall obscure samples from the golden-era of hip-hop whose origins may have been mysteries to many listeners until now.
The record opens with the Shahid Quintet’s “Invitation to Black Power (Parts 1 & 2). The Kansas City group epitomizes the subversive lyricism that caught the ears of those on both sides of the color line. The group’s Shabazz brothers put forth a message of non-violent revolt, asking listeners to consider their tactics. “Sticks and stones and kerosene / coke bottles filled with gasoline / bricks and bats and bicycle chains / with tools like these, what could you possibly hope to gain?”
Another jewel is the out-of-print Bob Dylan single “George Jackson,” recorded only days after the eponymous political prisoner was mudered by a guard at California’s Soledad Prison in 1970. (For those unfamiliar with Jackson’s story, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson is a must-read.) As far as Dylan’s recounting goes, it’s about as visceral as a man-and-his-guitar performance gets. It also highlights how Dylan fit into the Civil Rights movement. Sure, any biographical piece on Dylan, (and there are many), will point out his involvement in the Movement, but hearing him alongside the likes of the Watts Prophets, the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and Eldridge Cleaver illustrates just how natural his involvement must have been at the time.
The Watts Prophets embody the power of the spoken word on “Dem Niggers Ain’t Playin'” – an incendiary diatribe that brings forth the charisma and brilliance behind the anger of the era. By transcending race and stepping into the role of the white person, this performance artfully reminds listeners of their common humanity in the fight for equal rights, while simultaneously sounding the warning bell.
As a package, Listen Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power is a wealth of information. With a full-color booklet that offers a breakdown of each track’s origins, importance to the movement, and other pertinent information, the album takes on the form of a comprehensive history lesson. What’s more, this package is only the soundtrack to a full-length book by Pat Thomas entitled Listen Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 (Fantagraphics, 2012). The whole package comprises a stellar document that provides countless insights into the reality of the Black Power movement. Indeed, every utterance on the album is packed full of meaning. Listeners will surely be left gleaning new insights from this collection after every rotation.