When Motown Went to War… Against War
Soul music, protest & Nikki Giovanni
During the Vietnam conflict, soul music accompanied both the anti-war movement and the overlapping struggle for black civil rights. Many R&B and soul musicians abandoned their traditional subjects—love and heartbreak—and replaced them … with protest.
They transformed the genre over the objections of some music executives. “Someone like Marvin [Gaye], when he recorded What’s Going On, wouldn’t stop until he made Barry [Gordy] release it,” civil rights activist and poet Nikki Giovanni tells War is Boring.
Gordy founded Motown Records in 1959. For a long time, it was the premier label for black recording artists like Gaye and Stevie Wonder. In the early years, people knew the label mostly for its pop records. As the conflict in Southeast Asia wore on through the late 1960s, Motown captured—and even propelled—deepening anti-war feelings.
Rage over the war flowed into the ongoing civil rights movement. They began to fuel each other. Black leaders like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown “recognized that the war was a distraction to us,” says Giovanni, pictured below.
Filmmaker David Loeb Weiss expressed the black protest most strongly in his 1968 documentary No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger. He took the provocative title from boxer Muhammad Ali’s famous explanation for his refusal to join the Army during Vietnam.
And in the ’70s, Motown got really political. “Motown became more militant,” Giovanni recalls.
Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On was the soundtrack for the black civil rights movement and the anti-war crowd. Wonder also spoke out against the war and inequality in his 1972 album Music In My Mind and Songs in the Key of Life from 1976.
Gaye and Wonder joined a chorus of activists wondering aloud why black men were dying for a country that didn’t even see them as equals.
“You can hear the beats in the music change,” Giovanni explains. “Stuff like Edwin Star doing ‘War (What Is It Good For?)’ Even people like the Temptations and The Beatles all had a sound that changed.”
Giovanni herself began to speak out against the conflict in her work. Her spoken-word albums incorporated drum and bass that subtly echoed the Motown sound. But her message was overt.
In her poem From a Logical Point of View, she reflects:
I mean it’s only natural that if water seeks its own level/The honkie would not bother with Vietnam/It’s unworthy of him/’Cause they are not ready/for the revolutionary advanced technology/that America is trying to put on them/and nothing is worse/than a dream deferred
The energy of the protest music still lingers. You can hear it in today’s hip-hop, with its frequent sampling of old funk and soul music. “Same as with jazz, blues, spoken word, hip-hop is now the music for protest,” Giovanni says.
The veteran poet says she’s grateful that mainstream institutions have embraced hip-hop. She cites Harvard University’s new Hip-Hop Archive & Research Institute. “I think that’s wonderful,” Giovanni says of Harvard’s initiative.
“But hip-hop shouldn’t be seduced,” she adds. “The music was how we would protest the war, saying we know something’s wrong and we’re not powerless.”