When The Movement Was Strong And Culture Was A Weapon – From Aretha to Beyonce
A 1970’s news article on Aretha Franklin’s (Aretha Franklin news article ) heroic gesture to pay bail for then recently arrested Angela Davis has been circulating on face-book. Aretha offered to pay bail stemming from the capture of Angela Davis in New York after a massive FBI woman hunt in 1970. Ms. Davis was charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy for allegedly supplying weapons for an attempted courtroom escape led by Jonathan Jackson to free his brother and revolutionary leader George Jackson. Angela Davis already well-known for her battles with then California Governor Ronald Reagan over her right to teach in California Universities after being identified as a communist sealed her image as a revolutionary icon in the Black movement. The article has caught the attention of many because of Aretha’s striking and unapologetic stance in offering bail towards Mr. Davis release. Aretha Franklin states:
“My Daddy (Detroit’s Rev. C.L. Franklin) says I don’t know what I ‘m doing. Well I respect him of course but I’m going to stick by my beliefs. Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in Communism, but because she is a Black woman and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people – they’ve made me financially able to have it – and I want to use it in ways that will help our people”
For context Aretha is speaking during a time in the early 1970’s when the dominant ideological current in the Black community had shifted from civil rights to Black Power. With all the inconsistencies related to the Black Power slogan it is clear that a critical mass of Black people during that time internalized it as statement of Black pride, activism within the community, standing up and forcefully challenging white supremacy over black lives and the contemplation of different forms of struggle and ideological beliefs within while attempting unity to the public. Broad concepts because it lacked the crystallization of an actual program to gain “freedom” but nonetheless during that time the idea of “Black Power” set the tone for community actions and collective responsibility.
Aretha of 1970 states she has “disturbed the peace and has been arrested”. She is hinting to a political arrest not one for drugs, shoplifting or for domestic violence, but for advocating for her people. Aretha Franklin was as big as it gets in terms of mainstream artist during that time in the Black community. She was not touting her donations to charity but her personal involvement and desire to be a part of the movement to free black people and in particular her solidarity with another Black woman.
What makes these statements even more note worthy is that Aretha was more a product of the times than a devout revolutionary artist. She was moved to her position by what was happening around her. Just as today’s pop figures/ artist are also not devout revolutionaries and are moved these days by anything but a movement. As time evolves you can see how in just one generation a figure like Muhammad Ali takes a stance against US military adventurism that costs him millions in personal wealth and prestige from the dominant power players to his daughter Laila’s promotion of US military adventurism in an upcoming television series that will probably earn her great sums. Times and context will mostly dictate this outcome and activist types should not waste much time in a critique of the vast majority of popular artist for not being “political” but instead movement people should be critiqued for hoping that popular figures/artist in today’s context will themselves be committed to community action.
The repression brought upon movement building in the late 1960s and 70’s is well documented. In addition corporate and government forces have continually gained insight on suppressing radical political movements. The playbook on shifting consciousness and controlling bodies works as valves to suppress another rise in movement building activity. The over indulgence in celebrity culture; increased criminalization of drug users; increased arrest and further criminalization of Black men; the stripping of access of working class jobs and government jobs from black people; the rise of non-profit models of changes; the mainstreaming and assimilation of black protest culture into democratic politics and the rise of the professional black pundit and moderate black democrat as community leaders; the monetization of the black church; and the explosion of consumer narcissism, just to name a few have all had their desired effects on demobilizing activist work.
Even in areas of recently allowable political activity we are now on the defensive as mainstream Black organizations are at work fighting to retain our voting rights. In addition many groups are so concerned about becoming the next “Acorn” (a group stripped of its funding and reputation) that they re-enforce the limited narrative on political struggle as one of voting for moderate corporate Black candidates. This leaves us in an ongoing battle without any strategy for forward action on resource development and community control. Any attempt to create a radical anti-capitalist nationalist type movement is suffocated by negative corporate media propaganda or complete lack of coverage. In addition we suffer from our own inability to work together, a lack of direction and insufficient models that encourage others to join.
Organizers sometimes themselves believe that the lack of movement building could be cured if popular figures/artist were more political . With some notable exceptions this will never be the case. Popular figures/artist are a great barometer of their times for certain aspects of culture, but not for creating political movements. Remember the 1980s were an upswing in political art mainly connected to hip-hop, but it did not turn into large scale mobilization. Debating the community involvement of figures like Beyonce or Jay-Z is just as useful to community building as debating who is the greatest rapper of all times (that would be Biggie by the way so why talk about it) or the best sports team. It’s fun but has nothing to do with movement building.
What Aretha’s statement in 1970 does say to us is that the possibilities of moving a critical mass is inclusive of popular figures/artist . Aretha’s comments show us that popular figures/artist like the rest of us can take bold inspiring steps, usually within the context of larger bolder inspiring actions. The Black community and the activist within can’t hope for short cuts if we want mobilization. Dismissing today’s popular figures/artist is the easy part, building the movement that shapes and begins to create popular cultural figures/artist to move people to action as opposed to supporting inertia is where the struggle is.