The First Songs of the American Revolution
On a January evening in 1969, members of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) congregated in Los Angeles to mourn comrades Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins, two UCLA students who had just been shot and killed on the campus during an altercation with black nationalist group US (aka Organization Us). The gathering was an extension of the funeral service held earlier that day, the gravity of which was punctuated by Elaine Brown’s performance of Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey’s gospel song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” David Hilliard (BPP chief of staff at the time) had already heard from Ray “Masai” Hewitt (Panther leader and minister of education) that Brown wrote her own revolutionary songs and was determined to hear them before heading back to Oakland. He had a piano brought in and asked everyone to gather around. Brown sang songs dedicated to Party members, including “The Panther” (in memory of Frank “Franco” Diggs), “The Meeting” (for Eldridge Cleaver), and “Assassination” (written for Bunchy and John during her incarceration at Sybil Brand Institute). By the end of the evening, Hilliard declared “The Meeting” as the Black Panther Party’s official anthem, which was to be memorized by all members. Brown was then ordered to record an entire album of her songs.
These were the events surrounding the genesis of Elaine Brown’s first album, Seize the Time. Through its images, lyrics, and music, it negotiates relationships between masculine and feminine strength, violent and non-violent resistance, personal and collective action, and past and future challenges. Even more, its reception provides an opportunity to evaluate the racial assumptions that mediate how we listen to the album that The Black Panther newspaper called “the first songs of the American revolution.”
Illustrated by BPP minister of culture Emory Douglas, the album’s striking front cover conveys the Party’s embrace of militaristic methods, investment in black youth, and status of the composer herself, who would go on to chair the Party from 1974 to 1977. A black figure, dressed in a purple jacket and holding a Soviet-made AK-47 (possibly a symbol of solidarity with the North Vietnamese), dominates the space. The fingers that grip the assault rifle’s lower handguard are painted purple, projecting a tone of feminine strength, and Brown’s authorial role is made explicit on the bottom left where a supporter carries a flag with the word “Elaine” running below her portrait.
Cut-out images of fist-clenched children take various positions on the cover, collage-like, as they play-salute the cause. They reinforce the point that more than the Party’s bellicose ideology, which remains at the forefront of the popular imagination today, the cornerstone of its initiatives was community outreach programs like early morning breakfasts for underprivileged youths. The presence of the children should also bring to mind the work of Huggins’s widow Ericka, who was the editor of the Panthers’ newspaper and educational director of the Intercommunal Youth Institute, an elementary school run by the Party in East Oakland.
While the album’s front cover emphasizes the Party, the “back cover” of the album is all Brown. Rather than song titles or lyrics, the only writing presented is Vault’s identification information, the composer’s name, the album title, and “Black Panther Party.” Brown’s face, eyes toward the ground, lies in the shadows; a more introspective side that reflects the personal nature of the songs’ contents.
The recording itself was the result of a collaboration with jazz musician and arranger Horace Tapscott who, as Brown writes in her book, A Taste of Power, “could sit down and orchestrate a song just as you sang it.” Brown’s connections to Vault Records allowed the album to come to fruition. To be sure, this was not the first time the Panthers had issued albums, which typically contained speeches, interviews, and court transcripts of Party leaders. Seize the Time was, however, unique among BPP-endorsed recordings at that point in that it contained only music.
If the lyrical content of Seize the Time often made the Party’s violent defiance explicit (for example, “We’ll just have to get guns and be men” from “The End of Silence”), to some listeners it was sonically incommensurate with the immediacy, volume, ugliness, distortion, and disturbances—the grit and the funk—of an American revolution. The message may have been clear, but Brown’s interests in Bob Dylan and Western art music surfaced where many may have preferred something more along the lines of Betty Davis (which could have had something to do with the album’s failure to attain any kind of commercial success).
To some, the issue was that Brown just didn’t sound black enough. As she explained in Ptolemaic Terrascope:
I think Huey Newton liked my music because its classical quality gave dignity to our movement, it wasn’t just dancing in the street, not that there is anything wrong with Martha and the Vandellas because we loved that…Someone accused me of not having a black sound and I wasn’t sure what that meant. I just wanted to make the most beautiful sound I could make and do the most beautiful thing I could do to honor our people.
The notion of Brown not having a “black sound” places her in a long history of criticism, directed towards singers from Ethel Waters to Ella Fitzgerald and countless others, that measures complex and multifaceted stylistic vocal traits against an imagined, static category that confirms socially constructed ideas of race. As Nina Sun Eidsheim writes in her listener-centered book, The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music:
[“B]lack voice” is an observation born from an encultured notion of sound that expects fidelity to a referent and listens for difference. When voices are reduced to fixed sounds and undergo assessment, they cannot help but be heard within binaries or scale degrees of fidelity and difference. Moreover, due to the ways vocal timbre has historically been aligned with and metaphorized as interiority and truth, the stakes and ramifications of such assessment involve more than just sounds. What is measured is a person’s degree of fidelity to and difference from a dominant category.
In Seize the Time, Brown’s voice dominates, with five of the album’s ten songs arranged for voice and piano alone. Her voice is always front and center in the mix, allowing its poignant, crisp, articulate, vibrato-infused delivery to shine, particularly in songs like “One Time.” Brown’s detractors heard the Elaine Brown of the back cover—a sonic expression of interiority—more than the Elaine Brown that appears on the flag below the gun on the front cover. The false dichotomy, the reduction of timbral complexity to an unfaithfulness to culturally engrained notions of a “black female experience,” all in the context of what a black revolution “should” sound like—it says much about the preconceptions of listening communities and little about Brown as a musician and revolutionary.
Tapscott’s contribution as arranger deserves much more attention than space permits here. But as an exercise for exploring the meanings that emerge in orchestration—and this collects issues surrounding vocal quality, orchestration, visual (re)presentation, and race construction—it is instructive to compare two live performances of “Seize the Time,” one performed by Brown (likely in Los Angeles around 1969 or 1970) and another covered in 1970 by Finnish singer Carola Standertskjöld for Scandinavian television. The video of Standertskjöld’s performance features the album artwork as well photos of Huey Newton.
Brown’s album revealed the potential of music to further a political ideology, and so The Lumpen (a BPP outfit of four rank-and-file members who sang while performing various Party tasks) was formed. They recorded an album of the same name, which featured two songs released by the Party itself, “No More” and “Bobby Must be Set Free.” Short for Lumpenproletariat—a class theorized by Karl Marx as too culturally marginalized to be effective in the struggle for class revolution—the group performed at BPP functions, often covering popular songs by Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and others. Elaine Brown provided not only a soundtrack for the revolution, but also offered a template for music’s role as a mobilizer of political action in the context of the Black Panther Party’s aims.
On the cover of the album Huey Newton Speaks resides Newton’s quote, “In the new world the most important thing will not be a social status or a material possession, it will be love and harmony between men.” Elaine Brown’s Seize the Time, in the end, situates revolution in the context of love: love for her friends, Party members, and community. One is reminded of the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. As it unpacks issues of violent and non-violent resistance, drawing on the music of Louis Armstrong, a scene from an imagined past materializes. A slave mother, an “old singer of spirituals,” mourns the death of her master (and father to her children), who she poisoned for her family’s freedom. The poison, she explains, spared him the pain of the lethal stabbing that her sons would have delivered. The protagonist proposes to her, “Maybe freedom lies in hating.” She responds, “Naw, son, it’s in loving.”
Brown, Elaine. A taste of power: A black woman’s story. New York: Pantheon, 1992.
"I have all the guns and all the money. I can withstand challenge from without and from within. Am I right, comrades?" With these words, Elaine Brown proclaimed to the assembled leadership of the Black Panther Party that she was now in charge. It was August 1974. The Panthers had grown from a small Oakland-based cell to a national organization that had mobilized black communities throughout the country. The party's achievements had won the support of millions of white liberals, but the violent assaults on the party by the police had brought death or imprisonment to many of its prominent members. Now its charismatic leader, Huey P. Newton, heading for refuge in Cuba, asked Elaine Brown to hold together a party threatened by internal conflict and the FBI. How she came to that position of power over a paramilitary, male-dominated organization and what she did with that power is an unsparing story of self-discovery. Growing up in a black Philadelphia ghetto and attending a predominantly white school, Elaine Brown learned firsthand the pain and powerlessness of being black and female. The Panthers held the promise of redemption. Elaine's account of her life at the highest levels of the Panthers' hierarchy illuminates more than the pain of sexism and the struggle against racism: The male power rituals she recounts carried the seeds of the Black Panther Party's destruction. Nowhere was this undertow more evident than in the complex character of Huey P. Newton, who became Elaine's lover and ultimately her nemesis. More than a journey through a turbulent time in American history, this is the story of a black woman's battle to define herself. Freedom, Elaine Brown discovered, may be more than a political question. (publisher)
Eidsheim, Nina Sun. The race of sound: Listening, timbre, and vocality in African American music . Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.
Traces the ways in which sonic attributes that might seem natural, such as the voice and its qualities, are socially produced. The author illustrates how listeners measure race through sound and locate racial subjectivities in vocal timbre--the color or tone of a voice. The author examines singers Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy Scott as well as the vocal synthesis technology Vocaloid to show how listeners carry a series of assumptions about the nature of the voice and to whom it belongs. Outlining how the voice is linked to ideas of racial essentialism and authenticity, the author untangled the relationship between race, gender, vocal technique, and timbre while addressing an under-theorized space of racial and ethnic performance. In so doing, she advances our knowledge of the cultural-historical formation of the timbral politics of difference and the ways that comprehending voice remains central to understanding human experience, all the while advocating for a form of listening that would allow us to hear singers in a self-reflexive, denaturalized way.
_____. “Voice as action: Toward a model for analyzing the dynamic construction of racialized voice .” Current musicology, no. 93 (spring 2012): 9–33.
Vocal timbre is commonly believed to be an unmanipulable attribute, akin to a sonic fingerprint. Because the voice arises from inside the body, quotidian discourse tends to refer to someone’s vocal sounds as inborn, natural, and true expressions of the person. What, then, are we to make of the common notion that a person’s race is audible in her voice? While it has been conclusively demonstrated that many of the physiognomic aspects historically employed as evidence of a person’s race—including skin color, hair texture, and dialect or accent —actually evidence nothing more than the construction of race according to the ideological values of beholders, vocal timbre continues to elude such deconstruction. Recent critical thought on the intermingling of the physical senses—including the so-called sensory turn in anthropology, “new materialist” philosophies, and recent advances in science, technology, sound studies, and media studies—underscores the need for scholarship that recognizes the voice and vocal categories as culturally conditioned material entities. Trends such as the metaphorical notion of “having voice” have to some degree obscured the material and multisensory aspects of voice. Conceived within the specific context of musicology and the general context of the humanities, this article seeks to demonstrate how the reframing of voice implied by sensory and material inquiries redraws the topology of voice. I believe that this exercise may offer a deepened understanding of racial dynamics as they play out in our interactions with voice. (author)
Pat, Thomas. Listen, whitey! The sights and sounds of Black power 1965–1975. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012.
Based on five years of research in Oakland, California and contacts made with members of the Black Panther Party, the author provides a history, and visual documentation, of rare recordings of speeches, interviews, and music by noted activists Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Elaine Brown, The Lumpen, and many others that form the framework of this retrospective. The book also chronicles the forgotten history of Motown Records; from 1970 to 1973, Motown’s Black Power subsidiary label, Black Forum, released politically charged albums by Stokely Carmichael, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Bill Cosby, Ossie Davis, and many others. Also explored are the musical connections between Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Graham Nash, the Partridge Family (!?!), and the Black Power movement. Obscure recordings produced by SNCC, Ron Karenga’s US, the Tribe, and other African-American sociopolitical organizations of the late 1960s and early 1970s are examined along with the Isley Brothers, Nina Simone, Archie Shepp, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Clifford Thornton, Watts Prophets, Last Poets, Gene McDaniels, Roland Kirk, Horace Silver, Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, Stanley Crouch, and others that spoke out against oppression. Other sections focus on Black Consciousness poetry (from the likes of Jayne Cortez, wife of Ornette Coleman), inspired religious recordings that infused God with Black Nationalism, and obscure regional and privately pressed Black Power 7-inch soul singles from across America. (publisher)
Vincent, Frederick Lewis. The Lumpen: Music on the front lines of the black revolution. Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2008.
Vincent, Rickey. Party music: The inside story of the Black Panthers’ band and how black power transformed soul music . Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2013.
Explores the culture and politics of the Black Power era of the late 1960s, when the rise of a black militant movement also gave rise to a Black Awakening in the arts—and especially in music. The relationship of soul music to the Black Power movement is examined from the vantage point of the musicians and black revolutionaries themselves. This book introduces readers to the Black Panthers' own band, The Lumpen, a group comprised of rank-and-file members of the Oakland, California-based party. During their year-long tenure, The Lumpen produced hard-driving rhythm-and-blues that asserted the revolutionary ideology of the Black Panthers. Through his rediscovery of The Lumpen, and based on new interviews with Party and band members, the author provides an insider's account of black power politics and soul music aesthetics in a narrative that reveals more detail about the Black Revolution than ever before.
Brown, Elaine. Elaine Brown. Black Forum, 458L-DJ (LP), 1973
_____. Seize the time. Vault Records, SLP-131 (LP), 1969.
Cleaver, Eldridge. Dig: Eldridge Cleaver at Syracuse. More Records, Cleaver S-1 (LP), 1968.
Newton, Huey, P. Huey!/Listen, whitey! Smithsonian Folkways Records, FD5402 (LP), 1972.
_____. Huey Newton speaks. Paredon, 1004 (LP), 1970.
Seale, Bobby. Gagged and chained: The sentencing of Bobby Seale for contempt. Certron, CSS2-2001 (double LP), 1970.