Contemporary African-American music—especially rap and hip-hop—has become synonymous with and notorious for its suggestive and explicit lyrics. Women are often portrayed as sex toys, violence is glorified, denunciations of law enforcement are routine, and middle-class upbringings go unacknowledged, lest they undermine the artists’ street credentials. The huge commercial success of casually sexual, scatological, and even nihilistic music feeds an impression that black music has always exhibited such qualities—a cultural narrative dating back at least as far as the advent of Elvis Presley, who, it was said, sexualized popular music by incorporating “Negro” influences. In his classic book Black Music, the poet LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) captures the thinking well when he disdainfully quotes his undergraduate philosophy professor’s observation, “It’s fantastic how much bad taste the blues contain.”
In fact, though, the explicit sex and violence of contemporary black music represent a major cultural shift. A few decades ago, black popular music—what’s come to be known as “classic soul”—was notable for featuring lyrics that celebrated marriage and downplayed obstacles to black progress. Its lyrics championed the sort of family life that lays the groundwork for upward mobility and the optimism associated with a period of social breakthroughs and economic improvement.
True, African-American music has never been prudish or circumspect. The classic jazz and blues eras embodied a rich tradition of ribaldry, double entendres, and even relatively overt sexual lyrics. The terms “jazz” and “rock and roll” themselves may be euphemisms for sex. Nor was there anything coy or pro-fidelity about bluesman Muddy Waters, in his 1954 hit, singing “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” And black dance, notwithstanding its roots in the Pentecostal church (from which came Anna Mae Bullock, a.k.a. Tina Turner), also had its suggestive side. Common, too, is the idea that black music has historically been suffused with expressions of alienation, from Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail” to Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues,” or more explicit social protest, such as Billie Holiday’s legendary “Strange Fruit,” a haunting ballad about lynching.
Nevertheless, the assumption that the state of contemporary black music is part of an unbroken chain of lusty lyrics and social protest leading back to the early days of rock—and even further back, to jazz and the blues—not only plays to the pernicious stereotype of a hypersexualized black culture; it also ignores a rich musical history that can be credibly described as socially conservative. The classic soul recordings of such sixties giants as Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Percy Sledge, The Impressions, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, and others embodied values at odds with those purveyed in much black popular music today. This music deserves appreciation for reasons that transcend nostalgia and even quality—as substantial as that was—and its decline raises troubling questions about the condition of black America and about American culture as a whole.
The 1960s and early 1970s was the era of what music critic Peter Guralnick has called “sweet soul music,” the title of his definitive book. Even as “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” became the rallying cry of an increasingly libertine youth culture, soul music—a popular variant of church-based gospel music—enjoyed a golden age among black audiences, reflecting in many ways more traditional beliefs, including optimism about the future. “Soul music, then, was the product of a particular time and place,” Guralnick writes, when “the bitter fruit of segregation transformed . . . into a statement of warmth and affirmation.”
A great deal of the power of this music flowed from specific chord structures inherited from black gospel music—the so-called 16-bar blues, which reached a creative peak in the 1950s and 1960s—and which, especially after Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and hundreds of others married it to nonreligious lyrics, would transform popular music. As Anthony Heilbut wrote in his 1971 book The Gospel Sound: Good News, Bad Times: “From rock symphonies to detergent commercials, from Aretha Franklin’s pyrotechnics to the Jacksons’ harmonics, gospel has simply reformed all our listening expectations. The very tension between beats, the climax we anticipate almost subliminally, is straight out of the church.” The chord changes and vocal glissandi of gospel became the stock-in-trade of pop icons from Whitney Houston to most of the contestants on American Idol.
Gospel-inflected soul music came into its own during a period of notable African-American socioeconomic advances. Between 1940 and 1970, as historians Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom noted in America in Black and White, “African-Americans escaped sharecropping, domestic service and other unskilled jobs that paid dismally low wages, and substantial numbers made their way into middle-class white-collar jobs from which they had always been excluded.” Black men went from earning 41 percent of white wages on average in 1940 to 59 percent by 1970; black women increased their wages relative to white women from 36 percent to 73 percent. Even as Jim Crow came under siege from the civil rights movement, black Americans, like whites, enjoyed the fruits of America’s postwar economic boom.
It was a powerful combination reflected in African-American music, beginning with gospel, which explored achievement and advance not just in a distant heavenly home but also in the here and now. The music celebrated the falling away of discriminatory barriers, the potential for economic advance, and the individual’s capacity to triumph over adversity; it called for strength and determination in the struggle to succeed, while also extolling social propriety. Consider the great Dorothy Love Coates, leader of the Gospel Harmonettes, a popular female gospel quartet. Her brilliant Specialty Records hit “99 and a Half (Percent) Won’t Do” is an imprecation for the believing Christian to do what it takes to please God—but also sounds like a Calvinist paean to self-improvement. “Seventy won’t make it, 80 God won’t take, 90 that’s close, 99 and a half is almost, Get your 100.” She was even more explicit about the changing world of American blacks at the time (circa 1954) in her signature song, “That’s Enough,” wherein Jesus is portrayed as a supporter in the earthly effort to survive and prosper. “There’s always someone talking ’bout me. Really I don’t mind. They’re trying to block and stop my progress most of the time. The mean things you say don’t make me feel bad. And I can’t miss a friend that I never had. I’ve got Jesus, Jesus and that’s enough.”
As it evolved over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, gospel music—epitomized by Sam Cooke, its greatest singer and songwriter before he became a soul music pioneer and pop star—grew comfortable expressing less overtly religious themes. Cooke’s Specialty Records hit “That’s Heaven to Me” offered a vision of paradise that resembled a safe, middle-class suburban neighborhood: “Even the children playing in the street sing a friendly hello to everyone that they meet. Even the leaves blowing out, going out on the tree—that’s heaven to me.” A traditionalist, gospel-influenced message remained at the core of classic soul music. As songwriter Roosevelt Jamison told Guralnick: “We had our type of blues gospel melody, but we wanted to put some poetic message and philosophy in it. The gutbucket stuff we figured wasn’t really good music. We wanted to put some flavor of God in it.”
Artists’ lyrics respected and often celebrated marriage, for example. (I refer here not to Motown—infectious pop sung by blacks but aimed more at a white audience and billing itself as “The Sound of Young America”—but to music that targeted black listeners, often Southerners or the Southern-born.) In his 1962 single “Meet Me in Church,” Joe Tex sang: “I’ve got the ring and the rice. I’ve got flowers waiting on ice. So don’t hesitate. Don’t make me wait. Meet me in church.” Stars like Tex and Solomon Burke—who released his own version of “Meet Me in Church” in 1968—weren’t necessarily expecting to tie the knot with a bombshell like Rhianna or Beyoncé, either. “Each day I’m getting older and the clock is running too fast,” lamented Garland Green in his 1971 hit “Plain and Simple Girl.” “Still my search is getting stronger. How much longer can I last? All I want is just a plain and simple girl who can understand me and share my world.” Such was the sort of love for which many male soul music singers expressed longing. In “When a Man Loves a Woman,” among the deepest and most poignant soul ballads, Percy Sledge sang of heartfelt devotion. “When a man loves a woman, spend his very last dime, tryin’ to hold on to what he needs. He’d give up all his comforts, and sleep out in the rain. If she said that’s the way it ought to be.”
Female soul stars sounded similar themes. In 1971’s “I’m a One Man Woman,” singer/guitarist Barbara Lynn declared, “I don’t want nobody but you. . . . I don’t need nobody but you. The day I met you I changed my ways. I gave you my love, too, for all of my days. I gave up wandering and I realized you can change my lonely life to a paradise.”
Significantly, marriage in the classic soul era was not just a romantic relationship but also an economic partnership. In Paul Kelly’s “We’re Gonna Make It (After While),” the singer tells his wife to find a way to put off the bill collector and laments that they’ll have to make do eating not much more than hominy grits. “[I] don’t like the way I’m living,” he sings. “My woman don’t either. But we’ll rise above it one day. Because we’re true believers.” Little Milton put it this way: “We may not have a home to call our own. But we’re gonna make it. . . . We may have to fight hardships alone, but we’re gonna make it. . . . Togetherness brings peace of mind. We can’t stay down all the time. . . . Our car may be old, our two rooms cold but we’re gonna make it.” Not that determination alone was enough to make a marriage successful. Indeed, in 1971’s “You’ve Got to Earn It,” the Staples Singers, a onetime family gospel group, made the task of holding a relationship together sound like manual labor: “To get stones from a rock, you’ve got to break it. To get bread from dough, you’ve got to bake it. To get water from a faucet, you’ve got to turn it. And if you wanna be loved, you’ve got to earn it.” The best-known soul hit of all—Aretha Franklin’s 1967 cover version of the Otis Redding song “Respect”—makes clear that a healthy relationship is a two-way street.
Soul songs about infidelity were plentiful, but they also paid tribute to marriage as an abiding norm. After all, one cannot “cheat” (a commonly used soul-lyric term) absent the structure of assumed fidelity. Johnnie Taylor, who scored a series of hits on the cheating theme, including 1968’s “Who’s Making Love,” implicitly endorsed the idea of couples staying together when he sang, “Take care of your homework, fellas. If you don’t, somebody else will.” That message couldn’t be more different from “Love the One You’re With,” the free-love anthem of the Woodstock Nation. Even when sex might occur outside marriage, classic soul raised the possibility that a long-term relationship should follow.
Soul music’s confidence in family life was matched by a conviction that past injustice would no longer hold black America back. “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come,” sang Sam Cooke in “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which became a civil rights anthem after his death in 1964. “There have been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long. But now I think I’m able to carry on.” Struggles and hardships, real as they remained, wouldn’t be accepted as an excuse for not advancing. In “We’re a Winner,” written for his Chicago-based group, the Impressions, songwriter Curtis Mayfield put it this way: “We’re a winner and never let anybody say, boy, you can’t make it, ’cause a feeble mind is in your way. No more tears do we cry, and we have finally dried our eyes, and we’re movin’ on up.” James Brown put it more succinctly: “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, I’ll get it myself.”
It wasn’t just the lyrics of classic soul that projected a wholesome attitude. Male soul singers were, for the most part, clean-cut and well dressed, often performing in tuxedos. Some donned ostentatious and colorful outfits, but suit-and-tie on stage was clearly the norm. Soul music stars not only encouraged upward mobility; they also embodied it. Carla Thomas, daughter of Memphis disc jockey and singer Rufus Thomas, was, for a time, billed as the Queen of Soul (before Aretha Franklin took that crown). Pert and demure, Thomas was a Howard University graduate—a credential not viewed as undermining her artistic credibility, as it might be today, but one that she happily wove into her persona. In her duet with Otis Redding on Lowell Fulsom’s “Tramp,” she plays the sophisticate to Redding’s country bumpkin: “You need a haircut, baby.”
Almost as if they foresaw the rise of vulgarity in black popular music, the Staples Singers rejected it in their biggest pop hit, 1971’s “Respect Yourself.” “Oh, you cuss around womenfolk and you don’t even know their names. And you dumb enough to think, that’ll make you a big ol’ man. Respect yourself, respect yourself. If you don’t respect yourself, ain’t nobody gonna give a good cahoot.” The mature and morally responsible vision of “Respect Yourself” and other soul hits has long since been overtaken by songs such as Beyoncé’s “Blow,” an unsubtle ode to oral sex.
How and why did black popular culture turn its back on the bourgeois values of marriage, fidelity, male responsibility, and the rewards of steady personal improvement, in favor of instant gratification, sexual conquest, and the outlaw lifestyle? Black pop music’s wholesale change in style and content clearly reflected broader societal changes—especially the decline of the two-parent family and the corresponding increase in out-of-wedlock childbirth, shifts that occurred most dramatically in the black community. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan called for national action to address an out-of-wedlock birthrate for black children of 24 percent; today, the figure is over 70 percent. As male/female relations frayed, old-fashioned courtship doubtless came to seem like a quaint notion for black performers. If no one gets married, who will sing songs about marriage?
Another culprit is elite liberalism’s celebration of the black outlaw, which began in the 1960s, when “black nationalist” figures such as Malcolm X and several Black Panther leaders became cultural celebrities and were romanticized by progressives, black and white. Malcolm X, the reformed Detroit Red, was an ex-con turned orator, a brilliant analyst of race relations but one who famously urged change “by any means necessary.” The Left lionized Black Panthers Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and H. Rap Brown as American Che Guevaras. The image of the criminal/celebrity revolutionary was exemplified in a famous poster of Newton, replete with beret and machine gun, that was ubiquitous in college dorm rooms during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In his 1968 book Soul on Ice, Cleaver framed the rapes for which he had previously been convicted as political acts—and many on the left came to view black criminal behavior through that lens, in the same way that, years later, they would laud rap and hip-hop lyrics about drug wars and police shootings as the authentic poetry of the street. It hardly seems surprising that one of rap’s iconic stars of the 1990s, the late Tupac Shakur, was the son of a Black Panther mother, Afeni Shakur, who was charged with (though acquitted of) planning a bombing and rifle attack on two New York police stations.
In 1970’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, Tom Wolfe famously recounts a cocktail party for the Black Panthers hosted by conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Wolfe describes a white female attendee “not alone in her thrill as the Black Panthers come trucking on in, into Lenny’s house. . . . These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big. . . . [T]hese are real men. Shoot-outs, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Vietcong.” Though the Black Panthers soon faded as an organization—incredibly, Cleaver became a conservative Republican—left-wing cultural elites had signaled their approval of antiassimilationist and potentially violent black authenticity, helping to make it part of the American mainstream.
Today’s elites often fawn over the latter-day version of the Panthers: rap and hip-hop stars. In their introduction to 2010’s The Anthology of Rap—published by the prestigious Yale University Press, with a foreword by Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates—English professors Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois bestow respectability on lyrics that, objectively, would once have been considered obscene. “A range of historical approaches seems relevant in considering rap as an art,” they write, “whether that means focusing on a song’s relationship to African American oral poetry of the distant or recent past, or to English-language lyric poetry from Beowulf until now.” Presumably, the authors are comfortable making such lofty claims about Dr. Dre’s duet with Snoop Dogg: “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks, lick on these nuts and suck the dick.” Rap and hip-hop lyrics aren’t always so degrading and crude, but browsing The Anthology makes clear that Dre and Snoop Dogg’s approach is the norm.
And we should keep in mind the people who buy so much of this music: young whites. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, varying estimates in recent years have suggested that 60 to 80 percent of rap music buyers are white. These listeners, like their radical-chic predecessors a generation ago, enjoy celebrating black gunslinging, drug dealing, and hypersexualized ghetto toughs—albeit usually from a safe distance.
Some black intellectuals have recognized how whites drive the commercial success and cultural acceptance of rap and hip-hop. Most prominent among them is critic Stanley Crouch, who has called the music “contemporary minstrelsy” and asserted that “no segment of our society has been more deformed and dehumanized than black American popular culture and whatever intellectual seriousness lays before it, from the sidewalk to the hallowed halls of higher education.” Crouch disdains white intellectuals who feel that they “learn something” from the allegedly authentic street culture depicted in rap and hip-hop. In a biting speech at a 2007 forum sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, Crouch recalled asking a white rap fan why he liked the rapper 50 Cent: “ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I feel like that when I put on his records I’m actually getting an experience.’ That’s just bunk, period.” One English rap admirer told Crouch that he enjoys the music because it’s “word-driven.” Crouch replied, “I don’t think that’s why people like you like it. As far as I know, there’s never been a small audience for any idiom that projects the Negro as inferior to the white man. You are not going to tell me that when you read those lyrics so-called, you think the person who wrote them is equal to you. I think that’s the point.” Crouch’s sentiments are echoed by some African-American academics—notably, Niagara University’s Raphael Heaggans, author of The 21st Century Hip-Hop Minstrel Show: Are We Continuing the Blackface Tradition?
Criticism of rap and hip-hop, at least in some black quarters, suggests the possibility that cultures don’t change completely and that the currents of optimism and uplift that characterized the classic soul period will resurface. Consider, for instance, the sign outside the legendary Marigold, Mississippi, “juke joint” called “Po’ Monkeys.” Outside what is little more than a shack in the Mississippi Delta—but one featuring traditional soul and blues—one finds a drawing that warns against entering with low-hanging pants, along with this printed admonition: “No Loud Music. No Dope Smoking. No Rap Music.”
Signs of hope can also be found in some wildly popular contemporary black music, such as 2000’s “Ms. Jackson,” the poignant Number One hit by Atlanta-based hip-hop duo OutKast. In it, the rappers appeal to the mother of the singer’s girlfriend, petitioning—almost the way one might ask a sweetheart’s parents for her hand—for acceptance. Having gotten his girlfriend pregnant, the singer pledges to be there for his child’s first day of school and graduation, even envisioning the possibility of a lifelong relationship. “Me and your daughter got a special thang going on. You say it’s puppy love, we say it’s full grown. Hope that we feel this way forever.” Even more notable is Beyoncé’s 2008 megahit “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” in which she tells an ex-boyfriend, jealous of her new relationships, that if “you liked it then, you should’ve put a ring on it.” Her husband, Jay-Z, took that advice.
Perhaps a generation marked by the persistence of a black underclass, inner-city crime, and family breakdown will eventually turn away from rap and hip-hop’s hedonism, outlaw ethos, and misogyny. If it does, black music may once again become a messenger for what America’s first black president famously called hope and change.
For a Spotify playlist of the songs mentioned in this article, please click here.