I was commissioned, in 2017, by the Museum of Contemporary Arts Detroit, aka
MOCAD, to write a piece on music for the exhibit Sonic Rebellion: Music as Resistance.
My essay was published in the catalog/book Rebellion and Resistance, an anthology of Detroit music in the 67 rebellion era. Here is the latest version:
My essay was published in the catalog/book Rebellion and Resistance, an anthology of Detroit music in the 67 rebellion era. Here is the latest version:
A View of Resistance, From A Record Shop Life…
By Marsha Music
In 1945, Joe Von Battle, my father, opened a record store on Hastings Street in Detroit. He got his start recording blues and gospel singers in the neighborhood and later went up the street to record the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, called “the man with the million-dollar voice.” Franklin’s sermons and songs offered messages of perseverance and hope in the era when Southern Jim Crow permeated the North.
Soon, my father became the first person to record Reverend Franklin’s daughter
Aretha, whose singing, even at age fourteen, was extraordinary and would one day
command R-E-S-P-E-C-T during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
The sixties and the Motown years saw the continuation of non-violent protest in the
South, and the struggle for equality in the North intensified, too. Today, many look at the buttoned-up suits and bouffants of the Motown stars as hopelessly uptight and conservative, but they, and the music they made, were symbols of an existential resistance. The intense discrimination they faced, both on tour and at home in Detroit, was a challenge to their very personhood. The men’s skinny, razor-sharp suits were a form of uniform, their choreography an expression of order and discipline—with finesse.
The women’s garments—fitted, spangled, glamorous—were born of the high style of
Black Detroiters, then evolving into the country’s largest Black middle class. At the
annual Motown Revue at the Fox Theatre, Gordy’s stars were hailed not just for their hit songs but also for their return from far-off travels. Folks knew what a trip to the South could mean for any Black American, and these elegant ambassadors of Detroit appeared as triumphant soldiers, back home after battles with Jim Crow.
12th Street, 1967
12th Street in Detroit was exhilarating. It was a one-way thoroughfare before 1967, not
the two-way street it is today, between the Boulevard and Clairmount, and cars as long as boats drove by in a flotilla of steel, color, and chrome. The crowded neighborhood had
inherited a population displaced from Detroit’s demolished Black Bottom neighborhood,
that had been displaced by modernist Lafayette Park, and from old Hastings Street, razed starting two decades before, to build the Chrysler Freeway. The migration to the West Side packed 12th Street sidewalks in the daytime with bustling commerce, and at night with a never-ending theatre of Detroit style, musicality, and drama.
In the months and weeks before July 1967, things were the same, but different. All over
the country, upheavals and unrest had exploded in cities where large populations of
Blacks resided—there would be more than 159 eruptions across the country that year. In
1966, activists on Kercheval Street on the East Side rose up, but they were quelled by the
police—and a heavy rainstorm. It was a precursor of rebellion to come, one year later.
On Saturdays, I would run from behind the counter of the record shop and look out onto the sidewalk at the Black militants swaggin’ down 12th Street—and I knew something new was happening.
James Brown was never on a Detroit label, but we kids loved him, with his irresistible,
often indecipherable lyrics—singsong conundrums in the secret lives of Blacks. We’d
stare at his 45s on the turntable, his smiling jib going round-and-round, and follow his
every dance command. He had been popular for years, but his old, slow songs, like “Try
Me” and “Please, Please, Please” were anachronistic ballads of an earlier time—the old fashioned songs the grown folks played when their parties got late and boozy with some
Dinah Washington and Ray Charles. But the late-sixties arrived and James Brown made a
sharp turn onto a tight rhythm sound, articulating the intensity of the social conflicts
On the eve of the Detroit Rebellion, the new James Brown materialized—with “Cold
Sweat,” ostensibly a love-song but, in reality, a taut, brassy release that was less a song
than an exhortation to tighten up for the coming hot summer. On a Saturday night, July
23, 1967, the Rebellion began, and six blocks away, my father’s store was in its path—
and that was the end of Joe’s Record Shop.
In post-’67 Detroit, residents struggled to return to normalcy; and despite baseball (the
’68 Tiger’s pennant race) and increased access to houses and jobs, social upheaval
permeated the culture. A year after the Rebellion, I was awash in its aftermath, distressed about the demise of my family’s means of support and my father’s alcoholic despair—yet I gravitated toward the resistance. I was awaiting something, but didn’t know what it was.
One day, on our kitchen radio, I heard it: “UH! Wit yo’ BAD self! Say it LOUD! I’m
BLACK and I’m PROUD!”
Don’t let anyone tell you that James Brown was universally loved back in the day. A
whole lot of Black folks detested him. They were ashamed of his deep, black Southern-
ness, his processed hair and his raw, undiluted Black African-ness. He annoyed them like
a loud, unruly cousin, an unwelcome visitor from back home; a reminder of all they felt
ashamed of—and, of course, many Whites hated him too. He was not the light-skinned,
light-eyed Smokey, the handsome, operatic Chuck Jackson, or the smooth, sexy Marvin
Gaye. No, Brotha James was wiry and dark, with his carved Benin features, country-slick
slang, and mile-high pompadour swapped for a thick, sixties Afro. He was a reminder of
unruly Black men, the brothas on the street, the chain gang, the hard South that folks had left behind and didn’t want to be—or see.
But “Black and Proud,” released a year after July ’67, was something else again. I wanted
to sing it all day long, but to a lot of our elders, “Black” was just this side of obscenity.
With this electrifying record, I learned much about the subtle protocols of race—that
mixture of pride, fear, and self-hated that swirled within the world of Black grown-ups,
especially when we were all supposed to be ashamed of what happened in ’67.
My father, bereft and adrift after the loss of his shop, and angry at all militant
exhortations, was secretly proud of Brown and his shout-outs about their mutual Georgia
origins, “in Augusta, G.A.” Daddy, born and raised in Macon, was surrounded by
Northern voices, including my mother’s, that dripped contempt for his Southern roots and all from which he’d come. James Brown spoke a language of a South that countless
Northern Blacks had tried to disavow. At the same time, they were homesick with his
odes to down home, on records whose only lyrics were Southern foodstuffs. While our
capri-wearing mothers watched Mary Tyler Moore and mastered her fondues and
soufflés, James Brown evoked our national cuisine below the Mason-Dixon line:
“Smothered Steak!” “Grits and Gravy!” “Candied Yams!” “Cracklin’ Bread!”
Though Black Nationalism increased after ’67, it was hardly the dominant thought in the
everyday world of Detroiters. Brown’s pride in his blackness was a defiant statement of sustenance for his people, and we devoured it like manna. His politics were simplistic exhortations to Black entrepreneurial power, distained by many activists of the time; a mishmash of Horatio Algerisms we in the Northern movement endlessly criticized. But most of us in the struggle admired Brown’s uncompromising calls for his people to rise up from discrimination and dependency, and regardless of critics, he was a griot for both the Black bourgeois and the masses.
James Brown led a historic shift in a people’s consciousness. He took African-American
music and turned it inside out to reveal its rhythmic skeleton—and even his shouts to the
band were sufficient to create a new genus of music, unembellished by lyricism and
melody. James Brown changed the way that Black people moved, shifted the axis of
black dance from the feet to the torso and back again. Before long, adults who had
despised him were dancing the Camel Walk and, like my mom and aunties, they started
wearing Afros too. Detroit fell in love with James Brown.
The destruction in the city was formidable, not just on 12th, 14th, Linwood, and Dexter—
the commercial avenues of the formerly Jewish community on the West Side. There was
also serious damage to retail areas along the other spokes emanating from Downtown.
There were—and are today—vociferous aspersions cast upon Detroiters for “burning
down their own businesses and neighborhoods”—with little mention, however, of the
authorities’ decisions to allow homes and commercial structures to burn—and some
have long accused the authorities themselves of creating damages.
The shock of the rebellion was so great, to Black and White Detroiter’s alike, that a kind
of revisionist history developed as a way to explain, vilify, and cope with the trauma. The
idea that “all the Whites left Detroit after ‘67” is a common cliché, easily debunked by the most rudiment of facts. For one, the “flight” actually began just after World War II, more than two decades prior. There is a well-promulgated falsity—especially by those who have little or no experience in the city—that Detroit “burned down” in ’67. Yet, a recently available video, shot from a helicopter flying over the city during the aftermath of the rebellion, presents startling visual evidence confirming many Detroiters’ common knowledge that, in fact, the city remained overwhelmingly intact after the conflagration, even in neighborhoods that suffered destruction.
Many suburbanites and outsiders attribute the vast devastation evident in the city today
to “the riots,” when the most significant part of the city’s residential destruction stems
from the foreclosure crisis two decades later. Most of the neighborhoods currently
decimated were intact after the unrest in 1967—some even until the last few years.
After the Rebellion, a new police unit sprung to life—STRESS (Stop The Robberies
Restore Safe Streets)—which amounted to increased aggression in the Black community,
a battering ram of retaliation for ’67. In 1968, a group of Black workers at the Dodge
Main Plant in Hamtramck formed DRUM—Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement—as
a force against the entrenched discrimination in both the auto factories and the United
Automobile Workers union. Before long, DRUM amalgamated with workers in other plants, and folks in the community, to form The League of Revolutionary Black workers (LRBW) – and I joined up with them. The ’67 unrest was like a cork burst from a bottle, allowing long-suppressed frustrations and resistance to explode in Detroit. But many Black leaders and grassroots folks in the community also broadly condemned the outrage and vilified the destruction of the uprising.
From the Ashes
Eventually, Motown left for Los Angeles, but the music that permeated and defined the city did not die. The years after the Rebellion saw an explosion of protest music, mixed with popular sounds. My father’s old friend John Lee Hooker sang a mournful elegy to the Rebellion, “The Motor City Is Burning,” and the airwaves were a steady stream of the Staple Singers, the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield—their songs formed a bedrock of resistance music in continuous play on Black radio in Detroit. White stations CKLW, WKNR, and Robin Seymour’s TV dance show, Swingin’ Time, engaged in a defacto resistance to the intense segregation of the time. Blacks and Whites, who largely lived in apartheid-like separation, often listened to the same Detroit radio sounds.
WABX was musically radical “underground radio”—the first album-oriented rock station in Detroit and, in its earliest days, a center of cultural resistance. Though Motown’s music was not typically expressly political, Edwin Starr’s explicit single “WAR” reflected the growing popular resistance to the conflict in Vietnam. The Temptations tried on a new, psychedelic sound in “Ball of Confusion,” with its kaleidoscopic poesy of social turmoil; Marvin Gaye asked “What’s Going On?”; the cover of Stevie Wonder’s album, Where I’m Coming From, depicted him as a soldier in the Vietnam War; and in “The Devil is Dope,” the quintessentially-Detroit group The Dramatics sang about the enemy Detroiters watched grow ever closer to home.
Black Arts activist Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts, another founder of the LRBW, was a working
union rep who got me my first job in the factory and who was experimenting with avant-
garde piano and sax in local performances. In the League’s Highland Park offices we
listened to the Last Poets, Abbey Lincoln, John Coltrane, Les McCann, and Nina Simone.
Jazz singer Terry Collier personified a cerebral, conscious artistry and Isaac Hayes was
an exemplar of the New Black Man, with his persona a chained, bare-chested Black
Moses. With anti-war protest and rebellion at every turn, the Parliaments morphed from
Temptation-like yeomen, suited and slick-haired, into George Clinton’s free-style funk
In the sun-porch library of the League, in Highland Park, I read about the MC5, John Sinclair, and the White Panthers in the radical newspapers Fifth Estate and South End. And whether we were fans or not, White artists’ music of protest—Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”—dominated our aural landscape in the end days of the War in Vietnam. Sweet Honey in the Rock also had a solid core of fans among Detroit’s activists and freedom movement fighters.
By the ’80s, The Electrifyin’ Mojo spun a multi-genre collage of albums and records in
opposition to the growing corporatization of music and the encroaching loss of the local
radio DJ. His variegated sets were where I first heard Rap and Hip-Hop – I’m old school,
and even I knew this was fast becoming the new Detroit sound. On the East Side, in the
’90s, despite eyes on Eminem, the prodigy J Dilla was a master craftsman of the genre,
with roots in Conant Gardens—the historic community of the city’s first Black middle-
class homeowners, that nurtured his intense musical inventiveness and enterprise, with his voluminous production of both music and artists.
In the west side suburb of Belleville, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May
made electronic sounds out of innumerable streams of modern music, rebuking clichés of Black music as an expression of destitution and poverty. These creators of Techno Music also arose from the Black middle class, toward the end of Detroit’s age of prosperity. Yet their music—a new, aural assemblage art, born in Detroit—crossed the ocean to fundamentally alter the musical atmosphere of Europe—and then the United States.
Today, as development returns to the city, there is increased recognition of the historical importance of Detroit’s music, and the need to illuminate its past and present sounds—for Detroiters as well as our many visitors. The multi-disciplinary arts collective ONE Mile re-energizes the legacy of Detroit’s music and envisions Afro-futurism on a newly reconstituted Oakland Avenue, in the city’s North End, where John Lee Hooker once played. Fans the world over flock to the Techno museum, Exhibit 3000, at the Submerge Records headquarters on East Grand Boulevard, and forces are aligning to create an “all-night music zone” in the city’s abandoned factories.
The Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame celebrates Detroit’s roots music; Detroit Sound Conservancy preserves our musical history and artifacts; United Sound Systems continues its recording legacy; and both Bert’s Warehouse and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge thrive among the city’s most-iconic and longstanding music venues. Through social and economic maelstroms, reconstruction, and gentrification, Detroit and its music persist—and I still Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.