Imagine, if just for a second, that President Obama had ordered peaceful protesters outside a historic church to be dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets just so he could get a photo op with an upside down Bible. No clergy at the church were consulted, no prayers were made and no passages of scripture quoted.
Now stop imagining and know that this classless, crass, un-Godly act did indeed occur, but by President Trump, and if it doesn’t bother you – especially if you claim to be of faith – then understand you are part of the problem.
As Robert Hendrickson – a rector at Tucson’s St. Philip’s In The Hills Episcopal Church has said, “This is an awful man, waving a book he hasn’t read, in front of a church he doesn’t attend, invoking laws he doesn’t understand, against fellow Americans he sees as enemies, wielding military he dodged serving, to protect power he gained via accepting foreign interference, exploiting [the] fear and anger he loves to stoke, after failing to address a pandemic he was warned about, and building it all on a bed of constant lies and childish insanity”.
George Floyd – a 46-year African-American – died in Minneapolis on May 25 while a white police officer dug his knee into his neck as if Floyd was an animal to be put down. If it hadn’t been filmed, the lies of the officers involved to cover their tracks most likely would’ve been believed. It’s a reminder of how many lies have been sold over so many bloodstained generations of American history. It has to stop.
Right now, as America strains under the pressure of 400-years of racial injustice and a leader uniquely ill-equipped to build unity, my mind turns to the great socially-conscious soul and R&B that first inspired me as a child. These are the songs that helped shape me and in a way it’s bittersweet how timeless they are. But just as these decades’ old songs of anger and hope once gave rise to a feeling that America could and would get better, may they do that again.
With that in mind, here are 10 of the most vital, socially-conscious soul songs that the world so badly needs right now:
Commodores – Heroes (1980)
Motown’s second biggest selling act of the 70s behind Stevie Wonder were so much more than the excellent funk ‘n’ ballads outfit you heard on the radio, as the title-track to their 1980 album attests. One of the last truly great songs Lionel Richie wrote before going solo, this country-gospel tale of courageous leaders as well as heroic “plain old people” still packs such an emotional punch as to have reduced former Commodores’ bassist Ronald LaPread to tears in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Earth, Wind & Fire – Burnin’ Bush (1976)
One of the most overtly devout songs in the entire Earth, Wind & Fire catalogue, Maurice White has said that during the recording of this 7-minute epic that the rest of the band told him they’d never felt the Holy Spirit in their music to such an extent. Spiritual, yes, but confronting too:
What does it take to show an illustration
Of the hurt and the pain of a nation?
One glowing look upon a ragged canvas
Tells the story of our past and present situation
Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes – Wake Up Everybody (1975)
An oft-covered Philly-soul track that is as gorgeous as it’s impassioned. Teddy Pendergrass – one of the most supremely gifted soul singers of his generation – takes it to church in the unedited version of the song’s back half. False-teachers, dope-pushers, cheating businessmen and lying politicians are all slammed as Teddy commands us to wake up.
Stevie Wonder – Heaven Is 10 Zillion Lights Away (1974)
Perhaps the single most profound pop song I’ve ever heard in my life. I still get chills every time I hear that chorus of, “In my heart I can feel it / feel His spirit”. But more than being a mere spiritual, Stevie’s cry of, “Why must my colour black make me a lesser man?” is the heartbreaking counterpoint to his later reassurance that, “…it’s taken Him so long / because we’ve got so far to come”.
Isley Brothers – Ohio/Machine Gun (1971)
Only the Isley Brothers would’ve thought to combine the classic Neil Young protest song Ohio with Jimi Hendrix’s mostly instrumental Machine Gun. The lyrics of Ohio – about the shocking 1970 killing of four students at Kent State University by the National Guard – are as relevant now as ever, but it’s the guitar of the hugely underrated Ernie Isley together with Ronald Isley’s pained three-second scream from 1:18 – 1:21 that elevate this piece of acoustic soul to something nothing short of the remarkable.
Curtis Mayfield – (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Gonna’ Go (1970)
Speaking of screams, the spooky, reverb-heavy, apocalyptic wail by the normally sweet-voiced Curtis Mayfield at the 1:00 mark says almost as much as his biting lyrics. Sarcastic, blunt, funky and bold enough to call out President Nixon by name (just as Ohio does too), this is brave socially conscious soul of the highest order.
Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna’ Come (1964)
His most famous, most important song was initially just a modest posthumous hit for Sam Cooke, himself a black American man who died way too young in mysterious circumstances. As the years passed the song grew in stature and is now a clear pre-cursor to the socio-political direction soul stars like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield would take as the 60s gave way to the 70s.
Temptations – 1990 (1973)
Like Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City but in reverse, 1990 starts with the cinematic recreation of institutionalised racism rather than use it as a climax. Among the Tempts’ funkiest works, the first two verses are pure righteous fury:
Well, we got trouble in the White House
Poverty in the ghetto
When will it end?
People are asking now
“How can you spend another dollar on the space race”
“When families at home are starving right in front of your face.”
Where is your heart, America?
Bill Withers – Lean On Me (1972)
A simple tale of brotherhood that is quite simply one of the best songs ever written. Lean On Me is among that rare breed of song that it’s impossible to comprehend a time that it wasn’t in existence. There’s every indication Bill Withers was a humble, beautiful soul and it didn’t matter that he wasn’t a prolific hit maker when the hits he made were as meaningful as this. This verse still gets me:
If there is a load you have to bear
That you can’t carry
I’m right up the road
I’ll share your load, if you just call me
Marvin Gaye – What’s Goin’ On (1971)
I couldn’t realistically make this list without this song. As the story goes, Motown boss Berry Gordy was more interested in Marvin Gaye putting out love songs than material like this, but it was Gaye who had the last laugh when What’s Going On (the album) became a massive commercial as well as critical success. The title track is a vocal lesson in how restraint can be just as compelling as rooftop shouts of being a virtuoso. Nearly 50 years on, these lyrics sound like they could’ve been written about the times we currently live:
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Come on, talk to me
So you can see
Ohhhh, what’s going on