Fight the Power, Pts. 1 & 2 * The Isley Brothers * The Heat is On * 1975
I suppose one could make the argument that all genres of music are feeling-based. Either a particular kind of music moves you, or it doesn’t. The difference with funk is that when it moves you, if makes you move. What’s great about funk is how angry it is under the guise of good-time music. The bass and the beat are there to elicit cathartic feelings of joyous release from day-to-day responsibilities, but you can’t have these feelings without the negative things that create the need for catharsis in the first place. When it comes to the funk of the late 60s and 70s, those negative things were a turbulent world that makes 2016 look relatively docile. Especially if you happened to be black.
I’m not going to turn this into a post about race relations in America, as I’m hardly qualified to write in any significant way about it. That disclaimer out of the way, it’s impossible to talk about funk without getting into it a little bit, and some serious shit was beginning to get sorted out (a process that continues to this day, obviously) in which a traditionally repressed group of people began to scratch and claw their way out of the bottom of the social caste. This caused — and continues to cause — a great deal of conflict, which is sometimes expressed in violence. By contrast, funk was a way to express the frustration and rage of an underclass via music. I mean, listen to this. It’s upbeat and exciting, but also pissed the fuck off. You don’t even need the words to feel the anger, but with this song at least you get a window into the experience of a black man in the 1970s. Look at this iconic chorus:
I tried to play my music, they say my music’s too loud
I tried talking about it, I got the big runaround
And when I rolled with the punches I got knocked on the ground
By all this bullshit going down
First of all, this came out at a time where you did not swear on the radio. Not only does “Fight the Power” use a curse word, it is emphatic in the extreme. It’s the most exasperated, frustrated, enraged use of the word ‘bullshit’ you’ll ever hear in a song. The other lines leading up to this moment illustrates the powerlessness of the African-American at this time. Being black meant having no voice. Your perspective was deemed irrelevant, and if you insisted upon talking about you got shut down real quick. You know, by The Man.
Really, that’s what funk was all about: expression. As social barriers began to break down, funk evolved with times. It never went away, that’s not how evolution works, but the following generations of musicians who grew up on this music pushed expression. They added more words to the beat and made hip-hop, which began as an even clearer, wider window into the black perspective. Funk was just another step in having traditionally quiet voices heard. It also has the extra added benefit of being super fun, even if you don’t feel like thinking about all this political shit.