The birth of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s marked the beginning of a social, political and cultural revolution that drastically changed American society.
What began as a peaceful and pacifistic movement aimed at ending racial segregation, embodied by protest marches, sit-ins, Freedom Riders and figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., gradually evolved and splintered into a more militant climate. While legal and symbolic victories like the defeat of Jim Crow laws were major milestones of progress, they did not necessarily lead to better living conditions for the common man, and from the mid-1960s onward many started seeking different strategies for socio-political empowerment, leading to the rise of Black nationalism.
Black nationalism and separatism challenged the Civil Rights Movement, with ‘Black Power’ used as a strong political slogan emphasizing racial pride and the creation of black political and cultural institutions. Key leaders of this movement included Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Along with intensified friction within the different fractions, the combination of inner city riots, the Vietnam War and economic downtimes added fuel to the fire in the late ’60s and early ’70s. And there’s a straight line connecting that era and the ongoing debates about police brutality, economic inequality, mass incarceration, underrepresentation and other major disadvantages still facing African Americans in 2016.
Black Power had a significant impact on pop culture and music, not the least of which occurred in the decade between 1965 and 1975.
In his book Listen Whitey! The Sights and Sound of Black Power, Pat Thomas writes: ‘As the Black Power movement expanded, it influenced established artists such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown and the Isley Brothers. The movement would shape the voice of emerging songwriters like Sly Stone and Gil Scott-Heron (…). It would force Jimi Hendrix (…) to reconsider his apolitical stance. There would be rank-and-file Black Panther members like Nile Rodgers of Chic and Chaka Khan of Rufus who would go on to pop music fame in the 1970s.’
Below are just some album covers with a discernible message related to Black Power, resistance and consciousness, albums as worthy of seeing as they are worth listening to, chronologically connecting Max Roach and Gil Scott-Heron with Nas and Kendrick Lamar.
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We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite
This avant-garde jazz album led by drummer Max Roach consists of five parts concerning the Emancipation Proclamation and the growing African independence movements of the 1950s. All Music Guide calls the record a ‘pivotal work in the early-’60s African-American protest movement [that] continues to be relevant in its message and tenacity. It represents a lesson in living as to how the hundreds of years prior were an unnecessary example of how oppression kept slaves and immigrants in general in their place.’ The cover references the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement: a black-and-white photograph of three black men in a diner, staring directly into the camera while being tended by a white waiter behind the counter. The image might seem like an ordinary scene today, but in 1960 it was certainly meant as a political and provocative statement.
Seize The Time – Black Panther Party
Songwriter and pianist Elaine Brown was among the most noteworthy musicians to emerge from within the Black Panther movement. Her debut album, Seize the Time, includes the Panther anthem “The Meeting.” In a 1970-printed ad for the album, Brown herself writes: ‘Songs are a part of the culture of society. Art, in general, is that. Songs, like all art forms are expressions of feelings and thoughts. A song cannot change a situation, because songs do not live or breathe. People do. And so the songs in this album are a statement – by, of and for the people. All the people.’ The cover was made by Panther-illustrator Emory Douglas and it’s strikingly symbolic both in the use of the AK-47 (a symbol of solidarity with the North Vietnamese) and the fact that the hands holding the gun are wearing nail polish. In other words, black and female power combined.
The Nubians of Plutonia
(Saturn Research 1959/1966; below cover featured on 1974 Impulse re-release)
The Nubians of Plutonia dates back to the late 1950s, when it was originally recorded, but it wasn’t released for almost a decade, ultimately on Sun Ra’s own Saturn label in 1966. It’s a groundbreaking cosmic jazz masterpiece its own right, laced with tribal African grooves and hints of funk and space-age exotica, but the main reason for featuring the album here is the stunning artwork from the 1974 reissue on Impulse. The label acquired the rights to 21 albums originally made on Saturn, cleaning up the sound and providing them with brand new full-color covers, and the design for The Nubians of Plutonia is especially wonderful, embracing its afro-centric focus in line with the pan-African vibes of the era.
A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox
Gil Scott-Heron was only 21 years old at the time of his debut album’s release, a poignant and politically passionate set of spoken-word, percussive rhythms (bongo drums and congas) and proto-rapping recorded live in a New York City nightclub located at the address indicated by the title. The album, along with Scott-Heron’s greater career, is widely considered a presage of hip-hop, and includes the iconic and heavily-sampled “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The black-and-white cover photo by Charles Stewart captures Scott-Heron in a back alley, with a written introduction on him as the centerpiece: ‘He is the voice of the new black man, rebellious and proud, demanding to be heard, announcing his destiny: ‘I AM COMING!”
The Good, The Bad And The Upsetters
Not exactly a cover referring to anything associated with the Black Power movement, but a wonderful shot in its own right with The Upsetters posing in Spaghetti Western garb. This album stirred conflict on a different matter, though. The Upsetters were the house band for legendary Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, and the original U.K. edition of The Good, The Bad And The Upsetters was released on Trojan in 1970 without Perry’s involvement. Angered by this, Perry issued another version of the album in Jamaica using the same Trojan album artwork but with totally different songs on it.
This free jazz masterpiece by saxophonist and trumpeter Joe McPhee, once described by The Guardian as ‘a grinning punk cousin to Miles Davis’s brutal and brilliant Bitches Brew,’ is closely connected to the emerging Black Power movement. Nation Time was recorded live at the Urban Center for Black Studies at Vassar College in 1970, where McPhee himself taught classes in ‘Revolution in Sound.’ The album sounds as groundbreaking today as it did back in 1970, and is a total must-hear. On the cover, shot by photographer Ken Brunton, McPhee is posing in a Black Panther-style outfit, holding the saxophone instead of a gun, in front of an old slave-shack. Bringing the African call-and-response tradition into the Black Power movement, McPhee shouts out the rhetorical question, ‘What time is it??,’ in the title track, with the audience enthusiastically chanting back, ‘It’s Nation Time!!’
Black Moses is the fifth album by legendary soul singer Isaac Hayes, following up his soundtrack to Shaft with yet another chartbuster. This was his second double-LP of 1971, his second consecutive release to top the Billboard R&B chart, and his second consecutive Grammy-winner. Stax Records boss Dino Woodward is credited for coming up with the ‘Black Moses’ tag. As pulled from the book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records: ‘Dino said, ‘Man, look at these people out there,’ explains Isaac. ‘Do you know what you’re bringing into their lives? Look at these guys from Vietnam, man, how they’re crying when they see you, how you helped them through when they was out there in the jungle and they stuck to your music. You like a Moses, man. You just like Black Moses, you the modern-day Moses!’ Hayes himself disapproved of both the title and the concept, but changed his mind after release. The LP itself came in iconic packaging: a fold-out, cross-shaped cover showing him as a modern-day Moses. “It raised the level of black consciousness in the States,” he later said. ‘People were proud to be black. Black men could finally stand up and be men because here’s Black Moses, he’s the epitome of black masculinity. Chains that once represented bondage and slavery can now be a sign of power and strength and sexuality and virility.’
The Last Poets:
This is Madness
Closely linked with the Black Panthers and Black Nationalism, The Last Poets performed their live debut in Harlem in May 1968, at an event marking the recent killing of Malcolm X. They described their music as ‘jazzoetry,’ combining jazz, poetry and rapping. The cover for This is Madness, in striking colors and raised fists, is a painting by Abdul Mati and based on a photograph by Bilal Farid.
Rooted on the South Side of Chicago, The Pharaohs were closely connected to Chess Records (the esteemed label known as a quality stamp for funk, blues, rhythm & blues, jazz and soul), formed in part by a group called the Jazzmen and the Afro Arts Theatre and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago. On the back cover they describe their debut album as ‘the sounds of the pygmies blended with the Soul Sounds of 39th street in Chicago.’ The cover itself is mixes Egyptian imagery (a style Earth, Wind and Fire later would employ) and pan-African interest. From the flipside of the LP version: ‘Once upon a time there is a group of young men who came together and formulated a dream. They dared to dream that hey could create an approach to the arts that would encompass their experiences in America, the soul of their motherland… Africa, and the spirit of the oneness of the Universe.’
Gigging with the likes of Don Cherry, Sun Ra and John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders turned out to become one of the most revolutionary jazz saxophonists of all time and a key figure in pioneering astral jazz. Black Unity is truly essential listening, a 37-minute long, tight, rhythmic and energetic improvisational piece that fully embraces the pan-African ideals of the time. All Music Guide describes it as ‘pure Afro-blue investigation into the black sounds of Latin music, African music, aborigine music, and Native American music.’ The multi-ethnic musical amalgam and spiritual freedom is equally reflected in the music, the title and on the front cover.
Bob Marley & The Wailers:
Soul Revolution Part 2
Soul Revolution Part 2 was released in Jamaica, as a kind of sequel to Soul Rebels the year prior, and was a part of Bob Marley & The Wailers’ collaboration with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. The album, not properly released outside of Jamaica for several decades, found them moving further away from their ska and rocksteady roots and into an early form of reggae. Their growing social concerns are being elevated to new heights with this original album cover art, showing the band dressed in full guerrilla warfare outfit, armed and ready for action. The rifles were perhaps fake, but he imagery is still as stark today.
The Watts Prophets:
Rappin’ Black In A White World
The West Coast equivalent to Harlem’s The Last Poets (above), The Watts Prophets (from Watts, Los Angeles) is a group of musicians and poets. Beginning in the late 1960s, their combination of jazz and socially conscious poetry made them (like The Last Poets) among the forerunners for establishing hip-hop as a music form. Actually, the title itself is supposedly the first time ‘rappin’ came into use, and The Watts Prophets have been described a living bridge from the Civil Rights of the ’60s to the Hip Hop generation of today.
On the Corner
It received lousy reviews, didn’t sell, and has been called ‘the most hated album in Jazz.’ But history has proven many of the worst critics wrong, and today On the Corner is rightfully considered one of Miles Davis’ best and one of the most influential albums of all time. Miles mixed rock, jazz and funk in a way that is hailed as a proto-album both for hip-hop and electronic music, and All Music Guide says ‘the music on the album itself influenced every single thing that came after it in jazz, rock, soul, funk, hip-hop, electronic and dance music, ambient music, and even popular world music, directly or indirectly.’ Miles Davis aimed to reconnect with the African-American communities for this album, and the cover art mirrored the social transformations of the time. He also named one of the tracks “Mr. Freedom X,” in reference to Malcom X.
Huey! Listen, Whitey!
Huey P. Newton, one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party, was arrested in the late 1960s on charges of shooting a police officer. An album in two parts, Huey! is a representation of the support Newton received from the Panthers and other members of the community during his trial, while Listen Whitey! chronicles the reaction of the black community immediately following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unrehearsed, the people’s voices on this album offer an unblemished glimpse of two difficult moments in African American history. The album’s cover shows Stokey Carmichael at the lectern of the Oakland Auditorium in February, 1968, speaking at the “Free Huey Rally.”
People… Hold On
Led by the club hit “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” the second solo album from the former Temptations vocalist Eddie Kendricks turned out to be his breakthrough. The album cover is a remake of the iconic photo of Huey Newton, conceived by Eldridge Cleaver, with Kendricks sitting in a large African chair, spear in hand.
The title might refer to the strife Jimmy Cliff went through following the death of his producer Leslie Kong’s in 1972. As All Music Guide writes: ‘it’s the intensity of the singer’s struggle during this period that fuels this set, his pain, confusion, and turmoil are raw, packing the set with an emotional intensity that he’ll never quite equal elsewhere.’ The album cover itself combines his emotional turmoil with inner city despair. The drawing by David Dragon shows a rather grim street with empty-looking faces strolling behind Cliff as the focal point. A struggling man, in a struggling world, this is a great reggae album with an iconic cover.
There’s No Place Like America Today
This album cover is based on a famous photograph by Margaret Bourke-White of flood victims, originally published in the February 15, 1937 edition of LIFE magazine. When David Bennun revisited this underrated classic for The Quietus, he wrote of the cover: ‘He couldn’t have picked a more apt one; the record evokes its own time and place as surely as the picture represents the chasm between American dreams and street-level reality. 1975 was, for many in the cities of the USA, a particularly wretched time, one which even now carries the aura of winter, of hangover, of chills and meanness and struggle.’
Tribute to Martyrs
Tribute to the Martyrs is the second studio album by English roots reggae band Steel Pulse. The album cover, illustrated by Jene Hawkins and designed by Bloomfield & Travis (Barrington Levy, John Cale), is packed with socio-political references. The scene’s background features an alternative Mount Rushmore-styled carving of seven heads, composed of Malcolm X, Steve Biko, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, Emperor Haile Selassie and others, who look over an island-dwelling family exploring their homeland.
The first LP by Bad Brains is a seminal masterpiece. The D.C. band of African-American Rastafarians, in itself an anomaly in hardcore circles, came to be known as pioneers in the way they fused punk, hard rock and reggae. Their debut album is not only considered a masterpiece in the evolving of hardcore, but stands out as one the strongest albums of its decade no matter the genre. Commonly known as one the fastest albums ever recorded at the time of its 1982 release, this crucial record features classics cuts like “Banned in D.C” and “Pay to Cum.” And of course its striking yellow, green and red cover art depicting the dome of the United States Capitol building being split apart by thunder and lightning.
It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
(Def Jam, 1988)
On their iconic second album, Public Enemy set out to make an updated version of Marvin Gaye’s socially conscious What’s Going On, with the goal to ‘teach the bourgeois and rock the boulevards.’ This landmark LP, one of the greatest, most important and influential hip-hop albums ever made, sports an equally striking cover art of Chuck D and clock-wearing Flavor Flav behind bars. No way any jail could stop this revolution.
Things Fall Apart
Things Fall Apart was The Roots’ breakthrough album, earning them a Grammy and Platinum sales, and hailed as a cornerstone for conscious rap. They borrowed the album title from the highly acclaimed 1958 novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, considered an essential writer on African identity, nationalism and decolonization. The default album cover (it came in five different versions) is a picture from the 1960s, shows police chasing two African-American teens on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn during a riot. Art director Kenny Gravillis later described it like something the urban community could really relate to: ‘Seeing real fear in the woman’s face is very affecting. It feels unflinching and aggressive in its commentary on society.’
Let’s Get Free
The debut album by politically-charged hip-hop duo Dead Prez has been called the most politically conscious rap since Public Enemy, raising awareness of inner-city issues like racism, police brutality, education and political injustice. They also touch on Pan-Africanism in their lyrics (‘I’m an African/Never was an African-American’) and the Black Panthers (‘I don’t believe Bob Marley died from cancer/31 years ago I would’ve been a panther/They killed Huey cause they knew he had the answer/The views that you see in the news is propaganda’). Their call to action, revolution and Black liberation is clearly reflected in the album cover, an photo of South African schoolchildren raising their rifles during the 1976 Soweto uprising, fighting for their right to education under an oppressive regime.
Nas changed the title of this album from the full N-word to just calling it Untitled, keeping the N brandished into his back depicting the whippings common in the age of slavery. In a 2008 interview with CNN, Nas explained how he didn’t seek out to upset on the original title, but rather to upend a society that focuses more on pejoratives than the racial plights that spawn them: ‘There’s still so much wrong in the whole world with people – poor people, people of color – I just felt like a nice watch couldn’t take that away, make me forget about that. A nice day on a yacht with rich friends couldn’t make me forget about reality, what’s going on. That’s why I named the album that – not just that the word is horrible, but the history behind the word, and how it relates to me, how it’s affected me, offended me.’
To Pimp a Butterfly
This feature end with one of the most strikingly symbolic album covers of recent times: Kendrick Lamar holding a baby in front of the White House with a group of basically shirtless young men flashing cash and champagne (and what appears to be a dead or passed out white judge laying on the lawn underneath them). To Pimp a Butterfly is packed with references of black American music and culture, including some of the albums and artists already mentioned above. This is the picture of the aftermath of the very same black revolution first subtly indicated by Max Roach on top of this list, seeking the same kind of liberation and freedom that has here finally been crossed out like the eyes of the judge.
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Sources & Links of Interest:
Pat Thomas: Listen Whitey! The Sights and Sound of Black Power, 1965-1975 (Fantagraphic, 2012)
Giles Peterson and Stuart Baker: Freedom Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz Original Album Art 1965-83 (SJR, 2009)
Ashley Kahn: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records (Granta, 2006)
The Independent: Heart on sleeves: 50 years of Jamaican album covers tell the story of a nation
Dangerous Minds: Isaac Hayes’ Black Moses – The Story of One of the Greatest Album Covers Ever
The Quietus: Revisiting Curtis Mayfield’s There’s No Place Like America Today
42 Reggae Album Cover Designs: The Art & Culture of Jamaica
Complex: Art Director Kenny Gravillis Tells the Stories Behind The Roots’ 5 “Things Fall Apart” Album Covers
Let’s Get Free: Living Hip-Hop History Fifteen Years Later
The Guardian: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly album cover: an incendiary classic