Curtis Mayfield: A Pioneer in Socially Conscious Music

Curtis MayfieldCurtis Lee Mayfield was an exemplary soul, R&B and funk singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and record producer.  Many across the globe most recognize him for writing, producing and singing on the soundtrack for Super Fly, a classic Blaxploitation film in which he appears.  The soundtrack is one of the first to generate more revenue than its corresponding film.  Mayfield’s extraordinary life and legacy earned him the Grammy Legend Award in 1994 and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.  He’s a double inductee into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted as a member of The Impressions in 1991 and as a solo artist in 1999.  Mayfield is also a double inductee into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

He’s one of the first mainstream R&B singers and composers to incorporate critical social commentary into their oeuvre.  This injection of erudite social critique into his work is known as “message music.”  His predilection for message music has provenances in the gospel music and black preachers he heard as a child.  The astute listener of Mayfield’s music is able to vividly recognize the substantial influence of gospel music in his soul-structured work.  His most ostensible embracement of gospel music was realized on Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions’ performance of “Amen” (1963), a restructured version of an old gospel song, from the soundtrack of the film Lilies of the Field (1963).

Mayfield dropped out of high school early to become lead singer and songwriter for The Impressions.  With Mayfield as lead singer, The Impressions flourished, reaching the zenith of its popularity in the mid-to-late 1960s.  During this period, some of the songs that were widely popular were “Keep on Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” “It’s All Right,” “Talking about My Baby,” “Woman’s Got Soul,” “Choice of Colors,” “Fool for You,” “This is My Country” and “Check Out Your Mind.”  With some of these songs and others, Mayfield functioned as one of the chief lyrical voices of the Civil Rights Movement.  “Keep on Pushing” and “Move On Up” were employed as anthems by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  because of the powerful critiques of the social and political conditions black people experienced during The Civil Rights Movement, and his “We’re a Winner” (1967) became an anthem of the Black Power Movement.

In “Keep on Pushing,” he encouraged black people to muster the courage to have hope in the face of great oppression.  “Freddie’s Dead” warns black people situated in the ghetto about the dangers of drugs and how they have severely damaged numerous black people.  In general, Mayfield’s music was tremendously inspirational for the Black Power Movement because it candidly critiqued racism, passionately advocated black pride and embraced Marxist economics.  Through his message music, Curtis Mayfield became one of the founding voices of the Black Power Movement, helping to define and shape it.  He used his music as a vehicle to champion racial and social justice, fight inequality, marshal black people to political action and instigate national social and political change.  Although his music is controversial, it cannot be prudently charged with lacking substance, as many lament about today’s music.

–Antonio Maurice Daniels

Antonio Maurice Daniels is a Research Associate and Ph.D. student in Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He blogs regularly for his cultural commentary blog, Revolutionary Paideia.  His works have been featured widely in academic and popular online publications, including Mused MagazineUp 4 DiscussionFrom Ashy to ClassyThe Black Man CanHealthy Black Men Magazine and etc.  Follow him on Twitter at @paideiarebel.

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