This piece is part of the Detours series. Detours are deep dives, because music deserves time and context. Listen, breathe deep, take the scenic route.
I seem to be drawn to Curtis Mayfield during hard times. I remember listening a lot to his beautiful live version of “Keep On Keeping On” in 2016. These days I’m listening a lot to his song “Power to the People.”
Some of my favorite albums or artists were things that smacked me across the head and immediately changed the way I think about music. But I actually find it even more exciting when something takes a while to click, not necessarily because I dislike it at first, but for whatever reason it doesn’t capture my attention upon first listen.
I started listening to Curtis/Live! a long time before I realized that it was one of my favorite albums. I’d throw it on frequently because it’s just so listenable — I particularly love the opening track. Over time, I grew to love the album from top to bottom — the loose, casual vibe, soulful ballads mixed with raw, almost garage-style funk. I am not alone in thinking it one of the greatest live albums of all time. It was my introduction to Curtis Mayfield, and I still like his live sound better than his grander, string-and-horn laden studio albums.
It’s no wonder then that I was immediately entranced by “Power to the People.” I came across it when looking for John Lennon’s song of the same name (which besides the title have nothing in common), and it’s interesting how the songs contrast. Whereas Lennon’s tune sounds big, with constantly rolling drums, saxophone, handclaps, and a choir that explicitly calls to mind the sound of people singing at a protest, Mayfield’s “Power to the People” is a quiet demo (though eventually recorded in full). It’s close and intimate, the bass blending with the guitar so well that they sound like one instrument, and percussion that’s so gentle that it is a perfect example of the drummer’s duty to not dominate but instead serve the song.
In times like these, I can struggle to keep on pushing, to be (as a white man) the best antiracist and ally I can be. Sure, I can (and must) read and protest and educate myself and vote and donate and write letters, but all of those actions can feel inadequate in the face of Black people being so extensively oppressed, regularly murdered by the institutions that are supposed to help them. Curtis Mayfield sang these songs half a century ago, and we’re still having these problems? Why does it take so long? Why do we have to repeatedly fight for the most basic rights, for every single person to be treated with the respect they deserve?
But while these thoughts can be discouraging, music has a special power to motivate and bring us hope. Besides doing the challenging but essential task of fighting for a better world, I am excited to think more about just how integral black culture is to the creation of essentially every genre of music, to celebrate genius by absorbing myself in all the absolutely incredible, deeply moving artwork by Black people. The work of Curtis Mayfield is so potent right now not only because it’s incredible music, but also for how it inspires and motivates us, for how — as Sinead O’Conner said before performing at Mayfield’s 70th birthday tribute show — it uses “love and encouragement…to say important things.”
The fact that Curtis Mayfield recorded this song in 1970 tells me that there always have been and always will be people who fight the good fight, and who make powerful, moving songs to inspire us to do the same. Power to the people.
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