“Our purpose is to educate as well as to entertain. Painless preaching is as good a term as any for what we do.” – Curtis Mayfield
Curtis Mayfield went from the gospel choirs of Chicago, Illinois, to the frontline of the Civil Rights movement in a musical journey that brings to mind the John Cooper Clarke quote, “All the best musicians started out in church; Jesus invented rock ‘n’ roll.”
While his music may have ventured wildly away from gospel into the sleek and sexy world of unapologetic funk, he continually remained true to the notion that behind the music there should be some “painless preaching.” The preaching on Mayfield’s part often became quite ardent and he was one of the music pioneers of the blaxploitation movement lending his sultry grooves to the movie Super Fly in the now-iconic soundtrack album of the same name.
His journey to the forefront, however, was a long one and he earned his musical chops the hard way before going it alone. Mayfield became a member of Jerry ‘The Iceman’ Butler’s vocal group, The Impressions, at the tender age of 14. The group would eventually be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but more importantly for Mayfield at the time, they provided the perfect platform for him to learn the craft. As he matured in the band he seeded a new direction by penning socially conscious songs that helped to shape the forthcoming wave of civil rights anthems.
In 1968, one such anthem was condemned to the ash heap of history by the powers that be and it almost sparked a riot. In March of that year, 1200 students occupied Howard University’s Administration Building and further 2500 rallied outside. The group wanted a greater representation of African American studies, as well as calling for charges against protestors who had previously disrupted the school’s Charter Day to be dropped and for the controversial University president James Nabrit to resign.
When the Occupy movement seemed to be flagging without making the desired impact, the group turned towards some sonic subversiveness to boost morale. The track that they turned to was ‘We’re a Winner’. Released a few months earlier in late 1967, the simple lyrics of unified salvation ensured that the song found itself on the banned list for several radio stations across the deeply segregated States at the time.
For the students, this was a salve to their cause. Tensions began to build as the authorities refused to budge and the music added an adrenalised edge to the protest. When some of their demands were finally agreed to, they played it on repeat as a mark of celebration. The brother of the late soul-funk legend, Todd Mayfield, would later remark: “He felt like he was contributing. He would see and hear people singing his songs while protesting. He was keenly aware of that.”
The song went on to become a civil rights anthem after the Howard University protests brought about much-needed progress. It rose to 14 on the US Billboard Charts and topped the R&B charts. It brought a backbeat of rhythm to the movement itself and even prognosticated Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On with the ambient sound of fun and laughter bringing a humanised edge to protest music. “Being a young black man,” Mayfield would remark, “observing and sensing the need for race equality and women’s rights, I wrote about what was important to me.”
Music might not have the political prowess to change a bill or pass a law, but it has the subversive force to usurp politics entirely and push progress and change through under the noses of the bourgeoise. It might not meddle with the finer details, but it has the power to influence ballots by guiding the way for youth, and it is a benevolent unifying force that since its origins on plantations has spoken of solidarity and defiance that power cannot ignore. As Mayfield would later reflect: “To talk about the ‘60s almost brings tears to my eyes. What we did. What we all did. We changed the world.”