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Wattstax Festival: When Isaac Hayes helped to heal the wounds of the Watts Riot

This time 61 years ago, the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles was engulfed in violence and flames. The police pulled an African-American male, Marquette Frye, over for drink driving and in the ensuing ordeal, he was struck in the face with a baton as onlookers began to swarm. The rumour soon spread that in the melee, a police officer had kicked a pregnant woman, and six days of civil unrest followed in what would become known as The Watts Riots.

In the aftermath of the six-day uprising, 14,000 members of the Californian National Guard would be deployed, 34 civilians would be killed, 1032 serious injuries were recorded, and 3438 people were arrested, as well as $40 million in property damage. Much has been said about the cause, fallout and everything else surrounding the riots themselves, but in 1972 the music industry would boldly have its own say on the matter with Isaac Hayes at the helm.

Stax Records had been founded in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1957. Thereafter the label became instrumental in creating the Southern Soul Movement. But aside from its pioneer sonic mix of the gospel, funk and blues, it also took a progressive approach when it came to the acts it sought and how they operated. The house band in their early era was Booker T. & the M.G.’s which were an ethnically integrated rarity at the time. This liberated view came to the forefront seven years on from the Watts Riots for an event that is now dubbed the black Woodstock.

The Wattstax festival was the brainchild of the labels West Coast director Forest Hamilton after he became aware of the Watts Summer Festival that commemorated the revolt yearly. He figured it was befitting that a label at the height of the cause for liberation and the civil rights movement should be involved in a benefit concert to help in any area that was still beleaguered by dilapidation and rattled by the effects of the revolt. 

Soon the idea snowballed, and it went from lending a few of the labels up-and-coming acts to play the small park venue in Watts, to rounding up every big name in their arsenal to grace the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. One of the biggest names they had was Isaac Hayes, who was set to celebrate his 30th birthday a few days after the anniversary of the riots in 1972, and he keenly became a central figure in the event, hoping to combine his celebrations with the wider cause that he had represented with his music of salvation throughout his career to that point. 

Burning buildings during Watts Riots. (Credit: LOC)

By the time the festival came around, any concerns about not being able to sell out the Coliseum were long gone. By the time that Dale Warren opened proceedings befittingly with ‘Salvation Symphony’, a crowd of 112,000 had been shown to their seats. Throughout the sweltering hot day, they soaked in performances from the likes Richard Pryor, The Staple Singers and, of course, the grand final act, Isaac Hayes. 

The festival raised a much needed $73,000 for the Watts community, but its impact was biggest than any monetary value could apply. As Stax Records president Al Bell would explain: “We believed that Wattstax would demonstrate the positive attributes of Black pride and the unique substance found in the lives, living and lifestyle of the African American working class and middle class. While revealing some insight into their internal thoughts during a time when we were still struggling to be recognised, respected, accepted as human beings and to be granted ‘equal rights’ as enjoyed by every other ethnic group in the larger segment of American society.”

In this regard, the festival transcended the magnificent performances that it offered up and served as not only a salve for the wound of the past but a cognizant reminder of the current state of the civil rights movement which had waned at the time. The concert wasn’t a grisly reminder of the past but a celebration of the benefits of an integrated community. 

Captured in the accompanying documentary to the festival, Wattstax is a community moving on from an atrocity that saw the loss of 34 lives and revibrating despair. Whilst one does not bring any comforting solace to the other, it is testimony to the unconquerable spirit of those that suffered that this torment was, transfigured into something beautiful where the unified call of music prevailed. This sentiment behind the festival is as prescient today as ever. As Jesse Jackson declared in his opening speech: “Today, we are together, we are unified and on one accord and when were are together we’ve got power.”

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