I am a feminist. It’s not a title I have fought for. It’s meaning was never a struggle to find. I have never considered women and men to be anything but equal. I despise hierarchy, but the implication of a hierarchy based on gender (or any other disposition of birth) is enough to set my blood afire. I am the product of a strong mother wholly invested in the future of her child. My being is the result of care and intellect transferred by a woman. How could I be greater than such a source? Truthfully, as a man, I might question my ability to ever be equal to it.
Sadly, such an intuitively evident logic does not dictate the architecture of the world we live in. Women face struggles and discrimination on countless fronts that few men can claim. It is for this reason the term Feminist exists. It is the the reason I claim it. To stand against inequity and hope to some day force it into submission.
Because of my upbringing, I associate the feminine voice with truth and wisdom. I am drawn to it, and far more willing to trust her lessons than those of a man. I respect its projection because of what it stands against and must be heard above. Nowhere is this more true than in the African-American Soul and Funk singers of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Among these women are some of most inspiring voices of strength and reason that have ever graced any music. Black Feminism argues that sexism, racism, and class oppression are tied together as a single force. Perhaps the acknowledgement of this extreme circumstance forced these women toward the breaking point. Maybe as women they intuitively understood their role as different from their male counterparts. One of strength, reason, and opposition. A line of defense. The glue that bound their communities. Maybe sexism worked as a paradox in their favor. It may have been that as women, record executives found their message less threatening and allowed them to get away with more than men. Whatever the case, the female singers of this generation strove for justice and change in a way that has few equivalents. I adore and respect them for it. It is through the voices of these women that I began to understand the oppression through class, sex, and race faced by so many of my fellow Americans. A circumstance that has changed little in the years since they drew attention to it. Following the murders of Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and countless other African Americans at the hands of white males proves that the spirit of lynching is alive and well. Looking at the demographics of minimum wage labor and the prison population in this country will show you that slavery has only taken a new form. Looking at gender discrepancies in pay, and the degrees of socially permissible violence against women, shows the scale of the Feminist struggle ahead. More than ever I feel a pressing need for the voices of this generation of singers. Through their lessons I came to focus my anger toward the great sins of our society. I can only hope that some future generation picks up the reigns and sing the songs of struggle as these women once did.
Each of these albums represents the singer as social conscience. A few evenings ago I went dancing with friends at a 60’s soul night in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. That night has subsequently altered this list and created a secondary assertion. It reminded me of one great failing of record collectors who become DJs. We are drawn to the obscure through our desire for discovery and democracy. Unfortunately our faith in music often leads us to believe our job is to impress and educate. To advocate for lost and under-appreciated gems. This impulse in a DJ is rarely received as intended because it sacrifices the desires of the dance floor for an abstract belief in the “greater good”. As record collectors we hunt for truth in the shadows of history. Sometimes this leads us to neglect of albums that exist in common knowledge, considering them less pure, suspect for their successes, opium for the masses. I am the first to admit guilt to this impulse. Recognizing the gaps in my knowledge, I have spent considerable effort in the last year trying to rectify it, exploring the obvious and obtainable over the obscure. From the beginning I was aware that this subject held far too many albums to comfortably approach in a single piece. It is my desire to keep articles as manageable as possible, not for myself, but so the reader might have time and space to explore each album without being distracted or overwhelmed. For this reason, my discussion of the women of Soul will stretch over multiple installments. Because of my thoughts on the other evening, for this iteration, I have chosen albums that are easily obtainable and less obscure. For those of you that are not aware of them, they are a great place to begin an exploration of a wonderful period in music. For those of you who are, I encourage you to return for another spin.
Nina Simone – Wild Is The Wind (1966)
There are no words to begin to explain my adoration for the High Priestess of Soul. She was a force with no equivalents. Truly uncategorizable. A stone cold genius. Awhile back, I saw a television interview she gave late in her life. In it she credited her ex-husband with saving her life and those of many others by encouraging her to leave America for France during the 1960’s. She explained that her rage was so great at the inequity faced by her people that she was ready to take to the streets with a shotgun and gun down anyone who stood in the way of the justice argued for by the Civil Rights movement. Not for a second could I fault her for such an impulse, or lack empathy for her rage… but I’m glad she didn’t. Had she spent these years in prison we would be denied the power of her words and so many great works of art conceived at her hands. This is my favorite of her albums, seething with power and inner rage. I think of it as her shotgun. Nina was the only person who managed to translate the potency and poetic pain of Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit, which I consider to be the most powerful and important piece of music of the 20th century, to a grand scale. Making it seep through every word she uttered and bubble below every album that graced the shelves. Though it had begun to take form in her 1964 single Mississippi Goddamn!, this album marks the end of Nina as an entertainer and the beginning of her life as musical force for social change and justice. Whether spoken of explicitly in Four Women and Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair, or left to the inference of her tone, this is an album of pure politic and beauty the likes of which few have ever achieved.
Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (1967)
This is the perfect album to illustrate my failings as a record collector. Despite owning thousands of Soul releases from the 1960’s and 1970’s, this one only entered my collection a few months ago. Honestly, bringing it home and letting the needle drop for the first time made me feel like an idiot. What the hell was I thinking letting this one pass me by for so long?! It is an undeniable master work of the genre. The answer is all too obvious: as an album it was too familiar. It’s presence in my collection was presumed unnecessary. I have never been so wrong. I’ve known almost every song on its two sides for my entire life, yet since bringing it home it has been a love affair with few parallels. Each listen deepening its effect and bringing new levels of understanding. Recorded with the Swampers at Fame studios, this is Aretha’s first album for Atlantic after years of mismanagement and floundering on Columbia. It is the first to harness her unfathomable power as a singer. Most of the record’s contents are songs of love and loss. Aretha levels the field. She brings an effect to the content like no other. Rather than becoming the voice of a woman suffering, she transforms her words into an angry force of feminine power bucking against a man’s world. She’s had enough and and she’s standing her ground.
Laura Lee – Women’s Love Rights (1972)
This is the first album I can think of that takes the explicit message of Second-Wave Feminism as its voice. It’s entirely possible that there is a gap in my knowledge, but any way you look at it, Laura Lee was a force to be reckoned with and deserves a lot of credit as a ground breaker. The voice and drive of this album is tough, uncompromising and funky as hell. With songs like Women’s Love Rights, Wedlock Is A Padlock, Love And Liberty, and It’s Not What You Fall For, It’s What You Stand For, there is no mincing words. This album’s politic is as explicate as you can get. Laura Lee was bringing her message to the women of her generation and she was taking no prisoners. It’s a fantastic album which stands the test of time and remains as great a listen today as it did the day it was made.
Esther Phillips – From A Whisper To A Scream (1971)
If Laura Lee was the first to take on the Feminist message, Esther Phillips may have been the first woman to explicitly address the rapidly degrading socioeconomic circumstances in urban African-American communities. Her choice to cover Gil Scott Heron’s Home Is Where the Hatred Is and Allen Toussaint’s From A Whisper To A Scream, two of the most explicitly terse comments on the subject, as a back to back entrée into the album, can be interpreted as nothing but pointed. For the record, despite my profound respect for each of the originals, Phillips brings a power to their words that is absent elsewhere. The circumstances that Phillips was addressing are viewed by many as anything but accidental or circumstantial, but rather as the result of economic retribution directed at African-American communities for having put voice to their anger and frustration through the Civil rights and Black Power movements. This sentiment seems to permeate Phillips’ words, beckoning her community to be aware of what was happening and resist the apathy that would necessitate it.
Lyn Collins – Think (About It) (1972)
One of the strongest male voices advocating for better social circumstances during this period was James Brown. Having come from the lowest depths of economic insecurity, he was never content to let others face the challenges that he had. Brown did a great deal to help promote strong female voices in Soul and Funk music. The bulk of his energies were focused on members of the The James Brown Revue and were cast as female alter-egos to his hyper-masculine persona. Yvonne Fair, Anna King, Vicki Anderson (also known as Myra Barnes, who’s single offers its name to this article), and Lyn Collins all held this role and stand as rugged examples of feminine strength and power. Of the group I choose Collins partially because, with the exception of King, she is the only female member of The Revue to have made an LP (as apposed to 45s), and partially because this album stands out as one of the toughest and funkiest records of any era. It is a stone cold classic, and even for those who do not know it.. you do know it! This is the source for Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock’s iconic sample for It Takes Two from 1988, a fragment from the early days of Hip Hop rightly burned on our collective memories. The vibrato of this album is inescapable and consuming. It will leave you in awe of the the woman at its helm and more likely all members of womankind. If that is not enough to convince you of its worthiness of this article’s conceit, buried on its second side is the track Women’s Lib, another early example of explicit feminism where Collins argues for women’s rights and autonomy. If I had to pick one Soul/Funk record to take with me to the grave, this would be a strong contender.
Kimberley Briggs – Passing Cloud (1972)
Kimberley Briggs is slightly more well known under the name Kim Tolliver, her professional name before and after this album. Kimberley was a singer of astounding power and presence. Despite being part of the recording industry for the previous 5 years, this is her first LP and in my opinion, her crowning achievement. Not unlike Aretha Franklin, Briggs was a singer whose message was in her voice rather than her words. Whatever her subject, she sang from a position of strength. It is impossible to listen to her and not be compelled. This is a fantastic, driving, and funky record steeped in Gospel. It also delivers one of the most potent political statements in the genre. The track What In The World’s Happening To Love finds Briggs taking on the fracturing of the African-American way of life through economics, infighting, crime, and political division, and points her finger at White-America for its complicity. A powerful album. It is the least recognized of those listed here, but no less worthy of your attention.