In his Washington address, Martin Luther King dreamed of a transition from jangling discord to a beautiful symphony, so let’s see how far we get with that.
Equality is a concept that is central to the smooth administration of the modern state. Having observed the inevitable revolutions and uprisings that have arisen as a direct response to gross inequality, western democracies have been keen to ensure both the equality of opportunity without which a meritocracy and a free market based on healthy competition are unable to function correctly; as well as to contemplate steps toward an equality of outcome that avoids public perception of obscene injustice (without, of course, limiting the freedoms of wealth creators).
Conflict aren’t buying any of that shit, though. In From Protest to Resistance they remind us that the state should never be trusted and it’s up to us to unite and fight.
The state is also the subject of Yothu Yindi’s withering yet joyful Treaty, a blunt reminder of ex-Australian PM Bob Hawke’s (and his successors’) continued failure to honour a promise to Aboriginal communities.
The first major mixed-race British beat group, The Equals, emerged from a London council estate to offer a harder-edged vision of Blue Mink's idealistic 60s melting pot of “coffee-coloured people”. Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys looks instead to a “half-breed” future, with an insistent funk riff provided by Eddy Grant, a man with a unique knack for gritty pop.
Multiculturalism, a more practical approach than the melting pot, was later embodied by Culture Club, a band who cleverly brought messages of tolerance and equality to a global pop audience. Always the most charming of ambassadors, Boy George also possessed a terrific soul voice and an unwavering commitment to LGBT rights, both of which are displayed brilliantly in his solo song Same Thing In Reverse.
The concept of privilege offers a more recent way of assessing and addressing equality. Field Music’s Count It Up is a brilliant illustration of what privilege is and what it means. Go on; count it up. Meanwhile for anyone who still equates anarchy with violence, Robb Johnson offers a gentle and clear metaphor of what equality might look like in Cauliflower Curry, although I must admit I’d have suggested including some garden peas to the collective.
Equality comes closer to home in Bonnie Raitt’s self-explanatory plea to a selfish lover, Meet Me Halfway – a world-weary, funky, country blues; while Peggy Seeger’s Gonna Be an Engineer is funny, bitter feminist jewel which contains barbs on harassment at work and equal pay that are no less relevant almost 50 years after it was written.
John Coltrane’s Alabama stops you in your tracks, even before you learn that it was written in response to the Ku Klux Clan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four young girls. Based on the rhythms and cadences of Martin Luther King’s elegy, Coltrane’s solo is equally eloquent, indignant, mournful, and dignified; but this is more than an individual statement – it’s a collective effort by artists of the highest calibre. Coltrane himself would go on to embrace the discord that King sought to leave behind, seeking spiritual expression and freedom way beyond melody and rhythm.
In Yes We Can Can, The Pointer Sisters give us a more optimistic and hopeful vision, with a title that was later echoed in the slogan of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign (he borrowed it from the “Sì se puede” slogan of the United Farm Workers’ union). The sisters cover most of the bases here, testifying over a funky N’awlins shuffle and embodying a hopeful idealism that was widespread in 70s soul music.
Club culture offers another version of equality, the dancefloor becoming a place where gender, race and social background are irrelevant; where the music is created by deliberately anonymous machine operators and served up by thousands of dedicated and equally anonymous DJs . Sure, if you want VIP rooms, velvet ropes and superstar DJs they’re not hard to find, but Pangaea's glorious Router offers just a momentary glimpse of an immense, fertile underground that has thrived for decades.
But are we any nearer to that beautiful symphony? Gains have been made, ground has been lost, but the world’s still a rough and crooked place and the time for celebration seems distant. Kamasi Washington’s Fair To Equal is maybe as close as we'll get right now – a moment to close your eyes, to pause and rest, to pretend it’s all gone away before the struggle inevitably begins again.
The All-Embracing Adequation A-List Playlist:
Conflict – From Protest to Resistance
Yothu Yindi – Treaty
The Equals – Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys
Boy George – Same Thing In Reverse
Field Music – Count It Up
Robb Johnson – Cauliflower Curry
Bonnie Raitt – Meet Me Halfway
Peggy Seeger - Gonna Be An Engineer
John Coltrane Quartet – Alabama
The Pointer Sisters – Yes We Can Can
Pangaea – Router
Kamasi Washington – Fair As Equal
The Utterly Equatable AA-Side Playlist (no B-class this week):
The Au Pairs – It’s Obvious
Aretha Franklin – Do Right Woman, Do Right Man
The Ting Tings – That’s Not My Name
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Power of Equality
Roots Manuva – Hard Bastards
Hugh Mundell – Run Revolution A Come
Eddie Cochran - Cut Across Shorty
Macklemore & Lewis feat. Jamila Woods – White Privilege II
Hurray for the Riff Raff – Pa’lante
Johnny Cash – Man In Black
John Martyn – One World
The Isley Brothers – Harvest For The World
Guru’s Wildcard Pick:
Mr Fingers – Can You Feel It (Martin Luther King Jr mix)
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Stand up for your mics: songs about equality. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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