In the wake of nationwide heartache following the news of George Floyd's death, there is a growing urgency to support the Black Lives Matter cause. Generations of soul artists have contributed to the movement through anthemic songs of protest and statement albums that have begun and furthered the conversations addressing racism, violence and disillusionment.
In this ongoing series, we highlight the songs of the Black Lives Matter movement that launched and empowered people's pleas for a brighter future. Check back in weekly to listen and learn about the songs that have unified people throughout history to stand up for racial equality.
Curtis Mayfield, "New World Order"
Through his celebrated career, King of Conscious Soul Curtis Mayfield infused his sweet, melancholic funk tracks with signature optimism and rattling political commentary that sought to sensitize the heart of society.
When Mayfield was struck by a falling lighting rig during an outdoor concert in New York, he was left paralyzed from the neck down. Though he could no longer play guitar or move his lower body, the soul pioneer refused to give up on his artistry, victoriously rallying to create 1996's gospel-tinged New World Order, his first and his last studio release after the incident.
In order to record his final album, he positioned his broken body by laying on his back so that he could intake the necessary oxygen to sing, one painstaking line at a time.
"How many 54-year-old quadriplegics are putting albums out? You just have to deal with what you got, try to sustain yourself as best as you can, and look to the things that you can do," he described.
Throughout his career, Mayfield focused on the bigger picture, constantly fixing his gaze on inspiring progressive social change. His releases in the '60's with the Impressions and solo work in the '70s all tackled issues of race, class and justice while simultaneously delivering landmark funk jams and moving, lush ballads.
With a team of contemporary R&B producers beside him to do the physical work he was no longer capable of, Mayfield miraculously delivered the album with stunning vocal delivery. The album's lyrical urgency and poetic prowess underscored the album's true musical power - the undeniable persevering power of Mayfield himself.
The title track of this album, alongside superb tracks "Back to Living Again," featuring Aretha Franklin's brief appearance and "Ms. Martha," would command attention to Mayfield's skill as a lyricist and as a high tenor. Even as Mayfield recorded from his deathbed, he would shine with unmatched positivity for the beauty of life and a renewed vision of hope.
Released in September 1966, the album went to No. 24 on the R&B chart, marking Mayfield's top chart performance in nearly twenty years. He also received Grammy nods for the album, its title track and "Back to Living Again." The Soul Train Music Awards additionally honored him with the Heritage Award.
Mayfield died just a month later on December 26, 1999, leaving behind an enduring legacy of heroic optimism that assured his black listeners that better times were ahead.
ON THE SONG'S INSPIRATION:
“By that point Curtis could only sing laying flat down” on his back, Mrs. Mayfield recalled, because only in that position could he control his diaphragm for oxygen and flexibility. “He made a great effort, because he felt he was here to make a difference” and with such a relentless attitude, endured the pain.
“Curtis Mayfield had a long history of writing wonderful love songs, songs that you’d want to dance slow to in the basement, before he went off in that other direction,” Ms. Staples added, as she sang a bit of “Gypsy Woman.” “And then all of a sudden he went and wrote some of the best message songs that could be out there. Curtis was a poet, his lyrics came straight from the heart and make me shiver.”
KEY LYRIC: "A new world order, a brand new day/ A change of mind for the human race/ Operation influx and it's on the way/ We've just marched a million plus the other day."
There are many ways people can support the movement against police violence and provide relief to the communities who have been impacted by police racism. Help the family of George Floyd HERE. Fight for Breonna Taylor HERE. Help the family of Ahmaud Arbery HERE.
Want to help protesters? Donate to one or more community bail funds HERE. Visit Movement For Black Lives for additional ways you can help the cause. Want to connect with leaders building grass roots campaigns? Click HERE. Are you an ally and want to learn more? Here are some anti-racism resources.