50 years ago with the song “We Got To Have Peace” from the album Roots, Curtis Mayfield’s message could not have been clearer. It was a response to then-raging Vietnam War which had escalated into the worst scenes of horror. Faithful to his aesthetic, the former front man of The Impressions adjusted his rhymes to a well-balanced rhythm, with arrangements on strings, percussion, a flashy brass section and a wobbly bass, all of it inviting you to dance in order to heal the world.
The higher his voice got, the deeper it became in tone, arguably one of the Chicago native’s best qualities. He reached his peak in the early 1970s, leaving The Impressions and co-founding Curtom, a high class label where our visionary producer chose to make his many views heard. He’d already started down that path in the days of his vocal trio, several of whose songs would become unofficial anthems of the civil rights movement, such as “Keep On Pushing”, whilst We’re A Winner spoke of black pride.
"No more tears do we cry
And we have finally dried our eyes
And we’re movin’ on up"
This is what “Move On Up” is all about; a success that encourages black youth to take their destiny into their own hands. The song is an enduring benchmark for achievement and excellence. As for “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, it sends a message that is about unifying people beyond questions of colour, despite everything.
Two years later our ghetto child recorded Superfly in full blaxploitation mode, pointing out the dealers and other ‘pushermen’. After that, Back to the World is perhaps the most powerful of Mayfield’s paradoxical summits. “Right on for the Darkness” is eight minutes of bitter, sticky groove, pointing the finger at those on top who look down at those beneath them, a barely veiled allegory of the hell called life in the United States.
Was there ever such a clear-sighted day in the heart of darkness?