Harlem 69

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A protest in Harlem during the 1960s

“In every city you find the same thing going down/ Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town.”

So sang Bobby Womack in Across 110th Street, which refers to the unofficial boundary between Harlem and the rest of New York City. In 1969 Harlem was a city within a city, with more than 90 percent of its population being black. It is the subject of the last book in Stuart Cosgrove’s trilogy about key political events and music of the late 1960s.

Cosgrove’s series (the earlier two are Detroit 67 and Memphis 68) can be read separately, but to read them as a trilogy gives a real sense of black music and social movements. They are also tributes to the cities at the heart of these movements.

Sixties Harlem was overcrowded, with high unemployment and child mortality rates more than double the city average. The NYC Buildings Department received over 500 calls a day about rats, unsanitary plumbing and lack of heating.
It was also the centre of black politics, home of the Nation of Islam’s Temple Number Seven run by Malcolm X until 1963, and with an active chapter of the Black Panthers.

Each of Cosgrove’s books takes a significant event in the city — the Detroit riots of 1967, the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 Memphis — and in Harlem 69 it’s the trial of the Black Panther 21. At its conclusion, this was the longest and most expensive court case in the history of New York.

A series of police raids led to the arrest of 21 Black Panther Party members who were charged with conspiracy — allegedly planning to bomb a number of public places and police stations. Bail was set high, and so only two of the defendants could be released — Michael Tabor and Afeni Shakur, soon to be mother of Tupac.

Each day Black Panther members would attend the trial, hold protests outside the court and raise funds for the defence. In court the attorney general read the jurors Mao’s Little Red Book and showed the film The Battle of Algiers, while a number of the Panthers defended themselves.

Two years after their arrest and an eight-month court case, they were all acquitted of the 156 charges. The jurors threw a party and invited the defendants to celebrate with them.

The trial was significant for showing the level of police infiltration into the Black Panther Party (and therefore the threat the state believed them to be) to the point of exposing that various bombing campaigns had been organised by undercover police unaware of each other’s real identities and roles.

A number of celebrities supported the Black Panther 21 — Leonard Bernstein, Jane Fonda, Harry Belafonte and singer/songwriter Donny Hathaway, who visited the court hearings.

During the early to mid-1960s, black music had been dominated by artists from labels such as Motown and Stax, both forming part of Cosgrove’s first two books. But for Cosgrove, Harlem in 1969 held the seeds of new musical genres.
Although released in 1970, Hathaway’s “The Ghetto” is synonymous with Harlem life and, Cosgrove argues, groundbreaking musically. Almost seven minutes long and with few lyrics, “The Ghetto” is a masterpiece of soul with a social conscience, paving the way for albums such as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.

Cosgrove tells us about some of the best-known artists in Harlem at the time, from Miles Davis to King Curtis and Jimi Hendrix. He describes events like the Harlem Cultural Festival, where Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder were among the performers. We also learn about less famous singers, record label owners and musicians, like Fat Jack Taylor and Doris Duke. Substantial parts of the book look at how circumstances and people collided to develop soul music in new directions — jazz funk, disco, hip hop.

One such genre was the Latin soul that came out of East Harlem. Cosgrove introduces Joe Bataan, who after signing to the Fania label started Ghetto Records (partly funded by a local gangster) but went on to coin the phrase, and label name, Salsoul. Formed partly out of members of the Philadelphia International Records house band, the sound of Salsoul was formative in the development of disco in New York.

The Bronx is typically seen as the birthplace of hip hop but in Harlem 69 Cosgrove reminds us about the “spoken word” songs of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. And we hear about Harlem label owners Sylvia and Joe Robinson who went on to found Sugar Hill Records and release “Rapper’s Delight”. Tupac Shakur’s mother was a Harlem Panther, and Sean Combs’s father was a street general of Harlem gangster Frank Lucas.

As with Detroit 67 and Memphis 68, the backdrop to Harlem 69 is the Vietnam War, poverty and racism, and the movements and characters that resist them. The trilogy paints a vivid, detailed picture of the intensity of social deprivation and resistance, and also the way that’s reflected in, but also affected by, the music of those cities. Reading Harlem 69 made me want to do two things — dig out and play some of the records mentioned, and fight the powers that be.