Maggie: Alright, guys. Listen up! What does music have to do with civil rights? Well, in honor of Black History Month, Scott Evans shows us how one courageous music company, named after its hometown in Motor City, Detroit, helped shape the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. And, yes, you are going to see Scott dance!
Scott: You may recognize the music; I Want You Back by the legendary Jackson 5. It is also a hit song in the new show on Broadway, Motown The Musical. It is based on the story of Motown, the African-American-owned record company that helped inspire a whole new genre of music: rhythm and blues, or what we call today R&B. Motown is also the subject of a new exhibit at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
The impact of African-Americans in music would be hard to imagine without the work of Berry Gordy and the Motown roster.
Stars like The Temptations, Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and so many more all got their shot in the music biz with the record label started out of this place, Hitsville USA.
In 1959, with a loan from his family for $800, Gordy set out to create a company to make great music. But no one could have predicted its legacy.
Christopher Moore: This was new territory. Berry Gordy was accomplishing something that had not been accomplished. Before that, if you were a black man or a black woman and you wrote a song, you basically were covered by someone else.
Scott: That was because the country was in the middle of a civil rights battle. African-Americans were fighting racism and hate.
Moore: It’s hard for us to understand today that, unfortunately, that was the history of American music. Keep the black faces off the cover. You might have a chance to sell it.
Scott: But the sounds that came out of Hitsville made fans want to know who they were listening to, no matter their race.
Moore: Music is very important in the activism. Music in America really does go back to early Africa. If you think about it, just take a banjo. Most people who play country-and-western don’t realize the banjo is an African instrument.
The music was first praised in the early 1800s. These people had a real genius. That’s the first positive adjective that you hear about Africans and African-Americans is this genius of music.
Scott: The genius was undeniable. Motown holds nearly two hundred number-one hits and has become and the largest African-American owned business in the world.
Moore: Berry Gordy Motown music was able to transcend bigotry. And in a real sense, because music, according to musicologists, music is a global language.
Scott: It wasn’t just the riffs and the hooks that made Motown a household name.
Now, few would argue that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the great voices of the Civil Rights Movement, and his iconic I Have a Dream speech was recorded in Detroit for Motown just two months before he delivered it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.
Moore: One of my favorite photographs in this exhibition is Berry Gordy with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He thought we could use not just the celebrity but also the culture.
Scott: A culture that’s impact can still be heard today.
Moore: Somewhere in there there’s a riff, there’s a hook. You know, if they use some words and they’re usually concise, there is something from Africa in your music.
Scott: Scott Evans, Channel One News.
Maggie: Well, now I have an awesome new Pandora station lined up. So thank you, Scott!