Contemporary African-American music—especially rap and hip-hop—has become synonymous with and notorious for its suggestive and explicit lyrics. Women are often portrayed as sex toys, violence is glorified, denunciations of law enforcement are routine, and middle-class upbringings go unacknowledged, lest they undermine the artists’ street credentials. A few decades ago, however, black popular music—what’s come to be known as “classic soul”—was notable for featuring lyrics that celebrated marriage and downplayed obstacles to black progress. Its lyrics championed the sort of family life that lays the groundwork for upward mobility and the optimism associated with a period of social breakthroughs and economic improvement.
The classic soul recordings of such sixties giants as Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Percy Sledge, The Impressions, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, and others embodied values at odds with those purveyed in much black popular music today. The 1960s and early 1970s was the era of what music critic Peter Guralnick has called “sweet soul music,” the title of his definitive book. “Soul music, then, was the product of a particular time and place,” Guralnick writes, when “the bitter fruit of segregation transformed . . . into a statement of warmth and affirmation.”
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