Motown Records and its galaxy of musical stars are permanent fixtures in American culture, but very little is known about the company’s subsidiary label, Black Forum. Sunday evening at MOMA PS1, a panel that included Professor Michael Dinwiddie, James Mtume, Sadie Barnette and Rich Medina discussed the label and placed it within the context of Black nationalism and self-determination.
In his opening comments, Dinwiddie, who teaches at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and is a native Detroiter, explained how Berry Gordy founded Black Forum in 1970 (it was gone by 1973) as a political platform for music and the spoken word. Although Motown and its artists did very well, Black Forum “did not take off in sales,” Dinwiddie lamented. He added, “Overall it recorded eight albums featuring such luminaries as Stokely Carmichael [Kwame Ture], Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka.”
Of the recordings, Baraka’s “It’s Nation Time” resonated most directly to the Black liberation struggle at that time, and Mtume, whose musical and activist credentials are extensive, performed on the date, composing “Chant.”
“I was a member of Maulana Karenga’s US, and during the recording we were thinking about John Coltrane’s tune ‘Alabama’ that was inspired by the four little girls killed in Birmingham,” Mtume said. He then established the context—a word he mentioned quite often—that artist Barnette used to frame her recollections about her father’s involvement in the civil and human rights struggle.
Barnette’s father, Rodney, was a founder of the Black Panther Party chapter in Compton, Calif., and “he was constantly under surveillance,” she said. During her presentation “Dear 1968…” there were depictions of the FBI records and even a signed document by J. Edgar Hoover. Like Mtume, her father was in the streets, and those issues are still pertinent today, noted Medina, who as a DJ has collaborated with a number of notable rappers and spoken words artists, including J Dilla and Jill Scott.
When Medina asked the panel about the issue of theory and practice, Mtume said, recalling the Occupy Wall Street movement, “You have to be ready to suffer, ready to give up some blood, if you gonna bring about change.”
Dinwiddie expressed a similar passion, adding that it is “really a matter of what you are willing to stand for.”
It’s a shame that Black Forum records did not have the commitment of the panelists to push forward an agenda beyond the commercial obstacles, but at least the young people assembled at MOMA PS1 got a taste of the revolutionary potential of the 1960s.