Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Natural Way to Dro (Part III)

Funk art pioneer Pedro Bell got his first taste of the Black power movement during an extended visit with family in Florida.

"When I was in sixth grade I stayed with some family in St. Petersburg," he said. "They had separate schools down there, but that allowed them to do some things that you could never get away with in Chicago. They had an Afrocentric curriculum, which I had never seen before."

By the time he enrolled at Bradley University in the late '60s, the Black power movement was in full flower, even in Peoria. "I was just glad the revolution had finally arrived," he said.

On campus, Bell met people like Mark Clark, a Black Panther leader who started a free breakfast program for public school students in Peoria. "Youngblood was real cool with me," Bell said. (Clark was later tragically murdered, along with Illinois chapter president Fred Hampton, by the Chicago police in 1969).

Like many artists of the time, Bell's work began to reflect this Black Power aesthetic. His piece, "Motherhood in Red Black and Green" features a mother and son wearing thick brown Afros and defiant glares, their outlines suggestive of the African continent's shape. The piece was part of Indiana Review's Funk feature and is one of the few Bell still has from that period.

"I lent some artwork to the Black Panthers for an art show they were doing," Bell said, with a laugh. "Later I asked them when I was going to get my shit back and they told me that it "belonged to the people."

That incident, along with Bell's brief participation in a Panther protest that caused his expulsion from Bradley ("I was there holding a sign for five minutes and they got me for perpetrating some shit!"), soured Bell on the running with the Panthers, but he never soured on the Movement itself, particularly the music.

When James Brown dropped Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud) in 1968, Bell said the whole game changed. To illustrate how much, peep The Godfather's performance on Playboy After Dark.

With it's proto-funk bass line and soul-centric message (We're people/We're just like the birds and the bees/We'd rather die on our feet/Than be livin' on our knees) dropped like an atomic bomb on the consciousness of Black America.
"Some revolutions have happened to the sound of music," he said. "But with that record, James Brown helped make it cool to be Black. That was important."

Before he started working with George Clinton, Bell said his musical education was rounded out by two other legends, B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix.

"I saw Hendrix in May and B.B. in June," he said. "The first time I saw Hendrix, tears started coming down my eyes. Then I went to see B.B. and all these white kids were yelling in the crowd and I had to tell them to shut the fuck up so I could hear him play. And when you think about it, Funkadelic is just Sun Ra + Hendrix + B.B. That's it."

Judge for yourself:

Peep Hendrix on the Dick Cavett show, talking about his Electric Church (9:29 mark), which sounds like something right out of the book of P-Funk.

Here's a clip from Sun Ra's 1974 movie Space is the Place. Sun Ra is credited with his jazz innovation, but he is one of the first Funk philosophers.

And then there's B.B. Of course. This footage is taken from the 1974 concert in Zaire, during the Ali/Foreman fight. Thanks to my compatriot Vanessa, who hipped me to the fact that there's a movie coming out about the concert.

I wasn't sure how to work this in, but when I asked Pedro what contemporary stuff he was listening to, the surprise answer: The Stanky Legg. This was surprising because the only way I learned about the Stanky Legg was through my students, who never tired in their conversations about who did the best Stanky Legg, what personal variations they put on it, which teachers could do it (no, I will not do the Stanky Legg, even after you finish your writing prompt!), etc.
"Nice hooks, beats are okay," Pedro said, with a smile. "Lyrics could be better, but I don't expect much."
Without further ado, the soundtrack to my first year of teaching:

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Is he still in Hyde Park? Is it worth tracking him down or would I just be bothering him?
Nathan Schulz