Throughout the passageways of my youth, perhaps no other voice was as critically important. When I questioned my own existence in a predominantly white school and community, it was his voice and music that carried me through. During my saddest and most vulnerable moments, he filled me with hope and the strength to face another day. When I was locked inside the torments of my own mind, he would free me from the shackles of despair. The Reverend Andrew Young would go on to say that his music had the spiritual power of Martin Luther King. For me and for many others, his voice was one of guidance and of supreme understanding. His name was Curtis Mayfield, and I owe him more than these words could ever say.
Curtis Mayfield was born in Chicago and would die on December 26th, 1999 from several years of complications due to a tragic stage accident that resulted in paralysis. He was a quiet and honest poet, a messenger who had an empathy and comprehension of the human condition without allowing racial bitterness to compromise his cultural identity. At a time when he could have renounced his oppressor of 400 years, he had the wisdom to find love and understanding. His rhythm would influence the development of funk, his lyrics the development of inner-city rap and his music, the hope identified by several generations of race.
Like many of history's greatest artists and visionaries, he had the unique ability to assess the time he was living in. Historians and academia need time in order to fully study and evaluate an era conclusively, but the artist has a unique awareness of the time and events as they materialize. This is true with artists such as Bob Dylan
and now Liu Xiaobo along with the great and insightful leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. It is a phenomenon and genius that Mayfield shared.
A lifelong activist of human rights, he believed in a dream that all people and cultures would someday come together as one. And during a time when few black musicians retained any control over their own music while receiving paltry handouts as industry executives became wealthy, Mayfield would become one of the first Black artists to start his own music label, Curtom Records, in 1968. He understood the power and necessity of self-determination and would accept nothing less.
Born on June 3rd, 1942, Mayfield would begin singing at the age of seven with the Traveling Soul Spiritualists, a gospel church group started by his grandmother, the Reverend A.B. Mayfield. It was through his grandmother that he would acquire his lifelong love for gospel music. He would spend part of his teenage years with the Northern Jubilee Gospel Choir, and would meet Jerry Butler, who would soon invite Curtis to join his group, The Roosters. He was 14 and living with his mother, Marion Washington, who taught him poetry in the Cabrini-Green projects of Chicago. He would drop out of Wells Community Academy High School at 16 and would start the vocal group known as The Impressions. The group included Sam Gooden and Jerry Butler but Butler would leave the group and Fred Cash would take his place. His song, "We're a Winner," would become the anthem of black power and black pride movements.
Reluctantly, Mayfield would leave the Impressions in 1970 and begin a solo career writing compositions that provided social commentary and reflected the struggle of African Americans. More importantly, he composed lyrics that reached and uplifted the soul and spirit of the oppressed.
Of history's greatest musicians, perhaps no one has been less documented than Curtis Mayfield. I would argue that it's due to his willingness to speak out on the subject of race that many find uncomfortable. But it is impossible to provide a complete and truthful portrayal of Mayfield without the inclusion of his passionate and brilliant voice on the struggle of African Americans.
While many focus on President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey as proof of racial equality, in reality, it has only created the illusion that racism no longer exists. In actuality, what little progress has been made has only forced the face of racism to strengthen itself through institutionalized and systematic conditioning that has influenced the perception of most Americans. Consequently, discrimination has become so much a part of the American fabric that we have lost our ability to even distinguish the difference. Sadly but not surprisingly, racism has further embedded itself into our social foundation and structure.