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Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit

Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit

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Published by kalasanty

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Published by: kalasanty on Dec 24, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Motown and the cultural politics of DetroitBerry Gordy's soul music label and the civil rights movement
Dancing in the Street - The study by Suzanne E. Smith, HUP
.Suzanne E. Smith, assistant professor of history at George Mason University, examines therelation between soul music's hit factory and the politics and culture of Motor Town, USA, in
 Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit 
. The author refers to the British press which asked Martha Reeves (of Martha and the Vandellas)if she was a militant leader and if 
 Dancing in the Street 
was a call to riot. The query was absurd because, as she later remarked: "My Lord, it was a
song." It was associated to historicalevents (e.g. the Watts uprising) taking place at the same moment which the record companycould not control. Other such songs were
 Nowhere to Run
. But Suzanne E. Smithargues that
 Dancing in the Street 
was "never just a party song". According to her, the Motownsongs (and other tunes as well, of course) "clearly illustrate how the sounds of Detroit's streetscould articulate the needs of African Americans." The Motown sound was the most celebratedand famous of the 60s. The company transformed the American popular music scene. "Never  before had a black owned company been able to create and produce the musical artistry of itsown community, and then sell it successfully to audiences across the racial boundaries." "Record companies first began marketing "black" music as "race records" in the 1920s inresponse to the popularity of blues singers such as Gertrude "Ma" Rainey and Bessie Smith.
magazine monitored these records on its "Harlem Hit Parade", which eventually became the "Rhythm and Blues" chart." Other labels such as Don Robey's Duke-Peacock label inHouston and Vee-Jay Records in Chicago succeeded in the R&R market before Motown, but itwas Motown which brought down the segregation of the music industry when its records beganto sell outside the traditional black markets. Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown in Detroit in 1958 with an $800 loan from his family. From thesmall house on West Grand Boulevard, which the staff quickly dubbed "Hitsville, U.S.A.",Motown's soul music was to conquer America and the world. According to Suzanne E. Smith, it
was the civil rights movement which "created the environment in which broader culturalintegration - as typified by Motown's wide appeal - could occur." Many have argued that Detroitis
critical to understanding the Motown phenomenon which could have happened anywhere -at least in others cities with a large and vital African American population such as Chicago, NewYork, Pittsburgh or Cleveland. These people "emphasize individual ambition rather thancommunity life, urban geography, economic structures, or race relations as factors in Motown'srise to the top of popular music." Suzanne E. Smith does not stress Motown's crossover success to white audiences, but itsrelationship to African American audiences, and specifically to black Detroit. Motown had "adistinct role to play in the city's black community, and that community - as diverse as it was -articulated and promoted its own social, cultural, and political agendas" which reflected the"unique concerns of African Americans living in the urban North". They responded to andreconfigured the national civil rights campaign. The author's analysis is based on "the theoretical concept of cultural formation to understand therole of the black commercial culture in the development of a black urban community."
 Dancing in the Street 
starts with Motown's founding in the late 1950s and its dominance on the popular music charts in the mid-1960s and ends in 1973, when Motown left Detroit and its declinealready had begun. Besides Motown, African American Detroit of the late 1950s and 1960s produced a series of cultural, economic, political, religious and historical institutions such as the Broadside Press (oneof the first black-owned publishing houses), the Concept East Theater (the first black theater company in the urban North), WCHB (the first radio station built, owned and operated byAfrican Americans), the Booker T. Washington Trade Association (one of the largest chapters of the National Negro Business League) and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement which became the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The author writes that Berry Gordy Jr. was "extremely wary about affiliating his business withany organization or movement that might negatively influence his company's commercialsuccess. Nevertheless, both Motown's music and its entrepreneurial acumen emerged from anurban black community that regularly asserted its "politics" through cultural and economic

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