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Motown and the cultural politics of Detroit

Berry 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 the
relation 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 party song." It was associated to historical
events (e.g. the Watts uprising) taking place at the same moment which the record company
could not control. Other such songs were Nowhere to Run and Shotgun. But Suzanne E. Smith
argues that Dancing in the Street was "never just a party song". According to her, the Motown
songs (and other tunes as well, of course) "clearly illustrate how the sounds of Detroit's streets
could articulate the needs of African Americans." The Motown sound was the most celebrated
and 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 its
own 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 in
response to the popularity of blues singers such as Gertrude "Ma" Rainey and Bessie Smith.
Billboard 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 in
Houston and Vee-Jay Records in Chicago succeeded in the R&R market before Motown, but it
was Motown which brought down the segregation of the music industry when its records began
to sell outside the traditional black markets.

Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown in Detroit in 1958 with an $800 loan from his family. From the
small 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 cultural
integration - as typified by Motown's wide appeal - could occur." Many have argued that Detroit
is not 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, New
York, Pittsburgh or Cleveland. These people "emphasize individual ambition rather than
community life, urban geography, economic structures, or race relations as factors in Motown's
rise to the top of popular music."

Suzanne E. Smith does not stress Motown's crossover success to white audiences, but its
relationship to African American audiences, and specifically to black Detroit. Motown had "a
distinct 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 and
reconfigured the national civil rights campaign.

The author's analysis is based on "the theoretical concept of cultural formation to understand the
role 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 decline
already 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 (one
of 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 by
African 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 with
any organization or movement that might negatively influence his company's commercial
success. Nevertheless, both Motown's music and its entrepreneurial acumen emerged from an
urban black community that regularly asserted its "politics" through cultural and economic
means." Like Nat King Cole, Gordy believed that "cause" music did not sell records and avoided
it at all costs. But there are also exceptions such as Stevie Wonder's rendition of Bob Dylan's
Blowin' in the Wind of 1966, Aretha Franklin's Respect of 1967, I Care about Detroit by Smokey
Robinson and the Miracles from 1968 and Motown's hiring of Junius Griffin and and Ewart
Abner in order to promote black causes. Motown vigilance is reflected in the fact that the
company did not dare to let The Temptations sing the Whitfield song War, but gave it to the
relatively unknown Edwin Starr. The song reached number one on the American pop charts in
the summer of 1970.