John Lennon and the Black Power movement

Today’s alliances between politics and music often finds artists stopping short of following through on their allegiances, or offering empty lip service to a cause that’s been adopted by the zeitgeist. But, in the late Sixties, as the civil rights movement evolved into an emphasis on racial pride amid African Americans, there were musicians who keenly aligned themselves in the fight against oppression, incorporating into their music a direct and confrontational message of support.

Establishing the decade’s bridge between music and politics is a new book and CD, compiled by archivist Pat Thomas through five years of uncovering those albums, singles and stray tapes that served to spread a lesson. ‘Listen, Whitey! The Sounds Of Black Power 1967-1974’ is both a two-hundred page hardback book and a double-disc album that reveals the relationship between the two worlds, and explores the crossover that saw political revolutionaries heralded as pop culture icons and vice versa.

Thomas presents activists such as Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael alongside artists including Bob Dylan, The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and John Lennon, all of whom fought for recognition of the movement, and used their fame as a platform to be heard. Bob Dylan’s 1971 single ‘George Jackson’ - a commentary on the murder in prison of the Black Panther militant, and released two months after his death - is included on the compilation.

From this fascinating, insightful and sometimes shocking tome comes this exclusive extract, whereby Clash reveals the association between ex-Beatle John Lennon and the Black Power movement, which resulted in his most militantly astute album, and an appearance on prime time TV with his friend, the chairman of the Black Panther Party.

John Lennon Gives Black Power A Chance

Although John Lennon would become the most politically outspoken of The Beatles, Paul McCartney was the first Beatle to address African-American Civil Rights with his 1968 composition ‘Blackbird’ on The Beatles’ ‘White Album’. ‘Blackbird’ was a beautifully simple ballad on which McCartney played acoustic guitar and sang (no other Beatles contributed to the recording). As McCartney told Barry Miles in the 1997 biography Many Years From Now: “I had in mind a black woman, rather than a bird. Those were the days of the civil-rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about, so this was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in States.”

John Lennon wrote a number of politically charged songs, including 1968’s ‘Revolution’ (which seemed to question the purpose of it all as much as it offered approval), 1969’s ‘Give Peace A Chance’ and 1971’s ‘Power To The People’ (the Black Panthers had popularized the slogan “All Power To The People” a few years earlier). But it wasn’t until 1972 that Lennon specifically named people and events related to the Black Power movement in his songs. By the time of Lennon’s 31st birthday on October 9th 1971, he and Yoko Ono had moved from England to New York City, where they befriended Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman (the outspoken and humorous founders of a white radical collective known as Yippies). During their first meeting, Ono told Rubin and Hoffman that she and Lennon considered the Yippie leaders to be “great artists”. The ever-witty Hoffman replied: “That’s funny, we always thought of you and John as great politicians.”


This is an excerpt from a feature in the April 2012 issue of Clash magazine, out 8th March. Find out more about the issue HERE.

‘Listen Whitey! The Sounds Of Black Power 1967-1974’ by Pat Thomas is published by Fantagraphics, released on Light In The Attic Records, and is available now. Read Clash's review of it HERE

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