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For Motown artists, Obama presidency is the recognition -- and revitalization -- of a legacy in song

February 26, 2009 |  4:17 pm

Brenda Holloway

When Motown singer Brenda Holloway was a little girl growing up in south L.A., she played violin at the Zion Hill Baptist Church near the Inglewood cemetery. One day, a young preacher arrived at the church to rally support for his civil rights causes.

“I’m just there playing my violin, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. comes up to me and tells me to keep on playing,” Holloway said. “He came up to talk to me! Before I go to heaven, I need to get back into the violin.”

For many African American musicians who lived through the political tumult of the '60s, the music they made gave a personal resonance to the struggle for civil rights. Perhaps no institution embodied that hope more than Motown Records. Artists including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson gave voice to the changing tide in society with generation-defining hits like “What’s Going On” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” while the label itself became probably the most well-known African American owned business in America.

In the months leading up to the 2008 election, many of these artists lent their support to Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” became the de facto campaign theme, and artists like Robinson and the Temptations each performed on behalf of the campaign. Just over a month into Obama's administration, Motown artists who sang about the yearning for change and the realization of the civil rights dreams are still getting used to the fact that it’s happened and their own place in that living history.

“I don’t think anybody at Motown had any inclination that it would become so iconic, but if you watched what went on in that little house, you could tell it was no happenstance,” said Otis Williams of the Temptations, referring to the small Detroit house where Motown hits were recorded. “We were living the ideology that came out of the '60s.”

That sentiment survives among today’s young black music culture (bootleg XXL Obama T-shirts have replaced ones of 2Pac and Biggie Smalls as fashion must-haves), and rappers from Nas to Young Jeezy and Jay-Z have praised Obama in lyrics. But the particular spirit of '60s soul and R&B music survives in Obama’s rhetoric, and he’s acknowledged the importance of that era of music in his cultural upbringing.

On Wednesday, he hosted Wonder in a concert in the White House East Room, where Obama told the gathered crowd that "I think it's fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me. We might not have married. The fact that we agreed on Stevie was part of the essence of our courtship."

For fellow Motown artists, having a fan in the White House who epitomizes the ambitions of their heyday is an affirmation of the power of their work. But some also hope it can inspire younger black artists to revitalize the black culture and community that Motown embodied.

“Back in the day in Watts, your teacher lived by you, the doctor who delivered your baby lived by you, you could see people around you that were successful,” Holloway said. “Now we can look at the Obamas and see a black family that’s working. When you feel no power, you feel like you have no voice. Now we do.”

Many early Motown artists share similar hopes for what Obama will tackle first -– healthcare and unemployment chief among them. But the musical promises of better days that came out of Motown’s “Hitsville, U.S.A.” headquarters have never felt more relevant, both in their realization with the election of America’s first black president and the enormity of the tasks ahead of him.

“We’re getting ready to see a young man age quickly,” Williams said.

-August Brown

Photo: Brenda Holloway. Credit: Jonathan Alcorn / For The Times