Legislating Freedom, Commodifying Struggle

Neal’s chapter 1 focuses on the birth and evolution of soul music in the 1950s and 1960s.


  • Neal, “Legislating Freedom, Commodifying Struggle”

Listening (on YouTube)

Reading/Listening Guide

Note that this guide is not meant to replace careful study of the assigned texts. Instead, this guide highlights some of the important ideas and information in the songs and reading. To do well on our tests, quizzes, and class discussions, you will need a thorough knowledge of the text and the songs.

The Title

As always the chapter’s title is an important summary of Neal’s argument. It is “Legislating Freedom, Commodifying Struggle: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Struggle for Black Musical Hegemony.” Each of these terms is chosen with care; here is a summary of their implications.

Legislating Freedom
This is a common criticism of the mainstream Civil Rights movement and its tactics. The argument is that one cannot win freedom by passing new laws. Legal remedies depend on the majority to follow the law, and history since the Civil War has proven that white Americans too often lack the desire or the will to abide by their own laws. Instead, freedom must be seized by the oppressed.
Commodifying Struggle
This is a common criticism of Black Power, and specifically of music and other cultural products that claim to support the freedom struggle. Too often these art works are packaged as commodities and sold to those who want to share in the excitement of transgressive culture without taking any real risks. Gangsta rap’s popularity among suburban white boys is a classic example.
The Struggle for Musical Hegemony
“Hegemony” means control. As Neal shows, artists who supported both Civil Rights and Black Power fought against the (white, corporate) establishment for control over African American musical culture. Berry Gordy and Motown are a good example of the former (42-45). Amiri Baraka is a good example of the latter (31).
The epigraph from Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan stresses a point made in our earlier readings: “The freedom songs galvanized parts of the Black community when other forms of communication failed” (25). An excerpt from the “No Easy Walk” episode of Eyes on the Prize demonstrates why this was so. In 1962, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized  a campaign to end segregation in Albany, Georgia. Among the activists engaged in the struggle was 19-year-old Bernice Johnson Reagon.
This section, “Soul as Struggle: Soul Music, Polytonality, and the Discourse(s) of Black Resistance,” forms the heart of Neal’s argument in the chapter. Neal attempts to demonstrate that the form of soul music itself is a kind of resistance against the oppression that the artists and their audiences faced. Key to this is soul music’s ability to articulate and thereby transcend pain (37).
Neal argues that polytonal vocal expression formed an essential aspect of soul music. This video may be helpful if you are unsure what polytonal music sounds like. You don’t need to be concerned with the theory discussed in the video, but listening to its examples can give you a better feel for the beautifully discordant sound that polytonality creates.
Ray Charles recorded “I Got a Woman” in 1954, and this has been called the birth of soul music. As Neal writes, Charles’s music enraged many within the Black community “because of his use of profane subject matter in what was clearly a sacred musical context” (41). “I Got a Woman,” for example, draws heavily from “It Must be Jesus” by the Southern Tones, also released in 1954. The song took another large step away from the sacred when Kanye West sampled Charles’s recording in his 2005 “Gold Digger.”


  • Commodifying Struggle