Saturday, October 10, 2009

Motown's Role in Helping Integrate American Life

By Christina Pomoni

One of the elements that made Motown so popular, apart from its music, is that it was born in the middle of an unfavorable socio-political setting for the black communities. In the 1960s, the racial discrimination that welcomed migrating black auto workers in Detroit was extreme. Besides, America had just elected John F. Kennedy as a symbol of hope for the nation and minority groups, but it had also entered the Vietnam War.

Social revolution and unrest were integral parts of an angry society that demanded fair treatment of black citizens. Amid all this, Motown emerged as an oasis that seemed to wipe out color lines with its upbeat music and colorless culture.

Motown managed to conquer the white market in times of a cataclysmic social and racial mayhem. The newly born black music style took over a great part of the white music industry and managed, not only to reach the white audiences, but also to have a great impact on the civil rights movement. Berry Gordy Jr., Motown's founder, apparently did what many people of his time thought could never be done: by bringing black music into millions of white households, he helped black artists, musicians, composers and songwriters to gain acceptance and he opened the doors for the black culture to be widely integrated into white society.

Besides, the diligent determination of black communities, whose ambitions were underwritten by social cohesion, was expressed by the spirit of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X within the broader context of cultural and civil-rights struggle. Detroit's 1967 riots were the result of extremist positions from both sides of the color line overriding moderate, peace-making factions, leading the city toward a turmoil that permanently divided the region's black and white communities.

Motown's response to the era of social division was the release of great hits in 1967 such as 'Respect' by Aretha Franklin; 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' by Marvin Gaye; 'You're My Everything' by The Temptations; 'Love Is Here and Now You're Gone' by Diana Ross and The Supremes; 'I Was Made To Love Her' by Stevie Wonder, among others.

The Motown Sound was not as raw or edgy as that of Chess or Stax Records, but managed to include some of the most ever-lasting, popular and legendary songs that were ever written and produced. Gordy recognized the immense talent of influential artists like Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson and introduced them to the world. Besides the miraculous solo artists, Motown featured The Supremes, The Four Tops and The Temptations as some of the best vocal groups that ever existed. Even today, so many years after Motown's numerous corporate changes, Gordy's outstanding contribution established Motown as synonymous to excellence.

From all perspectives, Motown's historical legacy involves exceptional contributions to the history of popular music and to the history of civil rights movement and race relations. If it weren't for the insightful leadership of Berry Gordy Jr., and the unique talent of all Motown's miraculous artists, black music would have never been so popular and white audiences would have lost a great opportunity to a magnificent upbeat groove.

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