In the late 1960s, black Americans in inner cities rioted and rebelled against poverty and oppression. Black Americans demanded more investment in black communities to alleviate the conditions contributing to widespread despair.
There was also a fierce crackdown by authorities on the Black Panthers, which attempted to empower black Americans against institutional racism. For example, the chairman of the Illinois chapter and the deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, was assassinated by Chicago police on December 4, 1969.
Curtis Mayfield, who left an indelible mark on black culture and civil rights with his music, released his first solo album in 1970. “Curtis” opened with “(Don’t Worry) If There’s Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go.” It blended Afro-pop, psychedelic, and funky musical elements to create quite an incredible groove.
The politically conscious lyrics opened with a woman exhorting people to read the Book of Revelations because the apocalypse is coming. This was Mayfield’s allusion to the brewing rebellion as a result of urban decay in the United States.
Mayfield directs the song to the “sisters, brothers, and the whiteys, blacks and the crackers, and the police and their backers,” who are all “political actors.” The judge and juries are dictating law that is flawed. Meanwhile, people are “running from their worries.”
“Top billing now is killing/For peace no-one is willing/Kind of make you get that feeling,” Mayfield sings. There’s a drug epidemic, pimping, and pollution. All the while, President Richard Nixon keeps saying “don’t worry.”
“Tell me what we gonna do if everything I say is true,” Mayfield wonders aloud. There is no way the world should be like this, but people from the political elite on down keep saying “don’t worry.”
As Pat Thomas writes in “Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975,” “Curtis preaches that the corruption of society, especially the lies of judges and politicians, will eventually bring everyone down. Blacks, whites, police, junkies, et al., will all ride together on an expressway to hell.”
There isn’t much hope for redemption, though Mayfield does plead for people to take notice of the deteriorating society around them in order to save everyone from deep, dark immoral ruin.