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The Protest Songs Of Charles Bradley

Sam Cooke sang about a change that was gonna come. It spread optimism to black Americans. Charles Bradley, on the other hand, sang of moral corruption and turning to love to survive, because who knows when change will finally come.

He spent most of his life struggling in poverty, praying for the day when someone would notice his talent and give him the chance he deserved. He performed as a James Brown impersonator, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when Daptone Records released recordings of music, that he finally could be himself on stage.

But tragically, Bradley, who became known as the “screaming eagle of soul,” died from cancer at the age of 68 on September 23.

Bradley’s music was always empathetic. Driven by memories of pain and suffering, his emotions translated into heartfelt statements on the state of the world and the need for love to prevail over fear and hate.

He grew up in Gainesville, which was segregated. There was a fence in parts of the city, where black people were not allowed to go.

In his teenage years, Bradley was a “homeless drifter,” doing his best to live on and off the streets.

When he was young and living in California, he worked at a restaurant where a patron became very angry about how a burger was not cooked properly. Bradley apologized. The owner of the restaurant reinforced the anger of the patron, called him “nigger,” and said she’d “fix” him. The following day, a large white man entered the restaurant and beat him up.

“Before I knew it, he picked me up, and pushed me over the grill,” Bradley recalled in an interview for Noisey. “And I felt the heat coming up to my back, and I’m trying everywhere to fight to get this guy off of me.”

The police came. Bradley said they put a gun to his head, and he went to jail for 30 days before the trial. The man who attacked him failed to show up to the trial so Bradley was only punished with three years probation.

Bradley persevered and obtained a job in nightclubs performing as the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown. He had a stage name, “Black Velvet.”

Gabriel Roth, co-founder of Daptone Records, crossed paths with Bradley. He introduced Bradley to Tom Brenneck, who was an artist for Daptone and a member of the Menahan Street Band. Brenneck eventually invited Bradley to rehearse with the band. Bradley made up lyrics for several songs during sessions that were recorded and released in 2002.

He released three albums, “No Time For Dreaming” (2011), “Victim Of Love” (2013), and “Changes” (2016). The inspiration for his music was tragedy in his life, including the murder of his brother and death of his mom, as well as racism and the tumultuous world around him.

As he told Esquire, all he wanted was a home, where he could live free from fear. He lived in a lot of neighborhoods with shooting and fighting. He just hoped for some money and steady work so he could maintain a decent life free of despair.

“I’ve been on my own since I was 14 years old. I’ve been out there fighting and living in the streets with police brutality and all this stuff that I’ve been through,” Bradley said in 2016. “Sometimes you feel that you’re alone when you feel like society has done something wrong to you, and you have no way to fight. And you’re just so angry and you have no one to turn to.”

Music gave him power. He could go out and make not only his world better but advocate for a decent world for all humanity.

Bradley survived the most dramatic effects of systemic racism and recognized in the 21st Century, life for people of different races and nationalities was markedly better. But he also had a message for the residual hate and division that persisted and gave the United States leaders like President Donald Trump.

“It’s time for us to come together. Are we doing this because of greed? How many billions can you own? How many skyscrapers can you own? If you got it all, what more do you want? I’m looking at Trump, and what else do you want? You’ve got billions of dollars. Do you want to cause chaos? Do you want to build a wall like in Berlin? Do you want to do that to Mexico? For what? Everyone wants to be loved, and everyone deserves a chance.”

“The way I look at the things that have happened today, I think, ‘My god what’s going on in this world?'” Bradley concluded.

Below are are some of the protest songs, which Bradley recorded.

“The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” (2011)

Corruption has the world in flames, and no leaders will “take the blame.” He sings, “Don’t tell me / how to live my life / when you / never felt the pain.” It grapples with living without privilege. He pleads for a better world while also agitating against those who ignore people of color, who live in poverty and do not deserve all the suffering.

“Golden Rule” (2011)

Bradley directly addresses mass incarceration and its impact on communities. “Round and round the streets we go / Still see the same old thing / They still keep building more prisons / To take our kids away / Why can’t we show more love to make this a better day?” He wails against the “cold, cold world” around him, and in the refrain, the remedy he suggests is the golden rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

“Why Is It So Hard” (2011)

The personal is political, and the political turmoil gnaws away at his being, as he reflects on his struggle to attain success. “Why is it so hard to make it in America? I tried so hard to make it in America.”

He went to Poughkeepsie, New York, to escape “hard times” in Brooklyn. It seemed like nothing would change because everything was still the same. He was led to believe this was the “land of milk and honey.” So why couldn’t he improve his situation? The reality is the mythology around the “American Dream” does not jibe with the life he survived.

“Confusion”

A blast of psychedelic soul, Bradley gets at the anxiety of living in a world, where it seems like everyone in a position of leadership has no working moral compass. It has a wicked bass line and a heavier guitar riff than some of his other music, which accents his shouts of, “Confusion!”

He appears to refer to sweet-talking politicians who say they can make a change as “fools.” They’re on TV talking a good game but cannot be trusted. In fact, all they do is fuel chaos and disorder.

“Hurricane”

This is a biblical warning of sorts that rails against what humanity is doing to Mother Earth. In fact, while the lyrics sound metaphorical, he actually seems to be referencing an actual hurricane. He even references climate change as he sings, “Stop killing your planet / It’s crime / Can you see the rain?”

The planet is raging against humans. Storms of great magnitude are hitting America’s shores, and to Bradley, it is representative of moral degradation. People have lost touch with their hearts and souls. If they would only heed the warning, Bradley believes love might prevail.

“God Bless America”

It is as much a protest song as Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled-Banner” is a protest song. He defiantly proclaims, despite all the hurting he has endured, America is home. Pains made him stronger. He may not have always felt welcome in this country but he still believes in the idea of America and what it claims and should represent. He has as much right to sing the national anthem as anybody, especially after all he has been through. So for ten to twenty seconds, he does.

“Change For The World”

“Change for the better of your soul,” Bradley sings, as he expresses concern about black life depreciating and a return to segregation. He urges people to choose love to change the world. Let people love you and love others instead of being hateful. Hate, Bradley says, is “poison in the blood.”

He protests against those who would use religion to justify their hatred for others. “Put away the guns,” he urges. Take love and quit spilling so much blood.

***

Before Bradley left this world, he expressed this message of advice to those trying to survive life today:

“All I can say is, you’ll always be my little brother. Just keep trusting. My mom says this is not our home; it’s the teaching you give to the world that you give from your soul to the world now while in your physical body. The ones that gave up and are corrupted, keep your love strong. Until the day you take the last breath out of your body, and that body goes back into the earth, you’re going into a greater life that you never have to worry about anymore. Your love is gonna shine. From the love you gave to your brothers and sisters while on this Earth. It’s heavy and it hurts, but we all have something we willing to live and die for. Would you either die for love or you die for hate?”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."