Wattstax: The Benefit Concert From The Past That Echoes Into The Present
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There are a bunch of historical anniversaries in August. The Watts riots happened 53 years ago. Woodstock was 49 years ago today in fact. And then there's the 46th anniversary of Wattstax.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JESSE JACKSON: Brothers and sisters, "I Don't Know What This World Is Coming To," The Soul Children.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SOUL CHILDREN SONG, "I DON'T KNOW WHAT THIS WORLD IS COMING TO")
CORNISH: All right, so some of you are going, oh, yes, Wattstax. And others are thinking, all right, wait. What - watt - what? So lucky for all of you, Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia are here to lay it all out. They're the legendary deejays and hosts of the NPR podcast What's Good with Stretch & Bobbito. Hey there, guys.
STRETCH ARMSTRONG, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
BOBBITO GARCIA, BYLINE: What's up?
ARMSTRONG: What's good?
CORNISH: So 46 years is kind of an unusual milestone anniversary. What got you thinking about Wattstax this year?
ARMSTRONG: If you look at what's going on in the United States, we're living in unusual times. And I think if you look at the circumstances that triggered the Watts riots in 1965, which was the inspiration for the Wattstax concert, many of those same conditions - I'm talking police brutality, housing discrimination, lack of access to education, et cetera - all these sort of social issues that were prevalent in the '60s I think to a large degree haven't been fully resolved.
CORNISH: Right. At the time, police had pulled over a young black man, and a crowd formed. And in the end, there was - what? - like, six days of riots. Thirty-four people died, millions in property damage. So how then all those years later does Wattstax form? Why did the concert get going?
GARCIA: Well, in 1972, seven years later, in a response to the devastation that was experienced in Watts, the Stax label as well as their artists and other people who were sponsoring and being involved wanted to create an event that would be uplifting for the African-American community, a gathering of positive thought and energy, a moment to dance, a moment to sing.
(SOUNBITE OF RUFUS THOMAS SONG, "DO THE FUNKY PENGUIN")
CORNISH: So who was there? Like, who was in this lineup?
ARMSTRONG: Carla Thomas.
GARCIA: Rufus Thomas, who I'm sure - you did the funky penguin and the funky chicken at some point in your life.
CORNISH: Of course.
GARCIA: Yes, of course...
CORNISH: Probably last week.
(LAUGHTER, SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO THE FUNKY PENGUIN")
RUFUS THOMAS: (Singing) You can't do the penguin unless you shuffle your feet. When you do the funky penguin, I know it's all real.
ARMSTRONG: You had The Soul Children, Albert King...
GARCIA: The Bar-Kays.
ARMSTRONG: The Bar-Kays, that's right. The Staple Singers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT YOURSELF")
THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) If you don't respect yourself, ain't nobody going to give a good cahoot. Na na na na (ph), brother, respect yourself.
ARMSTRONG: I mean, it was a bunch of stars. But the real star was Isaac Hayes. And...
ARMSTRONG: He came...
GARCIA: Right on.
ARMSTRONG: He came out last.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAFT")
ISAAC HAYES: Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Shaft.
HAYES: You're damn right.
ARMSTRONG: One rendition of the album artwork features a very regal-looking Isaac Hayes with thousands of people behind him. He looks very kingly. I mean, he is in that moment a rock star.
CORNISH: Also, as we heard earlier, Jesse Jackson was there, right? So it definitely had, like, political overtones.
ARMSTRONG: Sure. Jesse Jackson actually was the emcee of most of the event. He did more than just introduce the acts. He was really inspiring people and trying to inject a level of gravitas.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Somebody.
JACKSON: I am...
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: I am...
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: ...Somebody.
JACKSON: I may be poor, but I am somebody.
CORNISH: Now, the other big August musical anniversary at this time, Woodstock, has taken on basically mythic proportions. People don't talk about Wattstax the same way. But does Wattstax have an effect, say, on early hip-hop? Like, does some of the mood, music, attitude surface later?
ARMSTRONG: Oh, for sure. The list of artists that have borrowed from the Stax catalogs...
GARCIA: Is kind of crazy.
ARMSTRONG: ...Is endless.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHYMES GALORE")
BUSTA RHYMES: (Rapping) Rhymes galore, rhymes galore, rhymes galore.
ARMSTRONG: Busta Rhymes, Dr. Dre, Brand Nubian.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME ALONE")
BRAND NUBIAN: (Rapping) You got to love me or leave me alone. Got to love me or leave me alone.
ARMSTRONG: Biggie Smalls, Wu Tang Clan - I could go on for minutes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.R.E.A.M.")
WU TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Cash rules everything around me - CREAM. Get the money, dollar dollar bill, y'all.
CORNISH: Do you guys see, like, music today that nods to the Wattstax spirit?
GARCIA: Childish Gambino, "This Is America."
CORNISH: Oh, yeah, the new album definitely...
GARCIA: I think...
CORNISH: ...Has a '70s feel.
GARCIA: ...Kendrick Lamar. The performances Wattstax weren't explicitly political, but the act of gathering was political. People of color expressing themselves, having a platform - this is not something that was viable in the '40s and '50s and '60s the way that it is today. So I think Wattstax resonates in a way in 2018 and will beyond in a way that I don't know that we can always directly connect to but certainly indirectly.
CORNISH: That's Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia. The second season of their podcast What's Good with Stretch & Bobbito is out now. You guys, thanks so much.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Audie.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER GET A MOVE ON")
LOUISE MCCORD: (Singing) Since sobriety's been washed down the drain, the way we treat each other ain't even humane. So you better get a move on. You better get a move on. Hurry up. Straighten up your world. Sit back and take inventory of your stock. See if you're not cheating yourself. Time is getting... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.