For Black History Month 2023, I will be publishing a mini-series of short music reviews under the title “Protest Music Retrospects.” The aim of this series is to both revisit some of the most pivotal moments in Black protest music history and to shed light on overlooked Black figures and musics, specifically those of Black women, that have contributed to socially-conscious popular culture. The reviews will be a mix of musical critique as well as historical and historiographical analysis of the works and their responses in media. I first highlighted Sister Souljah’s 360 Degrees of Power, and then Tracy Chapman’s debut album; for the final entry, I will finish the series with Elaine Brown’s 1969 album, Seize the Time.
Brown is best known for her activism in Black Liberatory politics. She served as the leader of the Black Panther Party after Huey P. Newton fled to Cuba in the mid-70s, before leaving the party due to sexist leadership; she was the first and only woman to lead the party, and shifted the standard operations and the philosophies of the BPP towards inclusivity and local advocacy. In addition to her activism, Brown was trained as a musician from an early age and wrote poetry and songs in high school. In 1968, David Hilliard, then-BPP chief of staff commissioned Brown to record some of her politicized songs for the BPP after he heard her perform for some other Panthers — Seize The Time was the result.
Seize The Time exists as a recording (in more ways than one) of the motivations, goals and activism of the BPP. The album contains the party’s unofficial theme, “The Meeting,” as well as various other revolutionary tracks that were often played at BPP social events. Additionally, its cover art was created by Emory Douglas, BPP Minister of Culture. While it is not the only output of music from the BPP (the party also had a funk band composed of active members called “The Lumpen”), it is the only audio album produced by the party that featured exclusively music.
Brown’s Seize The Time is largely unrecognized by scholars and music fans alike; in researching the album for this article, I only found one comprehensive record of it by Michael Lupo of Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale on Smithsonian. From my knowledge of public history projects documenting music of the era, only PBS’s Fight the Power seems to have recognized it (and only in a passing montage of relevant albums). There is no official set of transcribed lyrics either; the original record did not include any with it, and open-source databases like Genius have not tackled the 10 tracks. Fortunately, the album (and its remaster) are available on the major streaming platforms and have not been lost to time just yet.
When I first envisioned this BHM mini-series, Seize The Time was the album I had in mind and most desired to write about. It represents a key shift in the canon of Black protest music in many ways. First, the songs are all composed and performed by a Black woman, one who was often ostracized by her fellow revolutionaries. Second, it predates the move towards overtly political music found in the `70s. Lastly, it demonstrates a unique application of protest music wherein the music serves in a direct-action/political praxis role, beyond “calls to action” or indictments.
Brown was classically trained in both music and dance in her youth, producing a certain restricted philosophy of praxis demonstrated in Seize The Time. Her music leans away from the powerful and raucous funk and soul of the `60s in favor of a more refined, authoritative tone. Though some of her contemporaries resisted this style, higher-ups in the party (namely Huey P. Newton) were fans of her music and supported her songwriting. The arrangements and orchestration were done by Horace Tapscott, pianist and jazz band leader, further solidifying the sound of Brown’s music into existing tradition.
Despite her western-influenced training, the lyricism of Seize The Time consists of a wide range of critiques. In the tracks, Brown addresses systemic racism and oppression, but also engages with the often violent, male aesthetic of the BPP. In “The End of Silence,” Brown includes these lines:
And you can’t go on
With this time-worn song
That just won’t change the way you feel
Well then, believe it my friend
That this silence will end
We’ll just have to get guns
And be men
Though Brown was known for her ardent anti-sexism stance with the BPP (which often abused and overworked her and other women despite their majority and important contributions), the gendered language of her music leaves much to be desired. See also this excerpt from “The Panther,” which aimed to paint the BPP in a strong, revolutionary light: “He is a hero, he walks with night / His spirit’s beauty, his soul is right … His face is black and he would die for you / To get your freedom back.”
I find that contextualizing Brown’s classical training as well as her high ranking in the party is central in understanding her portrayal of the Black revolutionary. History has often looked upon resistances through the lens of individuals, such as that of Great Man Theory; even today, names like Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, Eldridge Cleaver and those of other Black men are used almost metonymically to reference the Black Power movement of the era. Brown met the BPP where it was, both politically and musically, but consistently challenged the party and its leaders to do better and to approach the Black experience with more intersectionality than its founders had originally intended.
Brown’s leadership in the party, and also her musical contributions to the soundscape of Black liberatory politics are key components in the construction of an accurate and holistic narrative of the BPP and protest music. Though Seize The Time never received airplay, charted or earned Brown much compensation, her work as a musician has recently begun to be recognized for its impact on her contemporaries as well as Black protest music as a whole. Records of her activism now often mention her musicianship alongside her politics. Beyond her direct successors, artists such as Alicia Keys have also memorialized her impact on Black music.
In publishing this mini-series, I hope to recognize and reframe our memory and understanding of Black women artists who have approached, engaged and shaped protest music over the last half-century. It is on their backs that we are able to celebrate the male figures that have come to dominate contemporary narratives of protest music. Through continued efforts such as these, music scholars, fans, archivists and the general public can begin to have a complete understanding of the history of Black protest music.
MiC Assistant Editor Cedric Preston McCoy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.