King: The Soundtrack

A conversation with guitarist-activist Vernon Reid on how MLK's death affected black music.

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If you liked music, then the Johnson home was the place to be in the late '60s. My brother Phillip always had the latest Motown or Stax singles. My sister Phyllis (yes, they're twins) played the Beatles, and the Stones, and of course Sly and the Family Stone. When he was home from college, my eldest brother, Byron, listened to blues and this guy with an especially raspy voice that he just called Bob (as if he was a friend from around the way). In addition, my Dad liked to play his Miles Davis, Lambert Hendricks and Ross or Duke Ellington records whenever possible, while my mother seemed to know the words to every Burt Bacharach-Hal David song (or at least every one sung by Dionne Warwick).

The South Side of Chicago had lots of great music pouring out of its homes, but I'm sure we ranked near the top of the charts.

Music added an ever-playing soundtrack to what was already a lively place. Our kitchen doubled as a salon where my parents, siblings, and their friends, held forth on a variety of issues of the day: the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, the latest goings on with Mayor Daley and what not. I didn't watch much TV growing up; listening to the discussions in the kitchen was much more interesting. I felt like I was privy to a very cool scene.

The events of April 4, 1968 struck us like a ton of bricks. I was only eight and still sorting out the vernacular of violence. I needed to know if shot meant killed and if killed meant dead. I thought these were simple yes or no questions, but I got mostly anguish in response.

We used to turn off the music to listen to Dr. King's speeches. That night we turned off the radio.

Eventually music came back on in the Johnson household, and as the weeks and months began to pass, even my young ears could discern a change in the sounds. The happy, optimistic sounds that had characterized much of my sibling's playlists had become wary, stern and borderline confrontational.

What would soon follow the harrowing days of April 1968 was an era of black self determinism in popular music that remains unparalleled. The line between musician and activist blurred.

I recently discussed this era with guitarist/activist Vernon Reid. He started with the groundbreaking electric jazz group, Ron Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society and went on to form the pioneering rock band Living Colour. In 1985, he cofounded The Black Rock Coalition, an organization that helped pave the way for artists of color to resume a more self deterministic path for their music. His work over the last decade has created dynamic fusions between rock and electronic music.

Reid is also an enthusiastic student of music and culture and a critical thinker. We exchanged e-mail recently about the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination and the effect it had on the evolution of black popular music:

MJ: Where were you on April 4, 1968, how did the news of Dr. King's assassination hit you, and what was the reaction in your Brooklyn neighborhood?

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