Revisiting Isaac Hayes’ “Black Moses”


Black Moses by Isaac Hayes is the one thing you’re not listening to right now that demands your attention.

In the post-Trump age, Black people can have Iyanla Vanzant fix our broken lives or we can all listen to Isaac Hayes’ magnificent performance on “Ike’s Rap II” from his groundbreaking and iconic 1971 album and achieve the same result. Hayes’ album succeeds at being an artistic encapsulation of the feeling of escape from bondage, reclaiming a sense of self, and recasting existing norms that limit black expression into transcendent moments of exertion of Black power-as-strength controlling music as an ultimate force. As well, in noting the striking similarities between America in 1971 and America in 2016, the importance of Black Moses becomes ever more apparent. 45 years ago, black America was two years past the 1960s, which as an era saw African-Americans gain the right to vote, greater access to quality education, fair access to quality housing, and more. However, by 1971, civil rights advocates including Herbert Lee and Louis Allen, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed. As well, Richard Nixon declaring a “war on drugs” after classifying heroin -- which by 1971 was a drug that was affecting a disproportionately higher number of African-Americans returned from the Vietnam War and living in lower-class American urban communities -- as “public enemy number one.” Similarly, 2016 finds Black Americans eight years removed from nearly unanimously voting for an African-American President of the United States, while college graduation rates for America’s black population have surged 40%. Unfortunately, Donald Trump has swept into office following Barack Obama ‘s two terms in a campaign cycle that were more racially and socially polarizing than arguably any political campaign in American history. Simultaneously, in just under five years, there have been nearly 30 well-documented murders of young black men and women in America. Not unlike 2016, in 1971, America desperately needed Black Moses, Isaac Hayes’ ascendant Black Power superhero moment-as-album release. 2016 finds a slew of dominant Black artists, a list that includes everyone from Solange, Kendrick Lamar, and A Tribe Called Quest, making impressive Black Power statements presented as recorded materials. However, it’s Hayes’ Stax Records release that still -- from a point of both criticism and modern relevancy -- set a standard that stands the test of time and provides hope and guidance in uncertain sociocultural times. Foremost, though many laud the session musicianship and production chops of a largely mainstream unheralded crew of jazz and pop-influenced African-American musicians on the four aforementioned albums from the modern era, Isaac Hayes set that standard on Black Moses. Hayes’ 1971 backing crew included the Bar-Kays, who in at that time being less than mainstream-renowned hitmakers backing a dynamic hitmaker, are strikingly comparable to modern players Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and more backing Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp A Butterfly. Nobody’s going to confuse the canon of songs of Jackson 5, Dionne Warwick, The Carpenters, and Kris Kristofferson with anything that sounds like insta-classics of the modern #BlackLivesMatter civil rights movement like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” and A Tribe Called Quest’s “We The People.” However, it’s Hayes’ ability to re-cast milquetoast, yet white mainstream iconic pop standards like The Carpenters’ “Close To You,” Warwick’s “Walk On By” and “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” and Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times” into empowered moments of black creativity that’s likely an infinitely more impressive feat than the trio of current powerhouse black moments in popular music.

“I keep thinking that our problems

Soon are all gonna work out

But there's that same unhappy feeling

There's that anguish, there's that doubt”

From the mouth of 12-year old Little Michael Jackson, “Never Can Say Goodbye’s” lyrics sound like the end of a well-worn tale of heartbreak after the seemingly tumultuous end of one’s very first relationship. However, from the mouth of 30-year old Black Moses, these words sound like the soul of a black soldier crushing against the urban pavement as he’s without a job, wife, child, or hope, and turning back to the same heroin he was addicted to in Vietnam to cure his hopelessness and fear.

“If you see me walking down the street

And I start to cry each time we meet

Walk on by, walk on by”

As well, like Moses leading the Israelites to freedom, Hayes-as-Black Moses leading “Walk On By” songwriting and production handicraft of Burt Bacharach and Hal David into a creative space that houses a string orchestra, Hayes’ rich baritone and African-American female background vocal trio “Hot Buttered Soul” singing the same lyrics as more a mournful ode to homeless black people losing at attaining socio-economic progress than anthemic of heartbreak that really drives home the point that Hayes is aiming for something more.

“What do you get when you fall in love?

A guy with a pin to burst your bubble

That's what you get for all your trouble

I'll never fall in love again, I'll never fall in love again”

Under the vision and scope of message-driven Issac Hayes, Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” transforms from a fanciful and lovestruck orchestral ballad into a damning self-condemnation by Hayes as a black man for falling into the trap of believing that he could achieve the American Dream. Black people being in many ways worse off in 1971 than they were in 1961 is the cause for which this album was released as a national call-to-arms, and this cover song may do the best job of driving that point home. In the past 45 years, we’ve seen African-Americans seemingly lose rights that they were granted via laws and regulations, without said laws and regulations being repealed. There’s a level of heartbreak, hopelessness and outright shame associated with that fact which makes re-discovering Black Moses, Isaac Hayes’ album-as-hope-for-a-hopeless-America, apropos. Yes, Kendrick Lamar calling himself Negus, aka King Kunta, means everything. However, Isaac Hayes referring to himself as a prophet who saw God in a burning bush and who delivered laws, guidance, and freedom to the Jews is amazing and moreover insinuates that, via this album, he aimed to do something similar for America’s black community in that era. If looking to discover triumphant expressions of African-American excellence in the face of life-destroying odds, it’s likely wise to turn to Black Moses, Isaac Hayes’ 45-year old masterpiece. As members of a collective society, black people are yet again faced with seemingly insurmountable odds that amongst us, could easily create a mass wave of manic depression. However, through the note-perfect execution apparent in the incredibly massive artistic undertaking of a once-in-a-lifetime musician, we can discover our most magical and best black selves, saved from the throes of destruction.
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