Listen to this track by earth-moving intergalactic funk pioneers Parliament. It’s “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”, aka “Star Child (Mothership Connection)”, the second track and third single off of 1975’s Mothership Connection and released in August of 1976.
This record was their second full-length album in the same year, following up Chocolate City which was released in the spring of 1975. That earlier album created a mythology that placed black culture in the mainstream, and in the literal seats of power in the United States where in real life it was absent; the white house and the Lincoln memorial as depicted on its cover. With the follow-up in Mothership Connection, lead creative mind George Clinton decided to make the presence of black people and culture known in another sphere where they had largely (Star Trek excepted) also been absent; in the stars, and the realm of science fiction. This led to an even more potent mythology and set of imagery for which Clinton and his various projects would become best known; a comic book-style world of outer space.
In some ways, Clinton’s child-like vision that frames the music here was the antithesis of much of funk-soul music at the time. It’s fun and full of abandon instead of political and earnest. And yet, with this approach, it was political in its own way, just by challenging the expectations of the mainstream, and helping to change perspectives on the role of black voices in the wider culture at the time.
For years, black culture has been marginalized and treated as a special interest, particularly by the music industry through a technological infrastructure put in place by white establishment. The marketing of music followed that infrastructure, from the “race records” of the early 1920’s, to the coining of “Rhythm & Blues” by Jerry Wexler. Black music and identity was walled off from white culture that was (and is) the mainstream by virtue of sheer numbers. It’s also because of cultural events and trends that forged that path, not all of them good. The blues and the singing of them didn’t come out of nowhere.
Even in the rock ‘n’ roll period that went up against that system to a certain degree on a wider cultural scale, white covers of black artists were commonplace in order to make the songs more marketable to white audiences. White markets have been the default to which all others had to defer. Even with the founding fathers of rock music, many of whom were black, the key to success was capturing the ears of white people, moving beyond the walled garden (or dare I say ghetto …) of black listenership.
Growing up and forming bands, George Clinton understood these realities very well. He reversed things in some respects by responding to and integrating the work of white rock n’ roll players, particularly Jerry Lee Lewis, into his own approach. This is what helped him keep a hand in the rock world through out his career, particularly his work with the more rock-oriented Funkadelic, which is only one facet of his creative output. But, when James Brown began to innovate with soul music by the mid-sixties, creating interlocked and churning grooves based on minimal chord changes, lots of voices calling out and responding to each other, horn shots as accents, and lots of guitar-bass-drums as pure rhythm instruments, things really began to become unlocked for Clinton, and for many others.
Funk was born, driven by a sense of the physical, the basic, the primal, the communal. It was the sound of raw humanity, all pulling together (and working up a sweat!) to create something out of the strengths of each contributor. It did not cowtow to the expectations that music had to be “marketable”, aka appealing to white sensibilities. It demanded that white audiences come to it, which it did. It opened the door to where much of pop music had come from in the first place despite attempts to sanitize it, and indeed where everything comes from when related to humanity – Africa.
Clinton’s work with Funkadelic, and with Parliament reflected this Afrocentrism. It helped that by the mid-seventies, he’d collaborated with many of the pioneers of funk at the time, many of whom had also played with James Brown, and had helped to consolidate what the parameters of the music are even today. Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, and many others can be heard on this track. Yet, the idea of black culture not being in the mainstream endured despite all that. So, aside from the musical elements that drove the music, Clinton felt it necessary to undercut this idea that black culture could not touch the mainstream, not only in music but also in the political sphere, and in many other arenas where the presence of black voices and black faces were still jarring to white audiences. That’s what this record was made to represent, with this song being a key engine to express it.
“We had put black people in situations nobody ever thought they would be in, like the White House. I figured another place you wouldn’t think black people would be was in outer space. I was a big fan of Star Trek, so we did a thing with a pimp sitting in a spaceship shaped like a Cadillac, and we did all these James Brown-type grooves, but with street talk and ghetto slang. Make my funk the P-Funk. It was all kinda like drug talk. We were the first ones to call the music dope,” (read the whole article)
I think this is a fundamental idea to what makes Clinton’s music so important. It says that black culture and black people are the inheritors of the future just as much as white culture and white people are. It says that black people represent humanity just as strongly as white people do. It places the voices, the language, and the set of aesthetics associated with a people’s history into contexts where it had been disallowed previously — political realms, science fiction, horror, etc — in order to communicate that important idea. It doesn’t just demand a place at the table. It assumes one, good-naturedly, and undercuts the racism that taints our culture in the most life-affirming way possible.
As a result, audiences across the cultural spectrum responded, initially by buying Parliament records, creating their own funk scenes, and by generally being caught up the mythology that was created around the music. But, they also responded by making music themselves that went beyond funk and into other genres, and (again like James Brown) heavily sampling and otherwise musically referencing Clinton’s work into their own. They very often made even greater inroads into the mainstream than he had, not only chart-wise, but also into the very language of the culture. The music of Prince, De La Soul, Dr. Dre, OutKast, and so many others would be unimaginable without the important groundwork laid by George Clinton.
As far as we have to go when taking apart the legacy of marginalized and disenfranchised culture when it comes to black communities all over the western world, some of that work started here with a vision that no walls could hold the talents, the stories, the humour, the sheer sweat, of those who demanded to be heard after hundreds of years of having had their full humanity called into question. With the joie de vivre that rolls off of this song alone that captures the best aspects of the human experience, how foolish it seems to me that this struggle for acknowledgement and respect is still a reality today for so many.
Clinton is an active musician and visionary today. You can catch up to him at georgeclinton.com.
For more on the idea of white-normative societal forces and how black people and white people process them so differently in 2015, here’s a fascinating and very sobering article all about it right here.