Ain’t no stopping US now, WE’re on the move!

On August 28th, like 40 million other Americans,  I watched the democratic convention live on TV (actually the Internet), and like the 84.000 in attendance at Invesco Field, I was electrified by Barack’s acceptance speech.

As the moment for Barack to make history by accepting the democratic nomination for president approached,  the stadium literally rocked (I would have killed to have been there.)  “As John Lennon’s “Power to the People” faded out another tune faded in…a Tune I could have Named in 2 drum beats, it was so etched into my soul. I’m sure most anyone in their late thirties through their fifties, especially black people, can identify with what I felt. McFadden and Whitehead had created a timeless classic with the release of “Ain’t no stopping us now” back in ’79.  It’s one of those songs, like “Good Times” by Chic, “Love is the Message,” by Mother Father Sister and Brother (MFSB), and Mister Magic by Grover Washington Jr. that tug on my heartstrings and induce a wave of yearning and nostalgia both overwhelming and uplifting.

Those violins, that bass, those ladies chanting, those gentleman preaching… and yes, it was a sermon: A little Gospel you could shake your ass to, designed to reach those God-Fearing masses that couldn’t get up early on Sundays cause they were too hung over from a Saturday night spent at that Rent party in the projects…only this music wasn’t about a power descending from heaven or the glory that awaited us come Judgment Day. it was a spiritual yet impious message of a rapture that needed no unseen hand, a message directed at a certain “Us”.

Ain’t no stopping US now. WE‘re on the move! Who was this US and WE?

Well, in 1979, I was a different person and I had a different answer to that question.

At the time, blacks were at one of a dozen turning points on our path from actual slavery to mental freedom. Heroin had contaminated our communities,  dropping people like flies, and Crack, it’s evil step-child, was incubating in a lab somewhere like some kind of test tube baby. We were post Malcolm X and MLK, post-Panther and ‘Nam, Post-Afro-American and Pan-African and pre-African-American. Soul Music, Dashikis, and Afro-sheen had made way for Disco, Gheri Curls and leather suits. Nevertheless, we were still Black and Proud and not afraid to say it loud, like James Brown had instructed us.

The economy was shot, gas stations were parking lots 5 blocks long servicing only those with the designated alphabet on their license plates. President Carter was moments from being decapitated by Reagan and Daddy Bush, and the Neo-Cons were nearby, counting our babies and scapegoating.  Brooklyn, New York, in Bed-Stuy / Crown Heights, my hometown, barely recovered from the ’77 blackout, was experiencing, as usual, high levels of police brutality and corruption. Jobs were scarce, crime was high, drugs were rampant, and tempers were roiling. Our schools were falling apart, the teachers were mostly unqualified, indifferent or unable to control the unchecked violence within. Our brothers were locked up, our sisters were knocked up, our mothers were crying and our fathers were dying.

But, there was a feeling. There was always a feeling. An anger and dissatisfaction held in check barely by creativity. A well of energy that converts nothing into something was desperately seeking an outlet. Music has always been one of our most reliable outlets. But every time we found a groove, Mass culture and commercialism would borrow / steal, dilute and defile, milk and kill it. This had been the fate of most of our previous creative outlets…Blues, Jazz, Ragtime, Rock, R&B, Soul, Funk, even Motown Pop, and, by 1979, the Bee Gees were in the process of doing the same thing to Disco. Hip Hop was still a fledgling Rug Rat up in the Bronx somewhere…

Something had to give; or else.

And none of this was news. It was just more of the same. Politicians came through, mostly democrats, promising help was on the way. For example, Robert Kennedy came to Bed-Stuy in the 60’s, saw the wretched destitution and promised a restoration. if he hadn’t been assassinated maybe he would have done more. It is said that Jimmy Carter offered very little assistance to inner cities. he just kind of left them to rot, and The Big Apple was truly rotting.  But, I also remember as a child many social programs that eased my families plight. I grew up on welfare and Medicaid, without which me and my 5 brothers and sisters would have surely perished. Someone saw hunger in the ‘hood and the ‘hood got free lunch.  Bologny Sandwiches on stale bread, a piece of fruit, and a pint of warm milk to wash it down. I remember it well! Free Lunch became free Dinner many a night in my house. You could fault the democrats with their so-called bleeding hearts, but you better believe for every family that was taking advantage of these handouts, abusing the system, as it were, there were a 1000 families like mine that free lunch sometimes made the difference between a full and an empty belly.

And, amid all of this craziness and despair, McFadden and Whitehead had the sheer audacity, the unmitigated optimism, to release a song called, “Ain’t no stopping US now!”

What the hell were they thinking???

From all appearances, WE had been stopped, cold. But, like MLK, who had a dream, a vision of a world where black people wouldn’t be hosed down in the streets, subject to attack dogs, or hung from trees, these guys also had a vision. It was a progressive vision.

I was barely a teenager, and to be honest, at the time, I was more into the groove than the lyrics of the song. I mean, it had  a mean bass line. And it had an all-important break, something for the dee-jays to loop and scratch. Sure, you could Hustle to it, but you could also do the Freak to it. The Hustle represented the past. John Travolta and the Bee Gees had hijacked disco. The Freak, however, as a dance, represented the future, and it was ours. It was a free-style, a dance derived from one’s own creativity. No school could teach it. You  could watch “Soul Train” every Saturday morning and still not learn it. From the outside, it looked like chaos, the way Jazz sounds like chaos unless you listen with more than your ears and brain.  You could either do the freak or you couldn’t. And, “Ain’t no stopping…” was freaky. It was also VERY popular at the neighborhood roller skating rink. Empire Rollerdome, in Crown Heights was the most popular in Brooklyn. And, “Ain’t no stopping…” was an eternal crowd pleaser. The song might have charted for a few weeks but in the ‘hood it was something of an anthem.

I knew the lyrics. Everybody did. I understood the lyrics. I sang the lyrics. I mean, I REALLY knew the song. Even the long ass 11 minute version. Every inflection, every grunt, every holler, I could mimic. The lyrics could be interpreted many ways. You could extract portions of it, as I did, and apply it to various people or institutions in your life. Like, when the lyrics invoke the “They” and “Them” and juxtapose it with the “We.”

I know you know someone who has a negative vibe, and if you’re trying to make it they only push you aside, they really don’t have nowhere to go, ask them where they‘re going, THEY don’t know!”

Of course, the song never mentions white people, or the government, or your friends or even your parents.  Just the ubiquitous “They” and the writers left it to the listener to replace that pronoun with any entity they so choose. And, so I did. I think as a teen, and a product of the Pan-African movement, I usually applied “they” to those black people in the community with a crabs in a barrel mentality, who go out of their way to make sure everyone stays in the barrel so that their misery always has company. And even though I had inherited a gripe with white people, or “The Man,” from my parents, at the time, I had never had a white person do me any harm so it was difficult for me to infuse the lyrics of that song with any animosity for any particular group. On the contrary, I feel that the lyrics allowed me to further fuse myself to other black people. As I said, I sang it, and everyone I knew sang it, proudly, and with reverence, like one might sang the National Anthem if one were patriotic.

I guess, to me, the WE and the US in that song was black people, and the song was a tribute to those that had sacrificed in the past (There’s been so many things that’s held us down, but now it looks like things are finally coming around…), a recognition of the continuing struggle (I know we’ve got a long long way to go and where we’ll end up, I don’t know) and a fuel to keep the engine of that struggle alive. (But, we won’t let nothing hold us back…we’re pulling ourselves together, we’re polishing up our act…if you’ve ever been held down before, I know you refuse to be held down anymore!)

Now those are some powerful words!

But, here we are, some 30 years later, and Barack Obama has chosen this song to incorporate its message into his campaign message of change and share it with 40 million Americans, most of which were not black.

You would think that this would trouble me having long ago embraced this song as an anthem for black people to raise themselves up (by the much touted bootstraps.) You would think that I might feel that Barack had somehow betrayed black people. You would think that his usage of the song for such a clearly political reason would somehow diminish it in my mind and heart.

Well, I’m happy to say, it didn’t bother me in the slightest!

In fact, as it followed Lennon’s call to arms aimed at “the people” it was consummately timed and perfectly appropriate. In fact, I immediately (and I’m still kind of shocked at how quickly it occurred for I am a purist when it comes to music, ask any of my friends) detached my old feelings of “WE” meaning black people exclusively and reassigned “WE” to mean all of us, all Americans, who share a vision of what is possible if we could embrace the words of this song as an anthem of sorts, to redefine America’s role in the world.

I grew up in a very divisive America. A very black America, within the traditional boundaries of the true America. But, I’ve come to believe that If America truly stood as one nation, indivisible, and that was the message we not only exported to the world but impart to the next generation, then America could become a place that I’d be more than proud to call home.

Optimistic? Idealistic? Maybe. But, Barack’s message does that for me. And it’s about time for a change I can believe in.

Have a listen to the full song below! McFadden and Whitehead on Soul Train

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