In Collaboration with Black Forum,
RNGLDR Magazine Presents the Re-Release of Elaine Brown’s ‘Until We’re Free’
Evan Dale // March 31, 2021
An influence on cultural mainstays and artists ranging from Motown founder Mr. Berry Gordy to modern R&B royalty, Alicia Keys; chairwoman of the Black Panther Party from 1974-1977, eventually stepping down as an opponent to the patriarchy and sexism prevalent in the party at the time; a gay rights activist, a proponent of prison reform, queen of socially motivated Soul, and so much more, Elaine Brown is one of the great socio-cultural forces of the last half-century. Alongside Motown Records and Berry Gordy’s adjacent Black Forum label bringing auditory social movement originally to vinyl and now, for the first time in 2021, to streaming services, her 1973 album, Until We’re Free, enlisted by Black Panther founder, Huey P. Newton, finds itself back in the spotlight.
Timely in two directions both to close out Women’s History Month and to bring soundtrack to further chapters in the fight for Black civil liberties during the opening cases of the trial against Derek Chauvin – the ex-officer facing murder chargers for the wrongful death of George Floyd – the Black Forum’s re-release of Until We’re Free bleeds of its purpose and prose today, as it did nearly 50 years ago. In a year marred by so much loss and pain, even the pandemic seemed to pale in comparison to a monumental global push forward in the Black Lives Matter movement. On the heels of the murder of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor, of Elijah McClain, of countless others, a powerful new generation of social justice fights ignited again, carrying the torch of centuries of work towards equality. And along with the Black Lives Matter movement, just as with the fights for Civil Rights that highlighted news reels for decades during the second half of the 20th century, culture – most of which as we know it today, is largely of Black origin – also followed suit.
Tracks from Noname’s Rainforest and Anderson .Paak’s now Grammy-winning Lockdown, to a plethora of releases from up-and-coming artists across the musical spectrum like Kemba’s 6 Million Ways and Elton Aura’s Black Stories, reflected what was happening in Black communities through the lens of Black art. And alongside a listener’s tendency to also look backwards towards music that accompanied the social movements of the past, a wide-ranging socio-musical library still bleeds with one common goal – continues to soundtrack the same good fight. The enduring struggle of that fight continues to bring to mind the timelessness of socially motivated Soul music, and that timelessness of Soul is engrained in its foundational roots. Along with Elaine Brown, after all, many Motown greats whose chapter in Soul music is perhaps more timeless than any other musical run in history, began a permanent intertwining of the soulful and the social.
It is a testament to both the music itself and the movements that music – from the Blues and Rock & Roll, to Motown and Soul, and eventually to Hip-Hop Neo-Soul, and R&B – has soundtracked through the years – oftentimes extensions of one another – that ‘timeless’ becomes such an accompanying adjective. Yet, in the timeless achievements of an album that can last the many changes that music and pop culture sees through a half-century, also must exist the depressing reality that its social pillars remain necessary through the same span. And that’s the challenging, frustrating role that albums like Until We’re Free continue to face. Surely, Elaine Brown, Berry Gordy, and Huey P. Newton would all prefer that Until We’re Free fade into the annals of history along with the issues of social justice. But instead, they toil still, timelessly golden for their musical influence, timelessly pointing out the fact that certain elements of society haven’t really changed all that much, even if music, guided by the fabric of projects like Until We’re Free, has.
Even as music has changed though, it’s that ever-present timelessness in Ms. Brown’s music that maintains its socio-soulful boundlessness of era. Hers is a foundational, old-school signature that though different than the rest, makes the whole of the Motown era so approachable for fans of the then and the now – from the bluesy roots of soul to the sensual and romantic happenings of modern R&B. It’s the Funk Brothers foundation, brimming with anthemic piano riffs, cinematic string progressions, vinyl stamping analogue drums, and silky basslines, that lend the auditory backdrop as rail line for the project – for the era. And it’s the voice of Elaine Brown – the subject matter, too – that rides the rails from Motown Records’ roots towards so many subsequent albums – so many stops along the way – in music, in social reform, and in their unending intertwining relationship since.
At nine songs, Until We’re Free is a powerful, poetic half-hour bleeding with tales of Black struggles and pushing for a continued fight for equality and equity. When you hear Brown’s voice, it calls to mind the powerful and clear registers of so many modern soulstresses whose music, too, tends towards social justice. Almost 50 years since its release, her voice rings anthemic, her fight continues on, and her timeless album – goldenly so for its musical genius, painfully so for society’s frustrating lack of progress – continues its role, more accessible than ever – as soundtrack and as blueprint in the fight in Black civil liberties, and the cultural strides that always lend company and strength.