People Get Ready: Advent With Curtis Mayfield III

N.B.: I won’t be around Sunday, and tomorrow is going to be pretty crazy, so I’m publishing this a couple days early. I’m sure Jesus won’t mind.

Take nothing less, than the second best
Do not obey, you must keep your say
You can past the test
Just move on up, to a greater day
With just a little faith
If you put your mind to it you can surely do it – “Move On Up”, last stanza, music and lyrics by Curtis Mayfield


And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’- Luke 1:46-55


Curtis Mayfield on the television music program The Old Gray Whistle Test, 1972

Curtis Mayfield on the television music program The Old Gray Whistle Test, 1972

Week three of Advent is typically celebrated as the Sunday of Joy. As we move ever closer to the day of the birth of the Christ Child, what began with hope rooted in love now moves to joy as the full import and impact of the Incarnation grows in the hearts and minds and lives of believers. Who can help but be joyful?

Certainly Mary, the mother of Jesus, couldn’t. Upon arriving at her cousin Elizabeth’s, as the older woman told her of how she felt her baby move and the Spirit fill her, Mary offers a tuneful prayer to God for the blessing that shall flow from her to all. These blessings aren’t feelings. Her joy isn’t some private affair. On the contrary, the blessing she feels and that flows from her to all through the child she will bear is nothing else but the revolutionary upsetting of the powers and principalities of this world in the face of God’s love and justice to be embodied in the life and person and death and resurrection of Jesus. Joy overwhelms Mary, just as it should overwhelm all of us at the thought of what God is doing. Not just what God has done; not just what God will do; what God is doing here and now. If we can’t see it, if we can’t proclaim it, then we don’t know the power of God.

From the early-1950’s through the early-1970’s, the African-American community moved from resistance to resistance, from victory to temporary defeat to victory to confrontation to defeat again. From the days of some early Supreme Court victories that began to strip segregation in public employment, public housing, then private housing, then public higher education, the edifice of legalized white supremacy began to crumble. With each victory came a desire for more, for real freedom. With freedom came the desire to declare the dignity of a people worn down, despised, dehumanized, murdered, their art and their work and their lives stolen for the material and spiritual gain of those who hated them. From the simple, earnest declaration of equality to the defiant declaration of Black Power, the African-American community made great strides in forcing the larger society to see and hear them as human beings.

The single most famous declaration of Black Power ever. The Australian who took the Silver Medal, by supporting his fellow American runners, paid a high price, including having his medal stripped and his national record negated.

The single most famous declaration of Black Power ever. The Australian who took the Silver Medal, by supporting his fellow American runners, paid a high price, including having his medal stripped and his national record negated.

Curtis Mayfield, as the poet-laureate of the struggle for black freedom and dignity, offered a vision of Black Pride and Black Power that defied white stereotypes of “the angry black man” that still rule way too much white thought about African-Americans. He’d already penned themes for the Civil Rights movement that Martin Luther King had incorporated in his rallies. Now, with “Move On Up”, he showed that pride and struggle are rooted in joy. One cannot contend for freedom and dignity unless one already knows one is free and of equal worth and value. As Che Guevara said, all revolutionary movements are rooted in love; so, too, the Black Power moment, while certainly tinged with rage as the recalcitrance of white supremacy and the constant violence visited upon black people, their lives, their communities, and their persons, was also buoyed by joy. After all, why fight for equality, for dignity, and for justice if the reward isn’t joy at finally, after far too long, arriving at the promised land? And why hold back that joy until the end?

In the words and music of “Move On Up”, Mayfield offers African-Americans more than simple advice; he offers them a vision of movement from their current down-trodden state through the ever-present often violent resistance of the white power structure to the joyful penultimate (“Take nothing less than the second best” makes clear that the faith that roots the struggle, a faith that was always at the heart of Mayfield’s life and music, is the best and last or ultimate) arrival. The whole setting of the song, it’s insistent beat, the horns and voice all in the upper register all show both the strength and happiness at the heart of the struggle for freedom, equality, dignity, and justice. The long instrumental section is nothing more than a soundtrack for that movement. Faster, polyrhythmic, with the guitar and piano doing a call and response with the bass underneath a sax solo, this isn’t a march at all. This is all about having arrived. This is party music!

And that fight? Well, what else was Mary singing about when she said, “[the LORD] has brought down the powerful from their thrones”? That “[the Lord] has filled the hungry with good things”?  Of course, everyone always points out the contradiction at the heart of the Magnificat; it speaks in present tense of things that have not yet, even two millennia later, happened. Doesn’t that render the joy just a tad premature?

Well, full African-American emancipation hasn’t arrived either. But who would deny the joy of the insistence to”move on up”? Mayfield acknowledges the road is both long and will be filled with resistance. All the more reason, then, to be joyful; he knows the reward is that much greater precisely because of the violent resistance that will dog his people all along the way. Just like we know that the declarations Mary makes in the Magnificat are still to be fully consummated and there will be resistance to that finality, we still sing with joy with Mary as we move ever closer through this season of waiting for the coming of the birth of Jesus.


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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.

Howdy! Thanks for reading. Really. Be nice and remember - I'm like Roz from Monster's Inc. I'm always watching.

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