From Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the 58th Grammys to Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, we’ve seen a resurgence of the ideas championed by the Black Panther Party in popular culture. The timing isn’t coincidental, given the rise of what many have described as a second wave of activism surrounding the disparities faced by communities of color in the United States.
Now, on the heels of Beyoncé invoking the Panthers’ legacy at Super Bowl 50, comes Stanley Nelson Jr’s documentary: Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, currently streaming on PBS. Nelson showcases the pivotal role the Panthers played in leading many revolutionary social movements of the ’60s and ’70s.
Not only did they influence the rise of anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, they also called for social awareness and gender equality, among other things. However, the Panthers were not only heavily influential in the political sphere, they also impacted the art and culture of the era, and the revolutionary vibrations of their powerful rhetoric were felt well into the ’90s, and beyond.
Many of us will be familiar with the visual cliche of ’70s permed DJs, complete with oversized aviators and exaggerated lapels. This image is so intrinsically connected with ’70s culture we rarely question its actual origins. What caused people from every conceivable background to adopt afros, for instance? (Even if it meant getting a chemical perm to achieve the look.) Why did people suddenly want to cover half of their faces with dark sunglasses?
To understand this, one has to realize that the culture of the ’70s, from fashion to music, was intimately tied to the radical social movements of the time. There was an incredible amount of student backlash against the disastrous Vietnam War, which brought with it a rise in anti-capitalist sentiments and increased sympathy for causes like the Civil Rights movement and women’s rights movements. Essentially, the status quo was no longer acceptable to the nation’s youth.
So what is the relationship between the social movements of the ’60s and ’70s and sartorial hallmarks often associated with them?
One of the many connecting links is the Black Panther Party. As a black liberation and black power movement, the Panthers espoused, among other things, an ideology that embraced and celebrated non-Eurocentric standards of beauty. “Black is beautiful” became a rallying cry as the Panthers actively resisted the Europeanization of beauty standards and encouraged their supporters to wear their hair in natural styles and love the skin they were in.
Youth in America, in turn, adopted the Panthers’ conventions of beauty and fashion, and so these style conventions, born of a desire to find power in an authentic identity became an inspiration to the mainstream.
The SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) – who were the poster children for the social movements of the ’60s and ’70s in mainstream America – widely regarded the Black Panther Party as one of their inspirations. They were on the frontline of the revolution: it was the Panthers who suffered the brunt of reactionary police brutality to the newfound consciousness of America’s youth.
It was also the Panthers who were vehemently demonized by the establishment and forced away from their families and communities in order to safely continue their activism. The SDS, being paragons of the new left, recognized this, and to their credit did not allow the Black Panthers’ message to go unspoken. It was in this way those who were aligned with the counterculture of the late ’60s and ’70s began to advocate, dress, and present themselves as the Panthers would.
Yet due to their revolutionary positioning, the Panthers soon became targets of an institution that was fearful of the changes they demanded. Part of the reason they covered their faces with black shades was to ensure they and their families would not be identified and harmed. They also wore black leather as a uniform to present themselves as a movement of solidarity, a unified block that could not be shaken or intimidated.
Completing the uniform were the iconic black berets, worn to juxtapose the military’s green berets, further symbolizing their position as soldiers on the frontline. Yes, there were functional and political reasons for the way the Panthers dressed, but style was also part of the equation. They were cool by all standard definitions; an intellectual center of the new left, and uncompromising in their resistance to the oppression of the established order.
The reach of the Panthers’ influence did not end in the ’70s nor did it stop at fashion; it was much, much, more powerful. At its core the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, brought forth by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, was a movement that mobilized people of color against the government-condoned brutality and social inequity ravaging their communities. Sadly, many of the issues the Panthers combatted were a direct result of deep-seeded institutionalized racism, which, on the West Coast, in many ways acted as a surrogate for the oppressive Jim Crow laws of the South.
Though mobilized, resistant and strong, the underhanded tactics of the FBI dealt several near-fatal blows to the Panthers. At one point the party all but scattered and the frustrations felt by the communities that Newton and Seale had sought to defend felt their outlet slipping away. However, there can only be so much pressure behind a levee before it breaks.
In one instance, this frustration culminated with a group of young men from the very same region the Panther party had its roots. These men brought their outrage and pain into America’s living rooms; they called themselves N.W.A and they screamed, “Fuck tha Police!” from the forgotten neighborhoods of Southern California.
The Panther’s unbreakable spirit of resistance was not lost on N.W.A, their chosen attire clearly echoed that of the Panthers. Now, black hoodies and toques with Compton hats replaced black berets, while the black shades remained, along with a leather-gloved fist raised defiantly in the air. For all of the ways the Panthers inspired N.W.A. it seemed that it was iconic moments like the Panthers bearing arms in the Sacramento legislative assembly that influenced N.W.A’s musical output the most.
Meanwhile, groups like Public Enemy and KRS-One made their mark on the East Coast, keeping alive the legacy of the Panthers with music that espoused the party’s core values. Public Enemy, for instance, revived the Panthers unifying message with anthems such as “Fight the Power” and “Power to the People.” Additionally, songs like “Fear of a Black Planet” and “9-11 is a Joke” echoed the pro-black and resistance-oriented messages associated with Panther rhetoric.
KRS-One, who at first embraced a more gritty style, rebranded himself as “The Teacha” after the fatal shooting of his longtime friend and producer Scott La Rock, after which his music became more reminiscent of the socially conscious perspective of the Panthers. Both KRS-One and members of Public Enemy openly credited their politics to the Black Panther Party while also exemplifying the Panthers’ sense of fashion and imitating their style right down to the headwear.
The influence of N.W.A, Public Enemy and KRS-One on culture is undeniable. Their body of work in many ways influenced the development of particular sub-genres within hip-hop. Groups like A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, and Brand Nubian continued in an arguably more “conscious” tradition, while Ruthless and Death Row Records continued the grittier sonic traditions that came to be associated with West Coast gangsta rap.
Although accepting gender disparity was far from the Panthers’ official position, today, many still believe there was inherently tension between a state of social awareness entailing female empowerment and the hyper-masculine image of the politicized black male often associated with the Panther party.
It’s a strange assumption considering that at the height of the movement women actually held the majority of Panther membership and were as active in leadership roles as men. That being said, this highly-politicized female body actively aligned itself with movements advocating for both Civil Rights and gender equality. The image of the revolutionary male solely characterizing the Panther party is largely an invention of history and not an actual fact.
So in some ways, the splintering of hip-hop into different distinctive sub-genres has connections to the varying mythologies surrounding the Panther party. Though Panthers themselves, in their heyday, were able to recognize the importance of equality across the board – be it gender parity, socioeconomic equality, or Civil Rights – certain Panther-influenced trends in hip-hop were sometimes less successful.
One emcee that is often celebrated for his ability to embody several of the mythologies associated with the Panther party is Tupac Shakur. Perhaps his success came from the fact that their influence ran deeper and was much more personal to him than it had been to some of his predecessors. Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother, was a prominent member and organizer in the Black Panther Party. Assata Shakur, a woman whom Tupac referred to as his auntie, was another prominent member of the party. Assata in particular would later become known for her eventual forced flight to Cuba due to a violent encounter with law enforcement that was compounded by a string of other accusations.
Considering this history it’s little wonder that female empowerment was an issue dear to Tupac. And the influence of the Panthers, specifically his mother and aunt, is evident in a musical narrative that promotes everything from revolutionary ideas and near-militant resistance to the sacredness of the black woman.
As with the Black Panther Party itself, both the hyper-masculine archetype and the message of female empowerment simultaneously flowed through his music. Many would argue that his work is full of contradictions, which present themselves in the contrast between songs such as “Brenda’s Got a Baby” or “Mamas Just a Little Girl,” and titles like “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch” and “Skandalouz.”
Still, it can be said that he managed to accomplish what previous traditions in hip-hop were less successful in doing. That being reconciling ideas of hyper-masculinity and patriarchal values with an awareness of the power and capability of women, much like the Panthers themselves succeeded in doing. Tupac essentially merged socially conscious messages with “hardcore” rap and brought about a paradigm that allowed even the most hardened listeners to express an affinity with issues they may not have felt directly affected them.
Yet Tupac isn’t the only artist who succeeded in capturing the world’s ever-present dualities. In the ’90s a group known as Rage Against the Machine emerged. Driven by Tom Morello’s unorthodox production and Zach De La Rocha’s firebrand politicism, they too unified seemingly dichotomous ideas. The influence of the Black Panthers on Rage is blatant; their lyrics even directly reference the party on several occasions.
Although they are not recognized by all as being part of the hip-hop pantheon, Rage indeed carried on the tradition of Public Enemy and KRS-One while simultaneously paying homage to N.W.A. and the tradition of gangsta rap. They’ve even covered “Fuck tha Police” and regularly perform their version of the song in front of live audiences. Other notable artists such as Immortal Technique and Brother Ali also invoked the Black Panthers into the 2000s, but the mainstream did not see a true reoccurrence of the party’s ideas until later.
Today artists like Kendrick Lamar have transcended the label of “urban artists” and become influencers and challengers of culture as a whole. Kendrick, like Tupac, has the uncanny ability to fuse the fiery resistance-based rhetoric of the Black Panthers with their forward-facing awareness of social issues.
Alongside Beyoncé’s seemingly newfound politicism and that of countless other artists and creatives who are taking a stand as activists and advocates, the seeds planted by the Panthers a half-century ago are coming to fruition once again. But make no mistake, there is nothing new about their influence. What we’re seeing now is merely the continuation of a well-known and longstanding tradition, and we welcome its resurgence with open arms.
- Words: Houman Zavareh