Culture  /  Music Review

Radical Light

The cosmic collision of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway.

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"Be Real Black for Me"

Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway

The idea of a duet album was one that neither one had to be talked into, Emily J. Lordi explains in her book on Hathaway’s 1972 album, Donny Hathaway Live. They knew each other well, respected each other’s work, and their previous work “reveal[ed] these two artists’ musical compatibility.” It also represented a step onto a larger stage for Hathaway. Pairing him with Flack was as much a business decision as an artistic one. The musical match was the brainchild of Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, and as Hathaway told Blues & Soul, “He thought that Roberta and I could come up with some good ideas together because he knew how well we had worked.”

The album came into being in a time of revolution. There were the loud, visible, public kinds—the marches and rallies, the sit-ins and boycotts. But revolution can also happen in the places we don’t expect. There is a revolution in the sway of the hips, in holding each other closely, in a syncopated rhythm helping us find our voices as we chant “I’m Black and I’m proud,” in the freedom that comes from a body in possession of itself. Black music provided the soundtrack, but it was also its own weapon in the fight. As Phyl Garland, Ebony editor and author of the landmark 1969 book The Sound of Soul, explains, Black music contains “a defiance and rejection of things as they were.”

Music helped us find our way to freedom, a spiritual guiding feet northward. It helped build churches, powerful spaces of resistance where music helped steel the soul and the body for the fight ahead. And in 1960s and ’70s America, Black music was transforming not just the way others saw us but the way we saw ourselves. For Flack, her music represented not just a display of her talent but her contribution to this ever-growing fight for rights. “As strongly as I believe in the black struggle,” Flack once told an interviewer, “I know that my best bet is to express this through music.” And for Hathaway, Black music was at the center of American musical culture, and like it was for Flack, his way to contribute. His songs displayed this passion, including “The Ghetto” (“I felt it was a song that all Black people could relate to,” Hathaway wrote in the liner notes of his 1973 album Extension of a Man) and “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” a song that represents a promise, a devotion, an eternal hope.