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Earth, Wind, and Fired Up: Ready for Takeoff

Earth Wind and Fire’s 1981 hit, “Let’s Groove,” kicks off with a shuffled hi-hat rhythm penetrated by deep, tight bass drum kicks. In the lower registers, vocals passing through a vocoder synthesizer conflate the line between words and bass, mouthing a thick and fuzzy “Down…boogie down…down uh oh…”. When the chorus kicks in after two measures, the listener is introduced to the upbeat, infectious, and interlocking rhythms of funk—Earth, Wind, and Fire style. An electric bass takes over the vocal line, electronic claps mark the snare, and horns intersperse Maurice White’s vocalizations: “Let’s groove tonight/ Share the spice of life/ Baby slice it right /We’re gonna groove tonight.”

Earth, Wind, and Fire, formed by Maurice White in Chicago in 1967, continues to be a decades-long funk phenomenon, but there is more to their approach to funk than feel-good lyrics and a party mentality. The video to “Let’s Groove” exhibits several key features of what sociologist Alondra Nelson and other scholars have labeled “Afrofuturism.”  Briefly, the term denotes an African American ideological current associated with aesthetic references to outer space, non-Western cosmologies, religious and historical revisionism, and a stringent critique of the socio-economic plights of African Americans (and diasporic and continental Africans more broadly). Indeed, “Let’s Groove” includes multiple aesthetic references to Afrofuturism: a backdrop of flying white stars in the vastness of outer space, glittery and metallic-colored spacesuit costumes, and a group line dance preceding through a receding, neon pyramid. The line dance—a salient feature of the Chicago-originated television series Soul Train, proceeds through a potent symbol of Egyptology: the pyramid. Egyptology, an influential religious current during the 1960’s and 1970’s, placed black people at the center of Western and world history, and the pyramid adorns several EWF album covers, including 1977’s All ‘N All.

1977's All 'N All. Design cover by Japanese illustrator Shusei Nagaoka

Indeed, upon closer examination 1970’s funk holds deeper implications for not only the transcendent aspirations of Afrofuturism but spirituality more generally. In a 1981 interview, founder Maurice White emphasized the spiritual component of Earth Wind and Fire, saying “the creativity and the spirituality…is all one. With my spirituality being together, I can more or less call upon my creativity… You can’t have one without the other.” Additionally, scholar Ricky Vincent has connected funk to African spirituality, saying “funk is deeply rooted in African cosmology—the idea that people are created in harmony with the rhythms of nature and that free expression is tantamount to spiritual and mental health.”

Not only funk but various styles of music coming out of black Chicago in the late 1960’s and 1970’s reflected deep ties to ideology, lived experience, heritage, and community. Music was not simply art but life.  Indeed, it embodied life that reflected the ideological and political currents of a turbulent era.

Writing in 1998 in the journal Lenox Avenue, musician and scholar George Lewis—at the urging of musicologist Samuel A. Floyd, Jr.—argued eloquently for an “integrative” approach to music scholarship, one that fully recognized the multi-dimensionality of musical practice. His article, “Singing Omar’s Song: A (Re)construction of Great Black Music,” emphasized not only the auto-criticality and self-reflexivity of Black musicians in the 1970’s Art Ensemble of Chicago.  It also explained the collective’s deeply ideological, historically-responsive, and spiritual approaches to music. Lewis’ integrative approach to music scholarship offers a rich lens through which to view the artistic output of 1970’s Black Chicago. And Earth, Wind, and Fire exemplify deeply integrative tactics, combining visual references, fashion, music, and deeply self-reflexive spirituality in their unique concoction of one of the 1970’s most salient genres—funk.

Ruthie Meadows

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