When the Black Panthers needed a funk band to help galvanize the masses, the Lumpen didn't miss a beat. (Courtesy of itsabouttime.com)
Saturu Ned claims he once changed Tupac Shakur's diaper before going on stage.
Ned has a lot of stories from the early '70s: his band, the Lumpen, shared bills with Curtis Mayfield, Muhammad Ali and even the Grateful Dead. Mobs threatened them with violence during a performance in front of the New Haven, Connecticut jail where they played in support of an incarcerated Bobby Seale. Popular R&B acts of the time like the Dells and the Stylistics were fans of the Lumpen, and an industry bigshot wanted to give them a record deal.
But for Ned and his band mates—William Calhoun, Clark Bailey and Mark Torrance—the party came first. That party was the Black Panther Party, the revolutionary civil rights organization that required all of its members to participate in community service programs. Born James Mott, Ned joined the Panthers as a teenager. By 1970, he was working out of the Panthers' Central Headquarters in West Oakland, helping get the Party newsletter into the hands of community members.
"I would sometimes be singing, in the front," Ned recalls. "Emory [Douglas, the Panthers' Minister of Culture] would come by. 'Oh man, you got a nice voice.'"
Douglas told Ned he knew of a few other party members with good voices, and thought that combining R&B with urgent social commentary could help reach the masses and galvanize the faithful. Taking their name from Franz Fanon's anti-imperialist text The Wretched of the Earth, the Lumpen started rehearsing at the Panther HQ in West Oakland.
"We'd all collaborate on the lyrics, songs, concepts and choreography," Ned recalls. They began playing local shows and were part of the arts and culture programming at the Temple of the Son of Man, a Panther-run non-denominational spiritual center.
"Then everything accelerated. Bobby got kidnapped!" Ned recalls, referring to Seale's various legal troubles, including a contempt of court conviction and a subsequent arrest for allegedly ordering the murder of a Panther-turned-suspected informant (the charges were later dropped). As the Panthers rallied around Seale, party leadership told Ned, "We want you to create a song."
In 1970, the Lumpen recorded two songs—"No More" and "Free Bobby Now"—which were pressed up as a 45 rpm record. They developed a stage show that incorporated original material, skits and versions of other artists' songs with revolutionary lyrics. "Ol' Man River" became "Ol' Pig Nixon."
One of the Lumpen's career highlights came when journalist (and former KQED anchor) Belva Davis arranged a performance at San Quentin with Curtis Mayfield and Muhammad Ali. The Lumpen performed their version of Mayfield's "People Get Ready," then segued to "Free Bobby Now" and "Ol' Pig Nixon." By the fourth song, "Revolution is the Only Solution," prison officials began to take note of the lyrics: "A 45 will stop all jive / A 357 will send a pig to heaven / A 38 will…"
Ned recalls, "All of a sudden, the mics went dead. The guards had pulled the plug. They cut our mic and said, 'You're not gonna sing anymore, or we're gonna end this concert and we're gonna send the prisoners back.' So Curtis came out, and Muhammad Ali was back there just busting up. 'They didn't let y'all sing, huh? Well, I guess I'm gonna have to get out there and tell the truth anyway.' I never will forget that."
Another highlight was an East Coast tour with Douglas, which included a contentious stop in New Haven, where Seale was being held. Matter-of-factly, Ned recounts confrontations with angry crowds: "They threatened us in New Haven, [but] we said, 'Oh, well. We might not get another opportunity to consistently say this.'"
The Lumpen made a live recording from that tour, but the master tapes somehow disappeared and the album was never released.
In 2013, Rickey Vincent, host of KPFA's History of Funkshow, wrote a book on the Lumpen called Party Music. Vincent says he's never heard the full album—which he calls a "unicorn"—but did transcribe the lyrics from eight songs he gleaned from a cassette copy while researching his book.
The Lumpen, he says, "represented the music, but they also represented the Black Panther Party at that time. … They represented a moment of truth where the music, the politics, the possibilities were all sort of reaching a peak at the same time."
Vincent says the band existed in a musical context shaped by James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)." "That was the record that laid out this explicit discourse across the racial divide," he explains. "The explicit use of race—all that sort of evolved from late '69 into '70. This new era of music was driven by a tantalizing mix of racial community and racial confrontation. The way the times were changing, the way people's expectations were changing, somebody had to push that a little further."
The Lumpen, Vincent argues, were unique. "They weren't a group designed to perform for profit," he says. "They were designed to perform for a specific political agenda that mirrored or reflected the Black Panther Party's vision of social change."
Both Vincent and Ned note that the radio stations of the time were afraid to give the Lumpen airplay despite their talent. Ned adds that Panther leadership had other priorities besides promoting a funk band. Although they played a few local shows in 1972, the group disbanded after its members were reassigned to other roles in the Panther organization.
With a tinge of regret, Ned remarks, "What [Panther leadership] didn't understand at the time that we brought rehumanizing, opening up the doors for everyone to say, 'I'm a revolutionary too.'"
Undoubtedly, the Lumpen's legacy carried on through the sociopolitical commentary that permeated R&B and funk throughout the '70s—as well as the direct political speech of hip-hop groups such as the Coup, Public Enemy and dead prez. There have been inquiries, Ned says, from local artist Kev Choice and X Clan's Brother J about collaborating on a reunion show—suggesting there may be another chapter in the Lumpen's story.