First of all, “The Lumpen” is a fantastically cheeky name for a band of Black Panthers. It’s short for “lumpenproletariat,” Marx’s term for the working class that simply cannot achieve class-consciousness, and may in fact become an obstacle to revolution. (Think very poor, uninsured Tea partiers adamantly against food stamps or universal healthcare.) I’m already sold on the Marxist inside joke.
While The Lumpen were most certainly not the lumpenproletariat, they show that The Black Panther Party made sure to inject a healthy amount of arts and culture into their radical commitments. And though they often had very little time for band practice, (what with Party duties and all), their mission was the capstone to a larger, but usually far less explicit presence of black power politics and rhetoric in soul music—the fascinating book, Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers’ Band and How Black Power Transformed Soul Music, goes into it more thoroughly. Below, you can hear their one and only single, “Free Bobby Now,” an anthem for Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, who was serving four years for contempt of court.
Band member Michael Torrance gives his fond recollection of his time spent in The Lumpen, from The Black Panther Party’s Legacy and Alumni:
Throughout history, oppressed people have used music as a means to not only document their struggle, but also to educate, motivate and inspire people to resistance. The Lumpen singing cadre grew out of that tradition. The purpose or mission of the Lumpen was “to educate the People…to use popular forms of music that the community could relate to and politicize it so it would function as another weapon in the struggle for liberation.”
The original members were Bill Calhoun, Clark (Santa Rita) Bailey, James Mott and myself, Michael Torrance. In the beginning we were just comrades who liked to harmonize while working Distribution night in San Francisco to “help the work go easier” (another tradition). We had all sung in groups in the past, Calhoun having performed professionally in Las Vegas, and it just came naturally. I don’t remember just how it came about, but Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture, suggested that this could be formed into a musical cadre. Elaine Brown had already recorded an album of revolutionary songs (Seize the Time) in a folk singing style, and this quartet singing in an R&B or “Soul” form could be a useful political tool. Some folks don’t read, but everybody listens to music.
Shortly thereafter, Calhoun wrote “No More” in a spiritual/traditional style, and then “Bobby Must Be Set Free”, a more upbeat R&B song. We recorded these two songs and soon we were singing at community centers and rallies. Emory named the group the Lumpen for the “brothers on the block,” the disenfranchised, angry underclass in the ghetto. From then on the Lumpen were a Revolutionary Culture cadre - working out of National Headquarters under the direction of the Ministry of Culture, and June Hilliard who was alternately very supportive and very critical.
It was determined that as representatives of the Black Panther Party and to “capture the imagination” of the people, the Lumpen had to perform at a high level - the “product” had to be good. We recruited progressive musicians from the community and they became the Lumpen’s band - The Freedom Messengers Revolutionary Musicians. Thanks to Calhoun’s expertise, we were able to put together a high-energy hour-long “act” complete with uniforms and choreography.
Soon we were performing at clubs, community centers, rallies and colleges throughout the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area and as word of mouth spread, the Lumpen began to develop a following. By the time the Lumpen were about to go on an East Coast tour, the auditorium at Merritt College was packed for the kick-off concert which was recorded live. The whole audience sang along with “Bobby Must Be Set Free.”
In the winter of 1971, the Lumpen and comrade Emory went on an East Coast tour of colleges and fundraisers in St. Paul/Minneapolis, New York City, Boston, New Haven and the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Washington DC. We promoted the Party’s mass line through re-working popular songs by the Impressions (People Get Ready - Revolution’s Come), the Temptations (There’s Bullets in the air for Freedom, Old Pig Nixon) as well as originals such as Revolution is the Only Solution, We Can’t Wait Another Day, Set Sister Erika Free, and Killin’ (If U Gon Be Free).
Upon returning to Oakland, the Lumpen continued to perform throughout California. Attempts to get airplay for the “Lumpen Live” recording were unsuccessful due to the “controversial” lyrics. Eventually, due to departures and shifting priorities, the Lumpen as a group disbanded.
It is important to stress that the Lumpen were Panthers first and foremost. Before, during and after the group, we did all the political and day-to-day work that was required of every rank and file comrade. The music was simply another facet of service to the Party and the Revolution. Furthermore, since we were an educational cadre, rigorous study was necessary to be able to translate the ideology of the BPP into song. At all times, we were representatives of the Black Panther Party.
Being a member of the Lumpen was only one of the various areas of work I was involved in during my years in the Party, but I am proud to have been a part of our struggle’s historic tradition and in the process to have possibly made a little history as well.