Monday, November 16, 2015
Ship Ahoy - When the message is not in the music.
The O'jays' Ship Ahoy is one of the best and socially conscious albums in their discography. The genius behind this album are composers and producers, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. They have written a lot of gems for groups like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Paul of "Me and Mrs Jones" fame, Aretha Franklin and the others but it is through the O'Jays that they found their artistic expression. It is through the O'Jays that the sound of Philadelphia came to be celebrated.
Ship Ahoy was released in 1973 as a concept album with the main theme being slavery and its aftereffects on the American society. Gamble and Huff were probably influenced by the hugely successful Marvin Gaye's "What's Going on", a concept album about hatred, suffering, injustice and the Vietnam war. It is said that the album was the first R&B concept album and sold more than 2 million copies.
Ship Ahoy is also a concept album with its main theme being slavery with a particular emphasis on the Atlantic slave trade. The album is also critical about the effects of capitalism on society as can be heard on their hit song "For the Love of Money". Their other hit song "The air I breath" laments the commodification social relations and "Don't call me brother" is about two timing people and backstabbers who betray socially conscious brothers in their mission for social justice.
After Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On", "Ship Ahoy" is arguably one of the most important albums about social justice to come out of the US. However unlike Marvin Gaye, the songs were laid on the silver platter for them by the founders, composers and producers at Philadelphia International Records. Marvin Gaye had to fight Barry Gordy's Motown Records for the right to have his music recorded. Marvin Gaye's album became a huge success because he could clearly articulate the concept behind his music.
With the O'Jays, that articulation was absent as they considered themselves firstly R&B singers and entertainers and as a result the message behind the music was lost. It is ironic that "For the love of Money" has been used as a theme song for Donald Trump's TV programme "The Apprentice". This shows how watered down the message in their music has been.
The central theme around this immensely gifted singers' music is a lack of grasp of the consciousness of their music. There are songs like "The Year 2000", "Give people what they want", "Put your Hands together" and the lesser known "Message in the music", highly conscious songs that didn't make it past people's consciousness. One would have expected such songs to become standards and rallying cries for the civil rights movements and the oppressed of the world.
Imagine if a Nina Simone or Marvin Gaye were given these songs, they would have been at the heart of the civil rights movement struggle. Brilliant as the O'Jays are, they have done a disservice to the brilliance and radicalism of Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble. Imagine how immortal they would have been had they followed up such revolutionary gems with a bit of radicalism and consciousness on their part.
Ship Ahoy, the album, is such a haunting and painful album that chronicles slavery and its aftereffects in America. The song itself is hauntingly beautiful, with the crack of the whip in the background and the sound of the ocean articulating the poignancy in the song.
Ship Ahoy is one of the most beautifully crafted albums that ranks up there with Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and Nina Simone's radical songs. It is a pity that Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell failed to inject the radicalism and consciousness that was required to bring to the fore the message in the music. It is a pity that most of these beautiful gems are considered pop songs and R&B standards that are nice to dance to.
It is also remarkable that the composers of the music did not make a concerted effort to articulate the message behind their lyrics. But then again it is said that the painter is not meant to interpret his work. Pity!