Legendary R&B singer and producer, Curtis Mayfield may be eons removed from today’s generation of music lovers. However, the Chicago native’s justice-inspired lyrics, melting ghetto stories, and soulful production still connects to millennials. Whether it’s through his timeless messages of love, peace and equality, or through his songs being sampled by today’s hip-hop stars such as Kanye West (“Touch the Sky,” “Jesus Walks”), Travi$ Scott (“Don’t Play”), Kendrick Lamar (“The Heart Pt. 4,” “King Kunta”), J. Cole (“Nobody’s Perfect”), among others, Mayfield’s heroic status is sealed in American culture.
Born during the World War II era – 1942 – the Cabrini-Green Houses, a once infamous housing project in Chicago, alumni jumpstarted his prolific music career as a member of The Alphatones, and The Impressions, respectively, before embarking on his solo career.
The self-taught guitarist’s career spanned decades. In addition to being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015, Mayfield produced for fellow musical goddesses Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight and the Pips. He also provided the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement with encouraging songs like “Keep on Pushing,” and “People Get Ready.” In 1970, Mayfield began his solo career with his self-titled debut album. Two years later, he released his sombering classic effort with Superfly, which shed light on drug addiction in the U.S.
Recently, Todd Mayfield, the acclaimed artist’s second eldest son, released a new book titled, Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield with co-author Travis Atria. VIBE spoke with Todd Mayfield about Traveling Soul, his dad’s insecurities, his impact on the Civil Rights Movement, and much more.
VIBE: There are other biographies on Curtis Mayfield. What makes this one different?
Todd Mayfield: Actually, there never has been a true biography written about my father. There was an earlier attempt years ago but he didn’t have a personal relationship with my father or family, which made it very difficult to write. “Traveling Soul” is the first and only comprehensive biography of Curtis Mayfield.
What’s the overall message that you want to get across with “Traveling Soul?”
I want to remind the world of my father’s immense impact on music and American culture. I want people to understand the person behind the music, who he was and what drove him to change the world with his creativity.
The messages he spent his life delivering are still valid: peace and equality are values worth fighting for. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I thought it was dope that you exposed his insecurities. We rarely get insecurities from the people we look up to. Where did his insecurities stem from?
I believe he felt insecure about his height – he was 5’7″ – and all the normal things that we all worry about in a culture obsessed with appearance.
I think the most devastating insecurities, though, came from his poverty and America’s deep history of racism. He grew up in a segregated world, a world that told him his life didn’t mean much. He had very dark skin. Kids in school used to call him names because of it. That stuck with him for some time I believe.
Did he expose his insecurities in his music?
I would say he exposed human frailties more than his own insecurities. Whether he was writing about love, loss, happiness, sadness, or even the Civil Rights Movement, he tried to write something that everyone could feel and understand, while giving food for thought. He reflected on the people and the times around him, rather than writing just about himself.
Can you explain how – or if – “Keep On Pushing” directly affected the Civil Rights Movement?
“Keep On Pushing” was the first song he wrote directly about the movement. The freedom riders and marchers often sang my dad’s songs, and “Keep On Pushing” was among the best of them. It came at the right time. The movement had reached its pinnacle with the March on Washington in ’63 and the Civil Rights Act in ’64. “Keep On Pushing” was a celebration of that, and also a message that we still had work to do.
“People Get Ready” is another song that’s widely celebrated. Can you tell us what inspired that song?
Some of the same things that inspired “Keep On Pushing.” Martin Luther King had just given the “I Have a Dream” speech, which rang a deep chord within my father. Often writing about his thoughts and observations on what was going on around him and nationally.
The Civil Rights Act had been passed and the Voting Rights Act was passed close to when “People Get Ready” came out in 1965. Legal segregation was slowly dying. “People Get Ready” was about taking that next step toward freedom.
You also discuss that some of the lyrics from “People Get Ready” were inspired by Negro spirituals. Can you explain how and what lyrics?
It’s all in the imagery – “People get ready for the train to Jordan.” The River Jordan appears in hundreds of Negro Spirituals. It’s code for the Promised Land, for freedom, and it went back to the Bible, to the stories of Moses and the Israelites that gave African Americans hope in the depths of slavery. The image of the train evoked the Underground Railroad – again it was an image of freedom that reached back through the ages. Almost every lyric in the song has similar symbolism.
His songs were drenched in encouragement inspired by his growing up in church, in which you discuss in the book. How was he able to preach without preaching?
He sang his sermons instead of speaking them. He put a melody to them. People could dance to them and not even know they were being preached to, until, slowly, they started paying attention to the lyrics. It was a sly way of getting his message across. Keep in mind, he wasn’t preaching on behalf of any religion. He was preaching about humanity, peace, equality, justice. He called it “Food for thought.”
He briefly went through a creative drought. In your opinion, what caused his brief dry spell?
In the mid 60s I think he was just tired. He had spent years writing hundreds of songs, not just for the Impressions, but for the entire OKeh label and other artists. Later on in the 70s it was mostly the same. Writing and producing other artists, running his Curtom label as well as family obligations.
He had several creative runs that were incredible but often overworked himself. He needed to rest, to let his creativity recharge at times. Changing musical tastes also had an impact.
With Mayfield making politically charged songs, why—in your opinion—didn’t he vote?
I don’t think his songs were overtly political. Again he wanted to deliver food for thought and let people make up their minds about what they wanted to do by sharing his observations and thoughts on what was going on.
Is there anything that’s not in “Traveling Soul” that you want the world to know about your father?
I put everything in the book I thought to be relevant to understand the complete person. Some things were hard to reveal. If you want to know who he was, why he did what he did, and why artists like Drake, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar among others, still sample his music, it’s all in the book.
A copy of Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield can be purchased here.