The Hidden Legacy Of The Pointer Sisters, Genre-Busting Pioneers Of Message Music
If you spun the dial of your AM/FM radio on any given day in the early 1980s, chances are you heard a Pointer Sisters' record. The group was in heavy rotation in a variety of formats whose playlists included Duran Duran, Bruce Springsteen and the Human League or Patti LaBelle and Earth, Wind and Fire. The electro-pop sound of the Pointer Sisters' "Jump (For My Love)," "Automatic" or "Neutron Dance" dominated the charts during the first half of the decade. The popularity of these records rested in the accessibility of their lyrical content and melodic structure and the hypnotic nature of their rhythms. Anyone could sing "Jump for My Love" after hearing the chorus once; after "Neutron Dance" was featured prominently in Eddie Murphy's breakout film Beverly Hills Cop, it was regularly mixed into Jane Fonda-inspired aerobic workout routines. The sonic recipe that catapulted the Pointer Sisters into this chapter of their crossover success combined the gospel-infused vocals of soul music and the polyrhythmic, metronomic grooves of funk and disco with an instrumental palette that represented the era's new waves of experimentation. These songs partook of the musical technology and electronic sounds that permeated the music of artists like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock and Kraftwerk. In a decade that came to be defined by economic uncertainty, the developing AIDS crisis and an expanding war on drugs that precipitated the ballooning of the prison industrial complex, the Pointer Sisters inspired audiences to dance, to love and to sing with abandonment. These songs promoted the reclamation of personal freedom and joy that was often overshadowed by the angst and anxiety of the decade.
"Automatic," "Jump (For My Love)" or "Slow Hand" would not be considered protest records in the way in which we view Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" or Aretha Franklin's "Respect," but they did represent a type of resistance culture that typifies the culture industry's engagement with BIPOC and women artists. From the very beginning the Pointer Sisters fought against genre categorization, racist marketing strategies and intellectual exploitation. Engagement in this type of resistance work against the music industry is one of the oldest and repeated narratives of popular music history. It informs the undercurrent of female empowerment, reinvention and sonic fluidity that has permeated much of popular music in the past three decades. The Pointer Sisters' embodiment of these ideals resonated with a generation of women during the '80s and is underscored in the music of contemporary girl groups like Destiny's Child and SWV and solo artists such as Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and many others. Just as the sonic and physical freedom exemplified by these artists was shaped by the gender and race politics of the 1990s and early 2000s, the musical range and resistance politics of the Pointer Sisters bore the imprint of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The musical legacy of the Pointer Sisters has never fully been explored despite the sustained popularity of their music. Barack Obama's use of the 1973 recording "Yes We Can Can" during his 2008 Presidential campaign offered a subtle reminder of how the group contributed to the diverse soundtrack of Black Power Era America. The song re-entered my own consciousness when, during the height of the pandemic, it was featured during an episode of the BET series American Soul. Dramatizing the history of the influential television show Soul Train, American Soulfeatures contemporary artists portraying the vast array of artists that appeared on the show. The episode titled "Satisfaction" centered on the Pointer Sisters' 1975 performance of "Yes We Can Can" and it immediately sent me to my CD collection, stereo and headphones.
In the months that followed I thought more and more about the song, its poignant message and its relevance to all that was taking place, especially the wave of social unrest that the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked last spring and summer. Bonnie Pointer's death last summer also prompted me to return back to this song and consider its significance. Why is it not discussed in the existing scholarship on Black protest music? What did it reflect in terms of the Pointer Sisters' proximity to the Black Power and Black Nationalist movements that emerged out of their hometown of Oakland during the late 1960s? How significant was the group in marrying the girl group aesthetic with Black Power-era protest culture?
The musicological history of the Pointer Sisters is both long and varied, largely because it consists of many different chapters that revolve around different combinations and pairings of biological siblings Anita (b. 1948), Bonnie (1950-2020), Ruth (b. 1946) and June (1953-2006). Raised in a strict religious household, the sisters (along with older brothers Aaron and Fritz) were influenced greatly by the political and cultural scene that developed in Oakland, Calif. in the decade following World War II. Like thousands of southern Blacks, the Pointer Sisters' parents, Elton and Sarah Pointer, migrated to the West Coast during the height of World War II. The complicated and layered racial consciousness that evolved out of the experiences of southern Blacks who migrated to urban cities during this period was strongly reflected in the group's sound identity.
Three musical genres underscored the Pointer Sisters' sound. The first was country music, which pointed to their family's Arkansas roots. The Pointer siblings, especially Anita and Bonnie, spent many of their summers in Prescott, Ark. with extended family members. During these moments they were exposed to the poverty and racism that exemplified much of Black southern life. But they also discovered the diverse soundscape of the region. "I only remember listening to one Arkansas radio station," Anita recalled years later. "All they played was country music: Hank Williams' 'Your Cheatin' Heart,' Tex Ritter's 'Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin'' and Willie Nelson's 'Funny How Time Slips Away.' The only time I heard Black artists was when I snuck out to the local juke joints and pressed my ear to the door .... To me it was all good music. With country, the short story format really resonated with me."
Anita and Bonnie's identification with country music resulted years later in the writing of the song "Fairytale." Released in 1974, the song had all of the hallmarks of the '70s honky tonk sound — steel pedal guitar, fiddle, blues-influenced piano, raw vocals and lyrics that detailed heartbreak and unrequited love. It won the Grammy award for Country and Western Vocal Performance Group or Duo and became a lightning rod for the racial politics surrounding country music. When the Pointer Sisters were invited to perform at the Grand Old Opry in 1974, they were greeted by a country music fan base that was polarized over their race. Some protested the performance, while others embraced the group. Anita described the experience in her autobiography Fairytale: The Pointer Sisters' Family Story:
When we arrived at the Grand Old Opry, there were protesters carrying signs that said, 'Keep country, country!' It was a jarring sight for us. We had fought during the tumultuous civil rights era, which was still fresh in our minds. To see people protesting us because of our race was unsettling. As we took the stage a man screamed, "Hot damn. Them girls is black!" Fortunately, we won the music lovers over with our live performance. I could feel the energy in the room. The audience was obviously taking a 'wait and see' attitude. They expected us to earn their respect, and that's what we did. After we performed the song, the same man screamed again, "Sing it again, honey!" And we did. We sang it three more times that night.
This experience and the crossover appeal of "Fairytale," serve as one example of how the Pointer Sisters during these early years challenged not only industry-based categorization of musical genre and concepts of racialized sound, but also the spatial politics of popular music that perpetuated a system of racial segregation that defined certain performance spaces as "white." Though perhaps not intentionally, the Pointer Sisters' appearance at the Opry represented how the liberation ideologies of the Black civil rights movement translated within the music industry. The presence of their Black voices and bodies in the "white" space of the Opry and the white soundscape of country was radical and similar to the disruptive nature of the types of embodied resistance (e.g. sit-ins, pray-ins, etc.) employed by activists during the direct action campaigns of the early 1960s.
The second component of the group's sound was gospel music, especially the gospel group aesthetic of the '50s and '60s. The dynamic that foregrounds both the Pointer Sisters' lead and background vocals were developed while singing in the junior choir at the West Oakland Church of God, where their father Elton Pointer served as pastor for many years. They also reflected the sisters' engagement with the Bay area's gospel music scene. By the late 1960s, the West Coast had become the epicenter of a new wave of music experimentation that would shift the sound and cultural context of Black sacred music during the latter part of the 20th century. Much of this experimentation took place during the historic "Midnight Musicales" held at The Ephesus Church of God in Christ in Oakland, where musicians Billy Preston, Edwin Hawkins and Andrae Crouch — along with vocalists Tramaine Davis and Lynnette Hawkins — fused Black hymnody and gospel song traditions with the funk aesthetic of James Brown and the rhythms of bossa nova, salsa and progressive rock. June and Bonnie's participation in the COGIC-sponsored Northern California Youth Choir, the ensemble that also produced the Edwin Hawkins Singers' best-selling and influential recording "Oh Happy Day" in 1969, is evidence of how the expansive musical circles that blurred denominational lines and practices during this period ultimately led to the emergence of what would be called Black contemporary gospel. Through these encounters the sisters enhanced the blending of their voices, developed an ear for intricate harmonies and an awareness of how to interpret and perform song lyrics in a manner that provoked a response from listeners.
The last core element of the Pointer Sisters' sound came from the vocal jazz group aesthetic popularized by The Andrews Sisters and the group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. The former was one of a number of female vocal jazz groups that were associated with the growing popularity of boogie woogie and swing during the 1940s. Their intricate harmonic arrangements fueled the popularity of such songs as "The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy'' and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me)." Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, a co-ed and interracial group consisting of Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross, were significant in popularizing the technique of vocalese. Vocalese represented how jazz vocalists stretched beyond the conventions of the standard popular song repertory. Often confused with scat, vocalese differed in that it focused on intricate vocal improvisations that were based on pre-existing instrumental solos. Unlike scat, which is defined by its use of vocables, vocalese used identifiable words. The Pointer Sisters' connection to these groups went beyond mirroring their sounds. The Andrew Sisters and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross represented how jazz vocalists untethered their identities from the instrumentalists that provided accompaniment and advanced ways in which vocal jazz began to exemplify the notion of freedom and self-actualization that is projected in jazz through the improvised solo. This same spirit was personified in the Pointer Sisters' studio recordings and live performances.
After years of singing background for an array of artists that included Sylvester, Boz Skaggs, Esther Phillips, Cold Blood and Grace Slick, the Pointer Sisters entered the mainstream spotlight with their self-titled debut album in 1973. The Pointer Sistersembodied the radicalness and uncertainty that defined Nixon-era America. The songs were eclectic in style and origin ranging from covers of Jon Hendricks' bebop-influenced "Cloudburst" and Koko Taylor's gritty, dance-oriented blues song "Wang Dang Doodle" to original songs like "Jada," which reflected the type of group vocal jazz aesthetic popularized by the Andrews Sisters during the 1940s. It was one of many songs written by Anita and Bonnie during the group's early years. Noticeably absent from the recording was the formulaic pop/R&B sound that had propelled the girl group idiom during the 1960s. The cover art, which featured the four biological sisters — Anita, Bonnie, June and Ruth — dressed in vintage dresses and hats, also rejected the uniformity projected through the girl group. It was clear that the Pointer Sisters were different, and that difference was not just by chance or the product of a marketing strategy. It was emblematic of their self-actualized consciousness as Black women musicians coming of age in an America that was being shaped by social chaos and movements precipitating social change. That difference also married The Pointer Sisters' music to the ideological concepts of freedom that undergirded the liberation movements of the time and the repertory of message songs that served as the soundtrack of the Black Power Era.
The political and racial convictions that the Pointer Sisters personified developed out of the evolving consciousness of Oakland's Black community during the 1950s and 1960s. Surrounded by strong examples of Black achievement, the Pointer Sisters were also very aware of how segregation and racism limited black upward mobility. The sisters were geographically distant from the sit-ins, freedom rides and marches that stretched across the South in the early 1960s, but they shared with the young activists involved in those events a generational identity, worldview and radical spirit of resistance. This consciousness was fermented as Oakland became the nexus for the Black Nationalist and Black Power Movements in the late 1960s. The sisters, especially Anita, June and Bonnie, were connected to both movements through their older brother Fritz, who after attending UCLA and the University of Wisconsin, returned to Oakland where he established the Pan African Cultural Center in 1966. It was during this period that Anita, Bonnie and June shifted from being distant observers of the Black civil rights movement to active supporters. Much of their work was done through an organization that became known as the Black Panther Party of Northern California (BPPNC). Not to be mistaken with The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which was founded in Oakland in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the BPPNC focused more on cultural nationalism than militant direct action. Anita describes the work of the group in her autobiography:
We [had] enough sense to know that black people were not the majority. So, we decided to make a difference using creativity. Music, painting, literature and film, dance, and sports would be our weapons. What comes out of the barrel of a gun is death. So, we were labeled "Cultural Nationalists" among other things.
The Black Panther Party of Northern California sponsored political rallies, voter registration drives, and cultural events. In 1966 the group sponsored the first Black Power and Arts Conference held in the state. Anita and the other sisters continued their engagement with the political scene of Oakland well into the 1970s. With this type of engagement with the Black liberation movements, it is not surprising that the Pointer Sisters' early albums would include message songs that aligned them with the liberation ideology and movement culture of the 1970s.
Now's the time for all good men to get together with one another.
We got to iron out problems and iron out our quarrels and try to live as brothers.
And try to find peace within without stepping on one another.
And do respect the women of the world, remember you all had mothers.
We've got to make this land a better land than the world in which we live.
The coupling of music and protest culture has a long and varied history in America, but in the late 1960s the blending of liberation ideology with Black popular music conventions gave birth to a new type of protest music — the message song. The fragmentation of the Black civil rights movement into a number of different social movements in the late 1960s marked not only a significant shift in America's political culture, but also the different ways in which music functioned within those movements. By 1966, Dr. King had shifted the vision of his activism beyond the geopolitical boundaries of the South through the launching of his "End of the Slums" movement. While the singing of freedom songs still accompanied his marches through the streets of Chicago and Detroit, the protest music of the Black Power and Black Nationalists movements flowed primarily out of the popular music milieu of the late '60s.
The message song of the late 1960s and early 1970s, was unlike the freedom song of the direct-action campaigns in that it reflected the embracing of the ideology of Black-centered empowerment. This along with the anger and hope of the Black community were projected through Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," Jimmy Collier's "Burn Baby Burn," The Impressions' "We're a Winner," Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud.)" The message song both documented and spoke directly to the tensions that existed in late '60s America. However, as the trauma and violence of the late '60s gave way to a new wave of violence and corruption in the early '70s, the rhetoric of message songs diversified and encompassed everything from new visions of Black empowerment to direct critiques of the Nixon administration and Black feminist ideology. Funk bands like Sly and the Family Stone and the JBs, soul artists Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder and male soul groups like The Temptations, the O'Jay's and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes were prominent purveyors of these messages.
Noticeably absent from this message song phenomenon were the girl groups that dominated '60s popular culture. As Jacqueline Warwick outlines in her work Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s, these groups, which first appeared in the late 1950s, provided insights into the world of the prepubescent girl, who was excluded from the Cold-War era milieu of male-centered social rebellion and personal freedom. The 1960s marked the expansion of this aesthetic to a more mature, woman-centered perspective with the emergence of the Shirelles, the Marvelettes, the Ronettes and the Supremes, but singers who made up these groups still had a limited amount of agency over their music and images. Despite these restrictions, some of these groups, especially those associated with Motown (e.g. The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Marvelettes) personified Dr. King's vision of Black mobility, freedom and racial integration. Even as the Black liberation movement gained momentum and fragmented into the variant social movements during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the material recorded by girl groups rarely shifted away from narratives of love and angst.
In a popular music scene that was heavily populated with girl groups, the Pointer Sisters stood out, as did Labelle, a trio that evolved from the traditional girl group into something more expansive. The differences between the Pointer Sisters, LaBelle and more conventional girl groups like Honey Cone or The Three Degrees were multifaceted.
First, they rejected the practice of building their sound around the juxtaposition of a single lead vocalist and the group. This custom was central to the sound identity of many of the '60s girl groups, especially The Supremes, the Ronettes, and Martha and the Vandellas. With the Pointer Sisters and Labelle, each member of the group sang both lead and background voices. This mirrored the liberation ideologies promoted by some grassroots movement organizations that rejected power hierarchies and placed the emphasis on the collective and not the individual. Their respective group sounds were based on the equal importance of each voice.
Secondly, they operated as autonomous groups that were not tethered to the musical vision of a particular male Svengali or production team, as were the Supremes with Motown chief Berry Gordy and songwriting team Holland, Dozier, and Holland, The Ronettes with Phil Spector or The Shangri-Las with producer George "Shadow" Morton. And unlike ensembles like Love Unlimited, the female trio that complemented Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra, or the Rick James-constructed Mary Jane Girls, the Pointer Sisters were not ancillary to a larger soul-funk collective.
A different approach behind the scenes helped these groups evolve as unique performers. Labelle's metamorphosis from the conventional girl group (Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles) to Afro-futuristic glam rock group of the 1970s was initiated through their work with producer and songwriter Vicki Wickham. The Pointer Sisters benefited greatly from the agency that small indie labels like Blue Thumb Records sometimes provided. The musical eclecticism heard on the group's early albums correlated with the diversity exhibited through Blue Thumb Records' business model. The label's roster during the 1970s included jazz bandleader/composer Sun Ra, disco/soul powerhouse Sylvester, rap progenitors The Last Poets and a host of other artists that stretched across musical genres.
The Pointer Sisters' albums during these early years were emblematic of a collaborative vision that was developed among the group, producer David Rubinson and a collective of instrumentalists who understood the strong, self-defined sound identity that these women had developed prior to signing with the label. They generally contained songs that were musically engaging and personally empowering. "The way I am is that I do what I like and then try to make it commercial. I don't take things that are already finished and package them," Rubinson recalled years later. "I love, as Frost said, to 'take the road less traveled.' Being another girl singing group did not interest me. It didn't interest them either. So I listened to the songs they had written ... and I introduced them to things I liked." One of the songs Rubinson and the Pointer Sisters' envisioned as a strong addition to their debut album was a cover of New Orleans-based songwriter/pianist Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can." The song would not only give the Pointer Sisters their first hit record — it would also link them to the paradigm of the Black Power era message song.
I know we can do it. I know that we can work it out.
Yes We Can. Oh, yes we can can!
"Yes We Can" was a minor hit for singer Lee Dorsey in 1970, but The Pointer Sisters' version transformed this pop song with a subtle social justice message into "Yes We Can Can" — a Black power era anthem structured in the form of the modern gospel song. The connection between the Pointer Sisters' rendition and the modern gospel song are many. First is the funk template that frames the identity of the song. It is rooted in a groove that encompasses a deep bass ostinato, chicken scratch guitar riff and solid rhythmic pocket created by the drums. The fact that this groove is allowed to marinate for 48 seconds before the vocals enter exemplifies how the instruments are important in setting the ethos in Black worship and sacred music practices. The marrying of funk grooves, a message of hope and transcendence and the vocal nuances of black sermonic traditions were at the heart of the contemporary gospel music approaches of artists like Edwin Hawkins, Walter Hawkins and Andrae Crouch during the '70s.
The second connection to the performance aesthetic of Black gospel music is found in lead singer Anita Pointer's deliberate and nuanced exegesis of song lyrics. This approach mirrors the cadential musicality or nuanced songlike speech patterns that permeate Black sermonic practices. This type of lyrical explication is heightened throughout the song by the juxtaposition of Anita's lead vocals with the intricate background vocals of Ruth (tenor), Bonnie (alto) and June (soprano). By the time the background vocalists enter with the harmonized phrase "we've got to make this land a better land than the world in which we live," it is clear that the Pointer Sisters have completely ushered listeners into the transformative space of the Black churches and the mass meetings that incubated the vision of social change and racial justice. The invocation of the communal energy of Black worship is further reinforced each time Anita soulfully exclaims "great gosh almighty" in response to the background's polyrhythmic and intricate assertions of "I know we can make it. I know darn well; we can work it out. Oh, yes, we can, I know we can, can. Yes, we can, can, why can't we? If we wanna, yes, we can, can."
The emotional peak of the communal worship experience conjured in "Yes We Can Can" occurs in the extended vamp, which makes up the final three minutes of the song. As scholars Guthrie Ramsey, David Brackett and Braxton Shelley have argued in their work, the extended vamp is not just a formal structural idea, but a ritualized moment through which collective and communal transcendence occurs. This is evident in "Yes We Can Can." As the background establishes the sequence of repeated phrases underlying the message of perseverance, Anita's ad-libs shift rhetorically from delivering the song's message to engaging the listener in the act of remembering and recounting their experiences through the act of testimony. Testifying through song not only provides moral-social guidance to the listener, but it also strengthens the feeling of the communal faith and transcendence between performer and listener. The discursive narrative of "Yes We Can Can" offered contemporary listeners assurance that despite the violence enacted against the liberation movements, the carnage and trauma experienced through the Vietnam War, and systemic the pervasive economic and racial disenfranchisement that together we could make it through.
Less than three years later, the group would record another message song, "You Gotta Believe," which extended beyond the coalition politics promoted through the lyrics of "Yes We Can Can" and reflected the influence of an emerging ideology of Black feminism.
You gotta believe in something! So why not believe in me?
"Yes We Can Can" gave the Pointer Sisters' their first taste of crossover success, charting just shy of the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 in 1973. The reception to "You Gotta Believe" was somewhat different. Part of this may be due to the fact that the song was initially released as part of the soundtrack of the movie Car Wash, in which the sisters appeared. It shows up on "best of" compilation albums but was not marketed heavily as a single. Another reason why this song might be lesser known is its thematic focus. The song explores, through the lens of Black women, the intra-racial tensions between Black men and women that were magnified by the exclusionary politics of the Black Nationalist and Black Power movements.
These tensions were not new, as the liberation ideologies that had propelled the Black civil rights struggle since the late 19th century consistently ignored the economic, social and reproductive struggles of Black women. This double standard bred the anger and hostility that sometimes underline interactions between Black men and Black women. As Audre Lorde asserted in the landmark text Sister Outsider,"Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision, it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. Anger is loaded with information and energy." Black expressive culture has long served as one of the central ways in which women have exhibited this anger and spoken directly about these tensions. At times this anger has been presented in nuanced ways that reflect Black women's sophisticated and complex uses of language. But in other instances, some artists have shunned the politics of respectability and overtly used their music to articulate and express the individual and collective anger of Black women.
Examples of this include early rock and roll hits like Big Mama Thorton's "Hound Dog" and Ruth Brown's "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" as well as Aretha Franklin's soul classic "Think." These struggles were also explored in the Black Power Era works of Black women writers such as Michelle Wallace's Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, the poetry of Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange's choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. "You Gotta Believe" represented not only how these conversations were extended to the Black Power-era message song, but also how the Pointer Sisters married the girl group aesthetic with Black feminist ideology:
Tell me what have I done to you?
To make you mean and treat me the way you do?
Go on and wave your flag.
Brotha start your revolution
I'm willing to let you do your thing.
Tell me why are you blind when it comes to me?
The connective links between the song and the collective anger that pervaded the works of Black women writers, poets and intellectuals of this period was emphasized even further with the Pointer Sisters' performance of the song in the 1976 Blaxploitation movie Car Wash.They only appear in one scene as the Wilson Sisters, the female entourage of prosperity preacher Daddy Rich, played by comedian Richard Pryor. The scene embodies how Black women were often inserted in the theological and ideological rifts that existed between the assimilationist politics of Black Protestant Church and the revolutionary politics of Black Muslims and the Black Nationalist Movement. The triangular nature of this tension is played out in the interaction that takes place between the Wilson Sisters, Daddy Rich and Abdullah (Bill Duke), a radical Black revolutionary who expresses his disdain for Daddy Rich's pseudo-prosperity gospel and his manipulation of the community. In the midst of a heated exchange Abdullah calls Rich a pimp, to which the preacher responds by shifting the focus of the slur from what it indicates about the exploitative nature of his theology to how it disparages the Wilson Sisters' reputation and loyalty to him. Rather than engage Abdullah directly, Daddy Rich instructs the Wilson Sisters to "make him apologize." Their response is the song "You Gotta Believe."
Written and produced by Norman Whitfield, the song marries the psychedelic funk sound that saturated '70s Black films with the hard gospel girl group sound of the venerable ensembles like Davis Sisters and the Caravans. It is a sound that foreshadows the modern gospel girl group aesthetic of the Clark Sisters and the R&B girl groups of the 1990s. The Pointer Sisters' performance of anger through "You Gotta Believe" is not just sonic or rhetorical, but also in the movie is kinesthetic or reflected in the movement of their bodies. They gesture with their hands, roll their necks and at one point surround Abdullah, whose attempts to escape are impeded by his male co-workers. This scene and the inclusion of the song on the movie soundtrack are examples of how the complicated tensions that existed between Black men and women often challenged the legitimacy of the liberation narratives promoted through the Black Power era message song. The song made the R&B top 20 in 1977, but seemingly never resonated with a mainstream audience. But the legacy of the song is far-reaching as it foreshadows similar musical conversations in the music of post-civil rights generation artists like Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Mary J. Blige.
The Pointer Sisters' engagement in musical activism extended into the '80s. In 1985, they joined the collective of artists who recorded the song "We Are the World," which raised funds to support relief efforts in Africa. Months later they allied with musicians who launched a boycott of Sun City, an entertainment venue in apartheid South Africa. Artists United Against Apartheid made their anti-apartheid stance globally known with the protest song "Sun City."
In recent years most of the media attention the Pointer Sisters have received has focused on their addictions and financial problems. However, the group's impact is far-reaching. They challenged the spatial politics of popular music and widened the spectrum of spaces that Black bodies and Black voices were seen and heard during the 1970s and 1980s. The freedom they embodied through the eclectic repertory of their early albums and their image provided a template that was embraced by the R&B, gospel and pop music girl groups that emerged during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The alignment of their music with liberation ideologies and social movements is being replicated by a new generation of female artists. Just listen to The Chicks, H.E.R., Beyoncé, Rhiannon Giddens or Lauryn Hill. "Yes We Can Can" and "You Gotta Believe" were not just anthems that spoke to the protest culture of a not so distance past — they serve as a significant part of a larger Black feminist manifesto in music that represents how Black women speak themselves into larger narratives of liberation and freedom.
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