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Don Cornelius and the Legacy of Black Independent Media

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The recent death of Don Cornelius, founder and host of the long-running syndicated series Soul Train, brought back into the focus the role of black independent media.

Though Soul Train stopped production more than five years ago, the show remains one of the most resonant black brands in American culture and a metaphor for the freedoms and possibilities in the early years of the post-Civil Rights era.

Soul Train's influence as an arbiter of black youth style and culture in the 1970s is well known, as is its critical role in delivering black consumers to mainstream advertisers. The nationally syndicated programs of Tom Joyner and Michael Baisden, would have been virtually impossible without the path that Don Cornelius made with Soul Train in the 1970s.

In the early days of the show when those very mainstream advertisers were still very skeptical about the national spending power of Black communities, and even black record executives and artists were a little suspect of the show, Cornelius found his biggest support in black owned companies, like the Johnson Company, home of the ubiquitous 1970s symbol, Afro-Sheen -- and so-called second-tier acts -- those unlikely to cross-over to pop audiences.

Forty years later, one of the great joys of Soul Train, as an intellectual property, is the early footage of those Afro-Sheen commercials -- like the one where Frederick Douglass lectures a black teen about his un-combed Afro -- and of artists who have long been off the radar, save their continuous reclamation in hip-hop's sonic archive. Indeed, part of the genius of Cornelius was understanding the value of Soul Train as intellectual property -- a portal into the knowledge that was being produced by black culture and everyday black folk, not only in musical arenas, but in business, advertising, fine arts, and mass media. This understanding explains why Cornelius continued to hold on to his brand well into his late years; both a product of wanting to get the most value for it, as well as protecting its legacy.

One of the most lasting aspects of Soul Train's legacy was its founder's understanding of the importance of black independent media. Soul Train was not born in a vacuum; Cornelius got his start in media working at WVON in Chicago -- "Voice of the Negro" -- one of the more visible Black radio stations in country at the time. In the years before Soul Train, it was usual practice for white owned radio stations to lease time to black artists, ministers, and others to reach their audiences and allow those station owners to sell advertising time specifically directed at black audiences, at a time when many companies we're still concerned about sending mixed messages about black and white consumers.

The power of black radio was first realized when WDIA, a white-owned station in Memphis, changed to an all-black format in 1948 -- the first of its kind in the country. Like the independent black press -- The Chicago Defender, The Amsterdam News and The Pittsburgh Courier, perhaps the most visible -- black radio was a valuable tool in the furthering of the black freedom movement, as well as functioning as a training lab for generations of black journalists and on-air talent. Soul Train emerged just as a generation of black visionaries were pushing new models of media entrepreneurship and presentation.

While a show like Soul Train trafficked in cutting edge black youth styles -- presciently recognizing the singular role that black youth culture, via hip-hop, would have in that regard over the next three decades -- public television programs such as Boston's Basic Black and Ellis Haizlip's Soul! found a balance between public affairs and fine art, marking just how expansive the vision of blackness was in an era in which we typically believe that media access was more limited than it is now.

In New York City, Inner City Broadcasting, a company founded by a group including the legal counsels to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Percy Sutton and Clarence Jones, and future Amsterdam News publisher Wilbert Tatum, launched its flagship radio station WBLS -- with the tag the "Total Black Experience in Sound." The station featured the signature voice of Frankie Crocker, who in another spin of events, might have been positioned to do what Don Cornelius did with Soul Train. But the important back-story to Inner City Broadcasting was its role in championing the political careers of New York's "Gang of Four" black politicos -- the aforementioned Sutton, who unsuccessfully ran for Mayor of New York in 1977 after serving as Manhattan Borough President; Basil Paterson, whose son David become New York State's first black governor; David Dinkins, who was elected the city's first black mayor in 1989; and Charles Rangel, who has represented Harlem in Congress for forty years.

Like the music of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, whose "The Sound of Philadelphia" (recorded by M.F.S.B.) is largely known as the Soul Train theme, Cornelius's "Black Power" politics were more nuanced, finding resonance in the Scramble Board that celebrated black achievement, the college scholarships that made an investment in black achievement and his unbridled enthusiasm for "all black everything." Don Cornelius may have never donned the uniforms of black radicals, but he brought "Black Power" to mainstream America, with the recognition that there is no "Black Power" without independent black media.