Motown Records revives Black Forum spoken-word label, citing 'unprecedented times'

Brian McCollum, Detroit Free Press
·3 min read
Logos of Motown Records and its Black Forum subsidiary, being relaunched in 2021.
Logos of Motown Records and its Black Forum subsidiary, being relaunched in 2021.

Declaring we live in times that urgently call for “information alongside inspiration,” Motown Records is relaunching one of its signature labels.

Black Forum, a spoken-word and poetry subsidiary that ran for three years in the early 1970s, is being reactivated, the company announced Friday. The label will release new works and digital content by writers, poets and others, while reissuing some of the classic material in its archives.

First up from the rebooted Black Forum, which is a partnership with Detroit's Motown Museum: a Feb. 26 reissue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s posthumous 1970 album, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” drawn from a 1967 Atlanta speech. The album went on to win a Grammy for best spoken word recording.

At least five more reissues are on tap this year, including albums featuring Stokely Carmichael, Langston Hughes and Margaret Danner.

“As we navigate our way through unprecedented times, racial and social tensions are at a high. We felt an urgent need to reactivate Black Forum in order to provide information alongside inspiration,” Motown Records president Ethiopia Habtemariam said in a statement. “The label provided a clear-cut reflection of who America was at the time of civil unrest in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Now, we look to extend and expound on the original principles and purpose of Black Forum.”

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Berry Gordy Jr. created Black Forum in 1970 — a time when Motown was riding a wave of social change — to highlight voices “fighting against bigotry and oppression,” as he later wrote in his autobiography. The venture followed a series of Motown releases in the ‘60s featuring King’s work, including the official 1968 release of his “I Have a Dream” speech, which was most recently reissued last summer.

Cover image of the new "I Have a Dream" digital single, released by Motown Records on the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington.
Cover image of the new "I Have a Dream" digital single, released by Motown Records on the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington.

Motown Records, now part of Capitol Music Group in Los Angeles, is relaunching the subsidiary in collaboration with the Motown Museum, which maintains display space devoted to Black Forum. Last summer, the museum premiered a new exhibit, “Capturing a Culture Change,” documenting Motown at the turn of the 1970s and showcasing images from former company photographer Jim Hendin. The museum, which closed to the public late last year as COVID-19 cases resurged in Michigan, is aiming for a mid-February reopening.

The Motown Museum is also gearing up for the eighth installment of its annual “Motown Mic” event, a spoken-word competition inspired by Black Forum. Applications are being accepted through March 5, with performances set to stream in an April virtual event.

“Storytelling, education and the power of shared experience is a vital part of Motown Museum’s DNA,” museum chairwoman and CEO Robin Terry said. “The rich heritage of the Black Forum label has long been an important chapter in the continuing story of Motown.”

Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or bmccollum@freepress.com.

Black Forum/Motown, scheduled reissues in 2021

Martin Luther King Jr., “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam” (Feb. 26)

Stokely Carmichael, “Free Huey”

Langston Hughes and Margaret Danner, “Writers of The Revolution”

Various, “Guess Who’s Coming Home: Black Fighting Men Recorded Live in Vietnam”

Ossie Davis, “Congressional Black Caucus”

Stanley Crouch, the Last Poets, Imamu Amiri Baraka and others, “Black Spirits: Festival of New Black Poets in America”

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Motown Records revives Black Forum label, cites 'unprecedented times'