CHICAGO, Ill. – Born in Mississippi, Syl Johnson rose to prominence as a velvet-voiced pop recording artist and producer in the 1950s and 60s. In recent years, he filed lawsuits against artists like Kanye West and Jay-Z for sampling his work. But it was his potent refrain about systemic racism in America, covered and sampled dozens of times, that continues to resonate today.
It wasn’t until a decade into his musical career that the soul singer penned his most powerful single
“I wrote it because that type of thing was happening to people and then they killed Dr. King,” said Johnson.
It was the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That made him question the dream.
The lyrics painfully questioning the black experience: “Looking back over my false dreams, that I once knew… Wondering why my dreams never came true… Is it because I'm Black?”
“I didn’t want to write something that was militant,” said Johnson. “I wanted to write something that was truth. It was truth. Is it because I’m Black? It was.”
Released in September 1969 “Is It Because I’m Black” struck a nerve.
“In this world of no pity… I was raised in the ghetto of the city,” he sang.
Call-in requests catapulted it to number 11 on the Billboard Soul Singles Chart in just weeks.
Though, the Black concept album failed to find financial success, 50 years later, Johnson is now in his early 80s and seeing the resonance of his lyrics on the streets.
“I didn’t know it would last this long,” he said. “But it looks like this song is the topic of the times. The times right now.”
The killing of George Floyd, he says, is a response to the question he first posed – “Is it because I'm Black?”
It is in the face of renewed examinations of race in America and calls for justice that Johnson is hopeful.
“The younger whites and the younger Blacks should make it happen,” he said. “When they join together to make it happen, this world will be a beautiful place.”
And one day he hopes the question won’t need to be asked.