Funk Part 4 — The Collective as Field of Individual Expression

Funk dance — a highly collaborative form of self-expression. Image via

Funk dance — a highly collaborative form of self-expression.
Image via


I don’t have statistical evidence, but it’s my strong hunch that funk lyrics invoke a sense of community more frequently than most pop genres.  If this speculation turns out to be true, I can think of any number of explanations, most of them pointing to the communal African-American and African music-making traditions that are funk’s heritage.

But apart from the lyrics, it’s interesting to consider how the musical elements emphasize communal expression.  

  • The Teeter-Totter Principle (the balancing of syncopation between parts) requires the ensemble’s attention to the distribution of weak and strong beats among parts.  It is anchored in the priority of making the song danceable and thus looks toward a larger community—listeners and dancers.
  • The Puzzle Principle relies on each player to play a unique part and stick with that part in order for the groove to work.
  • The Unassuming Principle points to the fact that the groove, above all, is the star of the show.  The groove cannot be owned by any one person, and it is the thing that may never be upstaged.
  • More than in other genres, the shape of the musical time in funk tends toward evenness because the complex rhythms demand higher levels of group agreement, and more evenly rendered musical time makes that easier.  (You can imagine a ten-piece funk group whose shared sense of time is highly idiosyncratic, where everyone lurches ahead or behind at the very same moment.  But imagine how difficult it would be to pull this off and how hard to dance to.)

Similar observations can be made across various musical traditions, especially those rooted in rhythm.  What I think is worth noting is something that may be obvious, but on further reflection might also be surprising:  The aspects of funk that exalt community and discourage any individual from either taking over or straying from the groove yield an environment where individual expression flourishes.  

One might be tempted to say the opposite, that individual expression demands distance from the crowd:  “If you want to find yourself, listen to something like Schoenberg’s atonal works, which free you from the priorities of the masses.  Listening to James Brown will only turn you into an automaton.”  Such thinking is misguided, and I say that not because I dismiss Schoenberg (which I don’t).  I merely point out that this kind of statement ignores what’s happening when we listen to James Brown (and what might happen if we actually learned to listen to Schoenberg too).

In part, one might see in this the familiar riddle of creative constraint—we access creative freedom when confronted with limitations.  The constraint in funk is “Serve the groove.”

But the other part of this is a less widely discussed principle, which is perfectly stated by jazz trumpet great Clark Terry in his advice to young musicians.  “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”  As my friend Donald Schell (founder of Music That Makes Community) has observed about Terry’s formulation, the upshot is this: Imitation leads us to our individuality.

Funk’s repetitions (made tantalizing by way of syncopated patterns) invite us into imitation and it brings us into that imitative state with ease.  We take the groove and its dazzling patterns into us and work them over with our bodies and minds and find something waiting at the end of that process—ourselves. 

So for example, you can watch these Soul Train dancers, who are drawing on each other’s moves (and a treasury of other moves known to all of them) and thereby finding their individual dance voices.

Each dancer’s moves are repetitive, but the repetitions lead somewhere.  Note that some of the most individuating aspects of dance are subtle variations on what others are doing.   

Take a moment to reflect upon how all of this creativity is utterly dependent on the groove.  A musical form less attentive to the groove will not unleash such an explosion of creative energy with such ease. 

Funk music and dance (and their related musical forms) have historical links to freedom struggles around the world.  Few things feel as liberating as dancing.  We feel empowered when surrounded by people dancing to the same music, and we also feel liberated because the act of synchronizing with others helps us look inwardly and find some new part of ourselves to set free.

Which is why it is no surprise that funk lyrics contain lines such as these: 

Here's a chance to dance our way
Out of our constrictions
Gonna be freakin'
Up and down
Hang-up alley way
With the groove our only guide
We shall all be moved
Ready or not here we come
Gettin' down on
The one which we believe in
One nation under a groove
Gettin' down just for the funk
Can I get it on the good foot
Gettin' down just for the funk of it
Good God
'bout time I got down one time
One nation and we're on the move
Nothin' can stop us now


Thank you for reading.