Research combined by Ashlyn-Jordan B., Kayona J., Michael M., Layla A., Ximena M., & Nina K.
Funk is a type of music that originated in the African American culture during the second half of the 20th century and mixed elements of soul, R&B, jazz and blues into a new rhythmic, danceable genre. During the Civil Rights Movement when there was a lot of racial tension, funk was the counterculture. Funk bands in Omaha didn’t let racism or prejudice stop them. While African American culture was central to the birth and evolution of funk, over time, as the genre gained popularity, the music and scene around it became increasingly integrated. The bands were still racially integrated and included female members. Local Omaha band, Square Biz, had a woman lead singer and L.A. Carnival was one of the first integrated bands in Omaha. Funk lyrics often emphasized integration, freedom, love, peace and having a good time.
Another way funk set the bands and artists apart from everyone else was with their appearance. The clothing funk musicians wore had a meaning behind it and allowed them to express themselves on stage as well as put the fun in funk. Bell bottoms, platform shoes, bright colors and psychedelic patterns were common and important. The clothing was as significant as the music because both alluded to not only the individuality, but also the community of funk. Omaha was home to a vibrant funk scene from the 1970s through the 1990s.
Published during the Summer of 2018
Nothing But the Funk examines the development of and culture associated with funk music in Omaha. Funk was particularly important to the city during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. The documentary can also be viewed on YouTube.
Music has always been an intricate form of expression, used to articulate the deepest human emotions and convey messages about experiences ranging from love to oppression. When mainstream protests became less apparent in the 1970s and 80s, after the calamity of the Civil Rights Movement, the black community turned to music to voice their discontent and a new genre of music emerged – funk. Though funk, like jazz, was initially dominated by African American voices and sounds, it carried a message of integration and love for one another. James Brown is often coined the ‘Father of Funk.’ He took the musical stylings and emotion of jazz and added a strong backbeat. Laid on top of the upbeat orchestration were typically lyrics expressing a deeper meaning than one that would match the groovy beat. This was intentional because it allowed the messages in the lyrics to be more widely spread. The positivity emanating from the beat and the lyrics showed the bands’ optimistic outlook on their ability to make a change.
Funk became the counterculture not only in its rhetoric, but also in the lifestyle associated with the funk scene. Many bands were integrated in a time where racial tensions were high and uneasiness still surrounded some of the ground gained during the Civil Rights Movement. Sly and the Family Stone was one of the most popular integrated bands, but they also accentuated women’s representation by placing women in lead roles and set an example not only for other funk bands, but for the nation. Individualism and embracing one’s uniqueness was a defining factor of funk seen through the song lyrics and the way the bands presented themselves, including their clothes. The expressive outfits worn by funk groups emphasized their open-mindedness and effort to reject the social norms of the time. This national definition of funk diffused into cities across the nation and, as was characteristic to funk, it was molded and adapted to make it their own.
Though the Omaha funk scene looked similar to the national one, there were many ways it differed. Omaha started its funk craze a little later than the rest of the nation, with its main funk scene existing from the late 70’s to the early 90’s. In terms of its culture, funk has always been an eclectic mix of very African-American sounds and rhythms with almost futuristic integration and styling, L.A Carnival and Square Biz were examples of this kind of futurism. The former was one of the first integrated bands in Omaha, and the latter was one of the first with a female lead singer. In Omaha, a lot of funk culture stemmed from the black culture of the day. This could possibly be because Omaha has always been very strictly segregated or perhaps was just a lingering message from the civil rights movement. Very few venues for funk existed past 72nd street in Omaha, and though some funk bands played past that line, it was rare that the black members be allowed for any reason other than entertainment. For this reason, most funk groups played at Allen’s Showcase, King Solomon’s Mines, Sandy’s Escape or other venues that existed within North Omaha, though this didn’t mean that the funk community in and of itself was not highly integrated. Because of funk’s nature as a counter culture, they often tried to subvert what was “normal” and offered a juxtaposition to the social norms of the day.
This adversity perhaps, was one of the reasons for why the funk community in Omaha was as tight knit as it was, everyone knew each other, and funk in Omaha was very much a family. Personal identity was as important as ever though, even within a community such as this. Funk music was a very individualized genre, with solos for players and the costuming each employed to show their own brand of uniqueness. This was seen in many of the funk players, like Robert Holmes, and Ron Cooley. However, one detrimental part of this was that the uniqueness they craved usually pulled them away from the closeness of the Omaha scene in search of larger and more active cities, to try and gain a personal spotlight. Though some made it big in those cities what they experienced there was much the same. Omaha was similar historically to these larger cities. Coming off the end of the civil rights movement, funk was stuck in a place of trying to exhibit joy in the face of adversity, and also speaking to the African American experience of being ostracized in their own nation and cities.
Associated Press. Cynthia Robinson of Sly and the Family Stone Dies at 71. The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood Reporter, 3 Dec. 2015.
Album covers and band pictures courtesy of Juan Lively and Ron Cooley.
“King Solomon's Mines Grand Opening.” Omaha Star, 22 Oct. 1970, p. 8.
Miller, Chuck. A Bridge to Success: One Man's Vision Changed the Lives of Many. 2010.
“L.S. Movement Thunder Band Has Triumphant ‘Homecoming’ at Showcase Lounge.” Omaha Star, 11 Nov. 1982, p. 7.
Photographs of Allen’s Showcase courtesy of Patricia Allen.
“The Showcase Lounge is Back.” Omaha Star, 21 Oct. 1982, p. 7.
Sasse, Adam Fletcher. A History of King Solomon's Mines in North Omaha. North Omaha History, WordPress.com, 11 Jan. 2018.
Sasse, Adam Fletcher. A History of the Near North YMCA in North Omaha. North Omaha History, WordPress.com, 7 Feb. 2018.
Sasse, Adam Fletcher. A History of the North Omaha Gene Eppley Boys Club. North Omaha History, WordPress.com, 11 May 2017.
Additional teaching resources for funk music history are available through TeachRock.org