top of page
  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Where is the Love": seventies soul done right

Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway's duo is my favorite of the multiple songs with this title.

One point of confusion I was somehow late to recognize in my discussions on music is that of multiple pieces of music with the same name. Maybe it was out of a sort of naïveté, or maybe it comes from the expectation that other people would be familiar with all the songs I am. One way or another, a couple pairs of songs have reminded me of that confusion this year. The first is a pair of tracks entitled "Dreams," both of which I've featured on my Senior Year Soundtrack. One is by English electronic duo Gorgon City, featuring countrywoman Jem Cooke; the other is from the Cranberries — and then there's the Fleetwood Mac number on top of those, etc.

The other is a tandem with one song from 1972 and one from 2003. The latter is a fine, conscious song on its own, but over time I've felt it's become quite trite, especially when it was remade (not linking because... no, the 2003 version is far superior). The former is one of the best soul duets of its era, if not ever. Its lyrics are simple, but it's catchy and showcases a pair of iconic voices at their finest. The voices are those of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, and the song is "Where is the Love."

At their core, duets are about interplay between the two singers. That back-and-forth is present immediately through Flack and Hathaway's trading off of the title question, and it is continuously highlighted when they sing together as well through their different vocal timbres and contours, especially when in harmony with one another. Flack's ever-smooth alto contrasts with Hathaway's intense tenor, providing of concurrent interpretations of the same lyrics on being deceived in love. It's an interesting lyrical backdrop to be worked into a duet — two would-be lovers in the same scenario of unfaithfulness — but Flack and Hathaway sell it so well that it's only ever something I consider after listening, never in the moment.

Also rarely considered by me during a listen is the depth of the instrumental backing. Hathaway's electric piano and Jack Jennings' vibraphone are such a natural pair, and they combine to making the chords gentle while still having a prominent attack. Meanwhile, the Arif Mardin-led string arrangements fill out the chords on the high end, enveloping the vocal duet in combination with the aforementioned keys and vibes. Yet the entire arrangement remains soft, subdued, thanks to Mardin and Jimmy Douglass' mixing. More than any other musical quality, this project has allowed me to understand the value of mixing to a record. It's relatively easy to add elements to a piece of music, but it's an under-appreciated art to be able to find the right place for each of them, in a way that serves the whole more than it does each part.

"Where is the Love" is a song that ends up coming across as being conceptually simpler than it actually is, and that's an artistic feat I consider very impressive — especially given that the production was done analog, being in the early 70s. Hopefully my shedding light on its intricacies will allow others to appreciate it and other productions from its era as I have learned to do.


bottom of page