Issued in April 1970—a full 13 months before Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On—Is It Because I’m Black can rightly be called the first black concept album, a distinction few give it credit for. But that factoid, whatever its meaning then or now, failed to inspire music buyers: Johnson’s record never got a whiff of the two million copies Gaye’s did in its first year of availability. Syl lays the blame squarely on the record’s lack of marketability to a white audience:
“That was a college record. Black college kids. They’re political. But these kind of records tend to hurt you a bit. You’ve got white people, and then you’ve got white liberals. But you’ve got white people who care nothing about you talking about being black. They say ‘Why shouldn’t I sing “Is It Because I’m White”?’ They just don’t care for it. Not that they hate it, but they’re not going to pay five or six dollars to buy an album of it.”
The album’s cover didn’t exactly move units either. Photographer Jerry Griffith dragged Syl to a burned-out building on 43rd Street to shoot the back cover image, and he finger-painted the iconic title over a stock photo of an eroding brick wall. The title track, coupled with the politically charged “I’m Talking About Freedom” and ghetto conscious “Concrete Reservation” sealed the album’s cool reception as the work of an “angry black man.” Which is unfortunate, as “Together Forever,” “Come Together,” and “Black Balloons” are positively uplifting, forming their own pot of gold at the end of a grayscale rainbow. The album’s closer burns the brightest. “Right On” devolves into a full-on party track, ending with Syl riffing on the line “I’m gonna keep on doing my thing,” as if to answer his critics before their needles reached the run-out groove.