Hayes' Flight Takes Him Home (Detroit Free Press/Jul 10/1981/US) By Danton Wilson



They still call him Black Moses.

With good reason. Isaac Hayes remains a striking man: an unshaven face due south of a shaved head, a confident visage hidden behind dark shades, an upper body swollen with well-developed muscles.

For legions of blacks in the U.S. and abroad, Hayes is also a "grass-roots brother," a man who has ascended from the poverty and grief of America's ghettoland to become a powerful force in the entertainment business. And, despite the fame and power, he maintains an allegiance to the ghetto and its struggling people.

It was in Detroit 12 summers ago that the Grammy Award-winning musician, producer and composer made his concert debut. So he was returning to familiar territory when he arrived this week to promote Escape From New York, a futuristic movie set in 1997 that opens Friday.

In the film, New York City has been turned into a huge, maximum-security prison, housing three million felons and lunatics. Hayes plays Duke, a prison czar who promises to lead the inmates to freedom.

It's an appropriate part for a man called Black Moses, a man who says he has seen the film's survival theme acted out in real life. The movie's prison setting, according to Hayes, is a microcosm of ghetto life.

"The Duke could have been anybody," the actor said. "He (Duke) was thrown into a situation of survival. The strongest in the joint rose to the top, and, by keeping the pressure on everybody else, he could have preserve his own ticket out."

As a youngster in inner-city Memphis, Hayes quickly learned a similar survival game. He said his initial desires were a warm bed, a square meal and tolerable clothes. But Hayes' musical talent surfaced in his late teens when he started writing songs. He emerged on the pop music scene in 1968 with Soul Man, which he wrote for Sam and Dave and which was made a hit recently by the Blues Brothers. In 1972, Hayes won a Grammy and an Oscar for his musical score to the movie Shaft.

Financially, Hayes remains light years away from deprivation of his youth years, even after some profound monetary reverses with his Memphis-based Stax label. But Hayes says he chooses to return to the ghetto as much as possible, identifying with the problems there, working for solutions. He takes the Moses title seriously.

"Locally, in Memphis, I did a lot of political things," he said. "I worked in the community and belonged to a club that dealt with matters concerning racial injustices." In the Virgin Islands, he built a housing project for low-income residents.

Hayes says he believes black entertainers have an obligation to use their money and talents to help others. "Blacks must be more responsible in different ways," he said, "because blacks need images. We need positive images to inspire... but we need clean images."

Hayes admits that the violent "black exploitation" films of the early 1970s - some of which he starred in - were not positive. "Yes, I do believe the films were negative," Hayes said. "But I think, for a while, the black exploitation were necessary. Blacks needed to see some heroes on the screen. But the films didn't evolve. They kept on doing the same thing, and the movies became an eyesore rather than an asset."

Hayes says the movie industry today still hasn't progressed in improving black images. He said he doesn't know whether the shortage of blacks in the industry is malicious.

"But the shortage is evident," he says. "It's puzzling that the black American is so much interwoven into American society, and there's not any more work done featuring them."