The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson discusses hit song's connection to 1921 Tulsa massacre

Some have said their hit song "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" is about the massacre.

Anyone who is a fan of 1970s funk knows The Gap Band. The three musical brothers captivated fans with their records for years.

One of their biggest hits is "You Dropped a Bomb on Me." For some time now, a rumor has swirled about the real meaning of the song.

Listeners who know the origin of the band have long suspected the song may have been written to shed a light on the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.

PHOTO: The Gap Band lead singer Charlie Wilson grew up in Tulsa, just a few blocks from the Greenwood District.
The Gap Band lead singer Charlie Wilson grew up in Tulsa, just a few blocks from the Greenwood District.
ABC

On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a white mob destroyed a Black neighborhood, killing families and forcing others to leave.

Watch “Soul of a Nation” TONIGHT at 10 p.m. ET on ABC. Episodes will be available on Hulu starting Wednesday.

Witnesses famously describe some of the white men running to a nearby airfield, where survivors said planes rained down bullets on the neighborhood and dropped homemade bombs.

The massacre could possibly be Oklahoma's deadliest act of domestic terrorism and one of the most violent racial attacks in American history. And next month, all eyes will be on Tulsa, as the city commemorates the tragedy's 100-year anniversary.

ABC News senior national correspondent Steve Osunsami wanted to get to the bottom of the stories surrounding the massacre and its connection to The Gap Band's song, so he went straight to the source in Tulsa.

Along with the ABC News Investigative Unit and ABC Audio, Osunsami created a podcast on the event called "Tulsa's Buried Truths," available for download.

​The Gap Band's lead singer, Charlie Wilson, said he and his brothers, Ronnie and Robert Wilson, grew up in Tulsa just a few blocks from the Greenwood District, the Black neighborhood that was destroyed in the massacre. Charlie Wilson wrote the song, and said that despite the rumors, the only bomb the song is referring to is one made of love.

But Wilson said he's very happy about the confusion the title has caused. He said the band has been trying to draw attention to the massacre since they first started singing together.

"It's bringing attention back to the race riots. I'm so happy about that," he said.

In fact, the name of the band stands for Greenwood, Archer and Pine, the streets at the entrance of the neighborhood. The Greenwood neighborhood is often referred to as "Black Wall Street," a nod to the successful Black businesses that used to line Greenwood Avenue.

Back in the day, Black businesses in the neighborhood thrived -- partly because Black customers were not allowed to purchase many goods or services in white stores.

This Black economy created a neighborhood where there were Black families who were better off than some of their white neighbors.

The early 1920s were a particularly deadly time for Black Americans who lived in similar townships and neighborhoods across the country.

PHOTO: The Gap Band lead singer Charlie Wilson grew up in Tulsa, just a few blocks from the Greenwood District.
The Gap Band lead singer Charlie Wilson grew up in Tulsa, just a few blocks from the Greenwood District.
ABC

According to Charlie Wilson, he and his brothers wanted the name of their band to mean something.

"We knew we were going to go all over the world -- at least I did," Charlie said with a laugh. He said they knew "we'd have to talk about that, and where the name came from."

While promoting their albums and touring in the 1980s, Wilson said he shared the story of their neighborhood and the massacre many times: "People were just kinda lookin' at us like, 'Are you sure? I've never heard this story before.'"

How the details of what happened to Greenwood have been lost in history is a key part of the neighborhood's story. Many believe that much of the story has been intentionally suppressed. Historians have found pages missing in archives.

In the last few years, shows like HBO's "Lovecraft Country" and "Watchmen" have recreated scenes from the massacre, raising interest is the lost history and leading viewers to search for evidence that the horrifying and violent stories indeed occurred.

On the day of the massacre, an angry white mob burned 35 blocks of the wealthy Black community of Greenwood in north Tulsa to the ground.

To this day, it's not known how many people died. The Red Cross estimated it was between 55 and 300, in their 1921 report.

Experts have been searching for potential mass graves in the city from the massacre since the 1990s. In October of 2020 they discovered what they believe is a mass grave with as many as a dozen bodies of missing residents.

Wilson knows the intimate details of what happened in Greenwood nearly 100 years ago, directly from one of the survivors of the massacre -- Lucille Figures.

Wilson said Figures was like a grandmother to him. She was 12 years old at the time of the massacre and made it out alive. It was rare for her to share the story of her escape. Wilson said when she finally shared the details with him, she made him vow to keep it quiet.

"She told me a lot of things. But she made me promise, 'Don't ever speak about what I told you until I'm gone,' Wilson said. And that is exactly what he's done.

Figures died in 2013 at the age of 104. Her story is like so many others, passed down behind closed doors. Wilson understands why Figures wanted it kept quiet.

PHOTO: The Gap Band lead singer Charlie Wilson grew up in Tulsa, just a few blocks from the Greenwood District.
The Gap Band lead singer Charlie Wilson grew up in Tulsa, just a few blocks from the Greenwood District.
Kwaku Alson / P Music Group

"She watched people die and getting shot. So, she was to never speak about it. They kept it quiet, so they could be would be protected in some way," said Wilson.

Wilson said he now wants to help solidify Greenwood's rightful place in American history books.

"Better late than never. Better late than never. I mean, the story needs to be told," he said.

Wilson is Grammy nominated, with 13 nods as a solo artist, and two recent No. 1 songs. He was received two NAACP Image awards, and in both 2009 and 2020 was named Billboard's No. 1 R&B artist.

He said he loves his hometown, and when touring, he's proud to say he's from Tulsa.

"This is the 100th year this year... Tell the truth," he said of his reason for speaking out about the massacre.

ABC News goes deep into the story of the Greenwood massacre in our podcast, which includes Charlie Wilson's story in "Soul of a Nation: Tulsa's Buried Truth." You can subscribe where you get your podcasts to hear more.

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