Perhaps there has been no greater cultural export from African-American culture than its music. If, as Chuck D once announced, rap is black America’s CNN, then music overall has served as a rallying cry against injustice and fueled black America’s soundtrack for change. In honor of Black Music History Month, here are 25 songs that speak to music’s ability to evoke thought, dialogue and action.
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” - Nina Simone
Although versions by Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin are more well-known, Nina Simone originated this song, which became popular during the ongoing civil rights struggle, in 1970 as a tribute to her friend Lorraine Hansberry.
“We Shall Overcome”
Derived from the refrain of the gospel song “I’ll Overcome Someday” (1900) from Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley, the song “We Shall Overcome,” which was adapted at the Highlander Folk School in 1946, an important training ground for many civil rights leaders, is a key Civil Rights Movement anthem that was sung during many key protests.
“Fight the Power” - Public Enemy
Released on the Do the Right Thing soundtrack in 1989, this song was a wake-up call to many in the hip-hop generation to rally against abuse of power. Taking sampling to new heights, “Fight the Power” serves as an aural tapestry of African-American culture as well as a tribute to the African-American tradition of freedom fighting and rallying cry.
“Self-Destruction” - The Stop the Violence Movement
Spearheaded by KRS-One in response to escalating gun violence in the black community, which included the death of his friend Scott La Rock, this 1989 powerhouse recording brought together hip-hop superstars such as Public Enemy and MC Lyte to raise awareness and spur action to end the self-destructive behavior.
“Wake Up Everybody” - Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
This 1975 hit, featuring Teddy Pendergrass on lead vocals, is full of socially conscious lyrics that, as evidenced by John Legend’s acclaimed 2010 cover, continue to resonate today. In addition, the song is easily among the best offerings from legendary producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff
“Go Down Moses”
Often sung in tribute to Harriet Tubman, who was called the “Moses of her people,” this enduring Negro spiritual, recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and frequently performed by Paul Robeson, is known as an Underground Railroad anthem.
Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” - James Brown
Released months after Dr. King’s assassination, this song is one of James Brown’s crowning achievements and is credited as the anthem for “black pride”. Released at a time when Negro was still the predominant term, this song helped a nation embrace the term “black” as well as natural hairstyles and Afrocentric clothing.
“F**k Tha Police” - NWA
Although interpreted by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies as an anti-police song, this 1988 NWA classic continues to speak to the police brutality many people of color regularly experience. Subsequent incidents such as the Rodney King beating and racial profiling continue to attest to the truth illustrated in the song.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe
Incorporating music from “John Brown’s Body,” a popular song about the well-known abolitionist, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published by the “Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments,” was a popular marching song for the U.S. Colored Troops. Dr. King even recited a line from the song during the last sermon before his assassination
“Keep on Pushing” - The Impressions
The title song of a 1964 album, this track, written by Curtis Mayfield (pictured), who also sang lead, was the first of many that was embraced by Dr. King and many others who worked tirelessly for justice and equality. Follow-ups include “People Get Ready” and “Move on Up”.
“We Are the World” - USA for Africa
Arguably the greatest celebrity charity song ever done, more than 40 stars Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian, 1985 classic is arguably the greatest celebrity, charity song ever done. More than 40 stars, including Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Harry Belafonte and Diana Ross, recorded the song which helped
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” - James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson
Originally written as a poem by civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson to honor a school visit by Booker T. Washington (pictured), “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” set to music with the assistance of his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1905, quickly became the “Negro National Anthem.” The song’s enduring legacy is its hope for the future
“The Star-Spangled Banner”
When African-Americans like Marvin Gaye and Whitney Houston have performed the national anthem well, it’s generated pride in all Americans. Equally important, bold action like that of 1968 Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised black gloved fists in protest as it played, has brought much needed attention to injustice and inequality
Get Up, Stand Up” - Bob Marley & The Wailers
Written by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, “Get Up, Stand Up,” released in 1973, was among The Wailers’ first international hits. A song of political importance encouraging ordinary citizens to “get up, stand up, stand up for your rights,” Marley frequently ended his concerts with this song, which is reportedly the last song he performed live on stage before his death in 1981
Happy Birthday” - Stevie Wonder
Sometimes simplicity can compel a cause and this 1981 Stevie Wonder hit, advocating for a national holiday commemorating Dr. King’s Birthday, is a testament to that. In addition to rallying African-Americans around a King Holiday, this version of “Happy Birthday” has supplanted all others for most African-Americans.
“Man in the Mirror” - Michael Jackson
One of Michael Jackson’s most introspective songs, this 1988 classic, co-written by Siedah Garrett, didn’t just speak of social ills but challenged the singer and those listening to “take a look in the mirror and then make a change.”
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” - Gil Scott-Heron
Perhaps the most well-known composition from Gil Scott-Heron, who passed on May 27, this spoken word classic, set largely to bongo drums and congas when it was first recorded in 1970, has captivated and influenced conscious hip-hop artists like Public Enemy’s Chuck D as well as become a popular expression attesting that African-Americans will not find freedom in American mass culture, among other realities.
“What’s Going On” - Marvin Gaye
Considered one of Marvin Gaye’s greatest songs ever, “What’s Going On,” released in 1971, was a huge departure from Motown’s decidedly apolitical stance. Leaked over the objections of Berry Gordy, who found the song risky, Gaye created an anthem that addressed the Vietnam War as well as police brutality and other social ills at home
“Dear Mama” - Tupac Shakur
Before Tupac released this song in 1995, hip-hop had no bone fide mother tribute songs. Paying homage to his mother Afeni Shakur, a Black Panther and activist who raised him and his sister as a single mother amid her own struggles with crack cocaine, “Dear Mama” also exposes the pressures of young black men growing up in harsh, urban environments
“Let’s Talk About Sex” - Salt-N-Pepa
Released in 1991, this song, which dealt with sex head on, was a bold statement from Salt-N-Pepa, especially since the controversial video introduced talk of AIDS and HIV to many in the hip-hop generation. It was so effective that “Let’s Talk About AIDS” also followed.
“A Change is Gonna Come” - Sam Cooke
Written and recorded in 1963 and released in 1964, this Civil Rights anthem has proved to be a timeless classic against racism and injustice that long outlived its creator. Inspired by the times as well as musicians who used their art to promote positive social change, this song is considered Cooke’s most enduring legacy.
“The Message” - Grandmaster & the Furious Five
Before “The Message,” released in 1982, hip-hop songs were largely party or braggadocio songs. This song not only exposed the conditions and pressures of life in the “ghetto” but also included sociopolitical commentary on such topics as unemployment, homelessness and drug use.
“Tennessee” - Arrested Development
With its Southern-centered lyrics and evocation of Jim Crow and slavery, “Tennessee,” a 1992 hit on both the R&B and rap charts, is considered the first socially conscious Southern rap song that also infused spirituality as well as embodied the popular axiom “to know your past is to know your future
“Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” - McFadden and Whitehead
Released in 1979, this disco classic was intended as a tribute to African American progress. It enjoyed a popular resurgence during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign when it was played the night he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president
Take the time, if you can, to YouTube each of these songs and listen to them. They are gifts.