Every revolution has its soundtrack, and as long as there has been a struggle for a better world, there has been music to support that struggle. In light of the recent protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery, the messages of these kinds of songs are painfully relevant today. Here are eight of the countless songs that have been influential in the fight for black liberation throughout America’s history.
Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit (1939)
Written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher who adopted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s children after their execution, “Strange Fruit” is a stirring anti-lynching lament. Billie Holiday began performing the song when lynching was reaching epidemic status in the American South, and though it is often seen as a stark departure from her usual Tin Pan Alley fare, “Strange Fruit” stands as a testament to Holiday’s persistent ability to use lyrics to invoke images and deliver them straight to the hearts of her listeners. In the words of Angela Davis in “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism,” Holiday’s performance “almost single handedly changed the politics of American popular culture and put the elements of protest and resistance back at the center of contemporary black musical culture.”
Nina Simone – Mississippi Goddam (1964)
Nina Simone began her prolific musical activist career with this embittered tirade in the form of a show tune, written in response to the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963 and the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama of the same year. The release of this song marked a move away from the largely passive, spiritual anthems of the civil rights movement, and toward more biting and specific protests against racist violence.
Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1970)
Through a heap of pop culture references and political name-drops, Scott-Heron details what the revolution won’t be, calling for bystanders to wake up out of passivity and join the fight. Written in the fever pitch of the Vietnam War, Scott-Heron addresses the unfortunately evergreen issues of corrupt politicians, the media’s complacency, and police violence. The repeated chant of this song has proved timeless, and remains a central slogan in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Marvin Gaye – What’s Goin’ On (1971)
Collaboratively written by Renaldo “Obie” Benson of the Four Tops, songwriter Al Cleveland, and Gaye himself in response to police violence they witnessed first-hand while on tour, “What’s Goin’ On” is an enduring anthem for peace. Its release marked a point of change in Motown history where writers and artists starting putting social issues at the fore, aiming to arouse political consciousness through the pop they had perfected.
Public Enemy – Fight the Power (1989)
A musical collage of James Brown samples and recordings from black church services, and fronted by the lyrical dexterity of Chuck D, “Fight the Power” stands as one of the most respected protest songs in history. Spike Lee commissioned the song for his 1989 film, “Do The Right Thing,” a masterpiece about police violence and racial tensions in a black neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Janelle Monae – Hell You Talmbout (2015)
Janelle Monae is one of the leading activist-artists in our current century, and revolutionized the Afro-Futurism canon with “Dirty Computer” in 2018. Her 2015 protest chant-song, though, is remarkable for its adaptability. The lyrics are built around the names of victims of police violence, and has been updated with new names throughout the years. The result is a song that demands attention and grows as violence persists.
Vic Mensa – 16 Shots (2016)
In 2016, a Chicago police officer murdered seventeen-year-old Laquan MacDonald by shooting at him sixteen times. Chicago native Vic Mensa released a song in direct response, obliquely calling attention to the obscenity of the case as well as the mayor’s and police departments’ cover up efforts. “16 shots” quickly became a chant that rang throughout the proceeding Black Lives Matter protests.
Childish Gambino – This Is America (2018)
Through his work on FX’s “Atlanta” and his critically-acclaimed music career, Donald Glover has proven to be one of the strongest artistic voices against police violence in our era. “This Is America” and its accompanying music video is a layered critique on gun violence, systemic racism, and the enduring legacy of Jim Crow.
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