11 Songs That Became Anthems for the African American Struggle for Equality

For centuries, black Americans have used music as a powerful tool. In the pre-war South, slaves sang spirituals to secretly plan their escape to freedom. Poems were set to music and performed to celebrate the eradication of slavery, and ballads and hip hop were used to protest violence and discrimination against black Americans.

Below are 11 songs throughout history that have given voice to African American progress, protest and pride.

1. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – Unknown

J. Wesley Jones, choir director, directs 600 black singers during a rehearsal in Chicago, August 1935. The group rehearsed for the next Chicagoland Music Festival where they would sing

J. Wesley Jones, choir director, directs 600 black singers during a rehearsal in Chicago, August 1935. The group rehearsed for the next Chicagoland Music Festival where they would sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at Soldier Field.

Throughout the pre-war South, the spiritual became a popular form of song among slaves. Some have also been used as a form of coded communication to plan the escape from slavery. As abolitionist Harriet Tubman guided blacks to freedom along the underground railroad, she sang some spirituals to signal that it was time to escape. Among Tubman’s favorites was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.

“Swing low, sweet chariot,
Come to take me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Come to take me home ”

The melody was a signal that the time to escape had arrived. The “soft chariot” represented the underground railway, swaying low – to the south – to transport them to the north. The song, which is still commonly sung in black churches, was played at Tubman’s funeral in 1913.

2. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” – John & James Johnson, 1900

“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was originally written as a poem by educator James Weldon Johnson, with accompanying music created by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. The words were recited by 500 schoolchildren on February 12, 1900 in Jacksonville, Florida, to celebrate the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln. During the composition, James Johnson struggled to write lyrics that spoke of the traumatic but triumphant life of his ancestors.

“Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of hope that the present has brought us; “

The poem was eventually used in graduation, churches and celebrations. James Johnson later became a leader in NAACP, an organization that adopted the poem as its official song. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” has become popularly known as “Black National Anthem”, and it is still sung at important black functions to this day.

3. “Strange Fruit” – Billie Holiday, 1939

Billie Holiday - Strange Fruit

Billie holiday

The haunting song popularized by Billie Holiday was written in 1937 by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher and civil rights activist in the Bronx. Similar to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, “Strange Fruit” was originally written as a poem. Meeropol was forced to write the lyrics after seeing a photo of two black men who had been lynched in Indiana. Strange and dismal words never explicitly call for lynching, but use a painful metaphor to describe the horrible terror that ravaged black communities in the South.

“Black bodies swaying in the southern breeze,
Strange fruits hanging from the poplars »

Once Meeropol put words into music, the song made its way into New York City. When blues singer Billie Holiday heard the lyrics, the vivid portrayal of death reminded her of her father, who died of a lung disorder after being denied treatment at the hospital because of his race.

“It reminds me of how Pop died,” Holiday said of the song in his autobiography. “But I have to keep singing it, not only because people demand it, but because 20 years after Pop’s death, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”

4. “A change is coming” – Sam Cooke, 1963

Sam Cooke - A change is coming

Sam Cooke, 1960.

Two key moments inspired Sam Cooke to write his monumental hit “A Change is Coming”: the release of a Bob Dylan hymn and a racist rejection in a Louisiana hotel. When Cooke first heard Dylan’s “Blowin ‘in the Wind” in 1963, he was both impressed and upset that a white artist wrote a song reflecting the changing tides of the country when he didn’t. hadn’t done.

Cooke did not take long to find the inspiration to write his own hymn. Later that year, Cooke arrived at a Holiday Inn in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he had made reservations for him and his wife. However, he was informed that there were no vacancies after his arrival. Upset, Cooke and his wife left the hotel to find new accommodation. He was then arrested at the next hotel for honking and disturbing Holiday Inn guests.

A few months later, he wrote and recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come” in early 1964. He could only perform the song once The Tonight Show with Johnny Carsonbecause he was killed in an L.A. motel later that year. Cooke’s song, however, survived and became an anthem in the fight for civil rights.

“And I go to the cinema, and I go to the city center,
Someone keep telling me, don’t hang around
It was long, very long to come
But I know that a change will come, oh, yes, it will happen ”

5. “Mississippi Goddam” – Nina Simone, 1964

Nina Simone - Mississippi Goddam

Nina Simone, 1969.

Frustration and anger prompted Nina Simone to write “Mississippi Goddam” shortly after the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963 and the deaths of four black girls in the Birmingham church bombing.

As Simone reached what appeared to be a boiling point, she considered taking up arms, but instead wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in just an hour. She used the lyrics, highlighted by a show-style piano, to express the fury she and black Americans felt in response to countless racially motivated murders across the country.

“Alabama pissed me off,
Tennessee made me lose my rest,
And everyone knows the fucking Mississippi!

The song was originally released as part of the album Nina Simone in concert in 1964. She performed the hymn at Carnegie Hall, bringing controversial lyrics to a predominantly white audience. Although many people opposed it and even banned the song after it was released, it became popular during the civil rights movement and was played by activists at demonstrations for years.

6. “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” – James Brown, 1968

James Brown - Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud

James Brown, 1968.

“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown was released at a time when black Americans felt particularly raw and enraged, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. Four months after his murder, Brown released the song that boldly celebrated black culture. In the call and answer number, Brown says:

“Say it out loud! I’m black and I’m proud!
Say it louder! I am black and I am proud! “

From the early to mid-1960s, “Negro” was the preferred term for African Americans, while “Black” was sometimes considered an insult. But Brown’s song helped remove the stigma around the term “Black,” and became a favorite in the late 1960s. While most of the hymns of the civil rights movement spoke of the challenges that black Americans faced under the form of white supremacy and racism, “Say It Loud” has instilled a sense of pride and power in the community.

7. “The revolution will not be televised” – Gil Scott-Heron, 1971

Gil Scott-Heron - The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott Heron, 1970.

Gil Scott-Heron was among the first children to be integrated into Tennessee elementary school, before becoming a revolutionary writer and civil rights activist. In 1970, he released his first album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. The album starred Scott-Heron telling his poetry in the background – an early forerunner of what would become hip-hop.

The first track of the album, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, describes the uprising of black Americans in the streets, white Americans having no choice but to recognize the movement despite distractions like television. The song would continue to be used as a synonym for Black Power and protest.

“Green Acres”, “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Hooterville Junction”
Will no longer be so damn relevant
And women won’t care if Dick finally fell with Jane
On “Find tomorrow”
Because black people will be on the street looking for a better day
The revolution will not be televised “

8. “What’s going on?” – Marvin Gaye, 1971

Marvin Gaye - What's going on

Marvin Gaye, 1980.

Marvin Gaye was Motown’s golden child when he released the song “What’s Going On?” in 1971. He made a name for himself with his sensual and apolitical songs like “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in the 1960s.

That all changed when Ronnie “Obie” Benson of soul group Four Tops presented Gaye with the song he wrote in response to police violence against Vietnam War protesters. The song resonated strongly with Gaye, whose cousin was killed during the war and whose brother had recently returned from the war.

“What’s going on?” was a different type of protest song. Gaye did not give up his smooth tone and he called for peaceful protests and an end to the war and violence at the national level. Although the song was not as radical as some of the hymns published by other artists, Moterry executive Berry Gordy still hesitated to publish it. After months of waiting, Gaye finally issued an ultimatum – either they released the disc, or he would never record with Motown again. Gordy reluctantly released the song, which has become a commercial success – and gave voice to protests against injustice.

“Picket lines and picket panels,
Don’t brutally punish me,
Talk to me so you can see,
Oh, what’s going on “

9. “Happy Birthday” – Stevie Wonder, 1980

Stevie Wonder - Happy Birthday

Stevie Wonder pictured with a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The life – and death – of Martin Luther King, Jr. has inspired countless protests and protests across the country. Yet the federal government was hesitant to designate a holiday to recognize the role King had played in the progress of the nation. Just days after King’s death in 1968, Congressman John Conyers proposed to make his killed friend’s birthday a national holiday, but received little support from his colleagues. In response, Stevie Wonder set out to defend the federal vacation of Martin Luther King, Jr. with his song “Happy Birthday”, released in 1980.

“And we all know everything,
That he rose for the time will bring,
Because in peace, our hearts will sing,
Thanks to Martin Luther King,
Happy Birthday”

The song was not a hit when it was first released, but Wonder performed it at concerts and events, arguing for the celebration of the civil rights icon. Although several states have made the king’s birthday a local holiday, some members of Congress have always opposed it being federal. Wonder testified in Congress in 1983 hoping to influence the majority and continued his crusade as citizens across the country to protest solidarity. King’s birthday was finally approved as a federal holiday in 1983, and all 50 states made it a state government holiday in 2000. The Wonder version of “Happy Birthday” is still traditionally sung at celebrations. of the birthday of blacks and in tribute to King.

10. “F *** tha Police” – N.W.A., 1988


Rappers MC Ren and Eazy-E. from N.W.A. performed during the Straight Outta Compton tour at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri in 1989.

In the 1980s, the voice of the black community shifted from R&B and soul to emerging hip-hop. N.W.A. was among the most controversial and dominant rap groups of the time. Their song “F *** tha Police” was released as part of their first album Straight Outta Compton. The pioneers of “gangsta rap” presented themselves to the world with words that reflected the harsh and harsh conditions they lived in as residents of Compton, California. “F *** tha Police” specifically denounced racial profiling and police brutality.

“F *** the police coming directly from the metro,
A young n *** hurt because I’m brown,
And not the other color, so the police think,
They have the power to kill a minority ”

The stories of what inspired the song vary among group members. Dr. Dre – whose history of traffic arrests made him reluctant to record the song – said it happened after he and Eazy-E fired paintballs while waiting for a bus, and the police immobilized them with shotguns. Ice Cube said it was written in response to the police chief of the Los Angeles Police Department declaring war on gangs. The statement, as interpreted by Ice Cube, was a statement against anyone who looked like a “gang member”.

There was a strong backlash against the song, which many say encouraged violence against the police. The album cover was the first to carry a “Parental Advisory” warning, “These songs contain explicit lyrics: suggested parenting tips”. And Milt Ahlerich of the FBI sent a letter to Priority Records, which distributed the N.W.A album, to affirm that the song “encourages violence against law enforcement officers and their disrespect.”

N.W.A. said they did not tolerate the violence in the song, but described it. In fact, frustration with the police spilled over to Los Angeles in 1992 after the brutal beating of Rodney King by the police. Asked about the relevance of the song in 2015, Ice Cube said Rolling stone, “It’s our heritage here in America with the police and all kinds of authority figures who have to deal with us day to day. There is generally abuse and violence associated with this interaction, so when the “F *** tha Police” was created in 1989, it was 400 years ago. “

11. “Fight the Power” – Public Enemy, 1989

Public Enemy - Fight the Power

(L-R) Rapper Flavor Flav, director Spike Lee and Chuck D from rap group ‘Public Enemy’ film a video for their song ‘Fight The Power’ directed by Spike Lee in New York, 1989.

In addition to music, films from the late 1980s and 1990s spoke of the experience of black people like never before. Movies like Boyz n the hood and Menace II Society offered a target in the disadvantaged black communities of the country. And Spike Lee’s quintessential film in 1989, Do the right thing, depicts racial tensions reaching a boiling point during a hot Brooklyn summer. Lee hired Public Enemy to write a song for the film and initially suggested that they do “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” again. Instead, the group designed a theme song from the work of other black artists:

“I have to give us what we want,
I have to give us what we need,
Our freedom of expression is freedom of death,
We have to fight the powers that be,
Let me hear you say
Fight the power! “

The title “Fight the Power” is inspired by a song of the same name from 1975 by the Isley Brothers. Public Enemy’s Chuck D wrote the lyrics, drawing influences from James Brown and Bob Marley, while simultaneously calling out to white American celebrities like Elvis Presley and John Wayne.

The song sums up the tense racial relationships between the characters in the film and provides fighting words to communities of all kinds as they speak out against oppression and injustice.

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