For centuries, Black people have used music as a powerful tool to preach solidarity, and as a means of communication. During the colonial era, slaves often sang songs about how Moses led the children of Israel from captivity to the Promised Land; the slaves used spirituals to preach hope and secretly communicate their plans for escape.
A slave may sing a song about how the Israelites escaped by night to inform the others that someone or a small group of slaves would be escaping through the Underground Railroad – secret routes and safe houses used by enslaved African-Americans to escape into free states and Canada.
Over time, songs as a message of solidarity and hope for freedom have remained with the African people. Modern-day scholars acquired vast historical slave accounts from poetry and ballads composed by slaves during the colonial era.
The modern music genre – hip hop has also served as an avenue for Black Americans to protest violence and institutional discrimination in modern society.
1. 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'; by Wallace Willis, 1862
Wallace Willis, a Choctaw freedman, living in the Indian Territory, in what is now Choctaw County, Oklahoma, United States, is credited for the composition of this powerful song.
Like most spirituals, the song was an encoded call for freedom. In this case, "swing low" is a call for abolitionists to visit the southern United States, a significant slavery territory.
The song is one of a handful of spirituals that refer directly to the Underground Railroad. Sweet chariot referred to the company of the abolitionists in whom the hopes of the slaves were anchored.
'Swing low, sweet chariot' became a famous anthem in Black American churches; a choir performed the song at Harriet Tubman's funeral in 1913.
2. 'Strange Fruit'; by Abel Meeropol and Billie Holiday, 1939
'Strange Fruit' was a poem written by Jewish-American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynching.
Meeropol was deeply touched after seeing photos of two Black men lynched in Indiana, USA, by a white mob, and wrote the poem 'strange fruit', to depict the image of black bodies hanging from a tree.
Billie Holiday popularized the poem after converting it to a song in 1939.
When blues singer Billie Holiday saw Meeropol's work, it reminded her of her father who died after being refused treatment at a public hospital because he was Black.
3. 'Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing'; by John & James Johnson, 1900
Two brothers created "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing". It was a poem written initially by educator James Weldon Johnson before it was shaped into music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson.
James Johnson later joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—an organization adopted the song as its official anthem.
4. 'A Change Is Gonna Come'; by Sam Cooke, 1963
The song was inspired by various personal events in Sam Cooke's life, most prominent among them was an event in which he and his wife were turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana.
Cooke was inspired after listening to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" in 1963, He felt compelled to write a song that spoke to his struggle and of those around him, and that pertained to the Civil Rights Movement and African Americans.
The song contains the refrain, "It's been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come."
Sadly, he was only able to perform the song once on 'The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson', as he was assassinated later that year.
5. 'Mississippi Goddam'; Nina Simone, 1964
Medgar Evers' murder in 1963 and the Birmingham church bombing which led to the deaths of four Black girls inspired Nina Simone to write 'Mississippi Goddam' in 1964.
Simone would later admit that the frustrations and anger from the events almost drove her into taking up arms, but instead poured all that frustrations into writing "Mississippi Goddam" in just an hour.
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam!"
The song received massive criticism after it was at a Concert in 1964 before a majority-white audience. It soon became a famous anthem for civil rights protest and is often played by activists at demonstrations.
6. 'Say It Loud I'm Black and Proud'; by James Brown, 1968
James Brown released the song at a time when many Black people saw their race as a curse or misfortune.
Black people were feeling enraged after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., a man many believed was the last hope for the emancipation of African Americans.
The song was released four months after King's assassination, and while many songs by Africans at that time addressed the challenges of racism; Brown chose to encourage the people to be proud of who they are.
7. 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'; Gil Scott-Heron, 1971
Despite being among the first set of children to get grade school education in Tennessee, Gil Scott-Heron never abandoned his call to be a revolutionary.
He released his debut album titled 'Small Talk' in 1970; and "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" was its first track.
The song addressed the bias propagated by the American media against Black people.
A part of the song read:
“The revolution will not be televised The revolution will not be brought to you By Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon blowing a bugle And leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams, and Spiro Agnew To eat hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary The revolution will not be televised”
The song criticized the press for preferring to televise commercials instead of the protests. In 1950, the use of fire hoses and attack dogs on protesters was televised for what many critics claimed was the first time.
8. 'What's Going On?’ by Marvin Gaye, 1971
The man with a golden voice, Marvin Gaye released 'What's Going On' in 1971 after building a name for himself with renditions like 'How Sweet It Is' and 'I heard it through the Grapevine'.
Gaye became a voice of revolution Four Tops singer, Ronnie Benson showed him songs written to condemn the police violence against Vietnam War protesters.
Although he didn't abandon his soul-singing tone, Gaye released 'What's Going On' to call on peaceful protests and an end to police brutality.
The central theme of "What's Going On" and the album of the same name came from Marvin Gaye's own life. When his brother Frankie returned from Vietnam, Gaye noticed that his outlook had changed.
He was also touched by his brother’s account of the war which indicated human rights violations against innocent citizens.
9. 'Happy Birthday'; Stevie Wonder, 1980
Again, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. inspired this song.
After government's refusal to grant Congressman John Conyers proposal to recognize King's birthday as a national holiday after his brutal assassination; Stevie Wonder took it upon himself to make it happen.
He released "Happy Birthday" in 1980 to call on authorities to mark King's birthday as a national holiday.
Three years after the song was released, King's birthday was approved as a national holiday in 1983.
10. 'Fight the Power'; by Public Enemy, 1989
Like music, movies in the late 1980s and 1990s spoke a lot about the Black struggle against racism.
For his 1989 movie 'Do the Right Thing', producer Spike Lee enlisted music group 'Public Enemy' to do an original soundtrack.
The group crafted a song pulled from the work of other Black artists like James Johnson and Stevie Wonder; the product was 'Fight the Power'.
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