African American musicians have established a long tradition of creating music that addresses complex social and political issues such as slavery, Jim Crow, systemic racism, and police brutality. Through personal social activism as well as their art, these musicians have inspired hope and unity, and rallied people to action. This tradition of resistance through song began during the earliest days of slavery and has continued to the present day.
On May 28, 2020, George Floyd was killed by hands of the police in Minneapolis, MN. African Americans, as well as others, responded in a variety of ways, including demonstrations and public protests in Minneapolis and across the nation, and mounting a social media campaign against police violence. These protests were not created in a vacuum; rather, they are continued expressions of outrage stemming from a long series of violent encounters with the police that have and continue to occur in the United States, resulting in the death of individuals such as Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL; Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, OH; and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY. The tragedies of these deaths fueled the Black Lives Matter movement and the demand for racial justice.
Rampant racism and continued police brutality and murder of young Black people have ignited the passion of black musicians to use their music as a vehicle for protest. In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five recorded “The Message.” The song’s main refrain, “It’s like a jungle sometimes, makes me wonder how I can keep from going under,” was both a social commentary on the stresses and challenges inherent in impoverished urban communities and a platform for social protest. Thirty-three years later, artists still feel the pressure to speak out, as evidenced in Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” (2015), that speaks of the beauty of Black life within this environment of oppression and police killing, stating “We gon’ be alright,” a phrase that would later become the anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Usher recorded “I Cry” in 2020, a song that let it be known that it was okay to cry for the victims and for those left behind to grieve for their loss, especially sons left behind without fathers. Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” inspired NMAAM National Advisory Board member India.Arie’s “Breathe.” In the music video, she is surrounded by children and singing, “Sometimes you can’t believe what your eyes see on TV,” and the children respond, “Continue to breathe.” Darius Rucker, another member of NMAAM’s National Advisory Board, was so deeply affected by George Floyd’s death and the impact it had on him and his children he felt compelled to voice his support of the Black Lives Matter Movement—a decision that lost him support from a number of his country music fans.
Ms. Lauryn Hill recorded “Black Rage,” a song that was later dedicated to Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson. She cites all of the raping, beating, killing and other means of social control from throughout American history that fuel current Black rage. She calls out how this nation’s foundational document, the Constitution, was based on Black people being counted as two-thirds of a person.
This drive to speak out against injustice by contemporary African American musicians reflects the ways in which Black music has always spoken to our heritage of slavery and oppression while expressing our hopes for equality, freedom, and justice. The central theme in African American history is this fight against racism and the struggle for equality. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and framed the Constitution, slavery, while not mentioned, served as the cornerstone upon which this nation was built. The failure to eradicate slavery eventually led to the Civil War, and the lack of commitment to equal rights for the newly-emancipated freedmen gave rise to systemic racism and discrimination, which we know as Jim Crow.
Our music has always played a critical role in this history, from the sorrow songs such as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” that expresses the pain and suffering of slaves, to their desire for freedom in such songs as “Steal Away to Jesus” and “Go Down Moses.” Following the Civil War, Black people sought not only to express their desire for freedom in their music, but also chose a counter narrative to a racist identity imposed by whites to one that was positive and affirming.
“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” written by James Weldon Johnson, became the Negro National Anthem with its uplifting emphasis on liberty and ultimate victory over oppression. But victory was not to be won without a hard fight. In 1910, W.E.B. Dubois helped organize the National Associated for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to fight against racial injustice. In spite of these efforts and those of investigative journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, thousands of people continued to be lynched during the first half of the 20th century.
Billie Holiday, the first lady of blues, popularized “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching written in 1937 by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher. Holiday’s record label, Columbia Records, refused to record the song for fear of reprisals from southern record stores. Commodore Records released the song with these powerful words, “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” While about the lynching of Black people, it was also a metaphor for all of the covert and overt forms of racism that Black people faced on a daily basis.
Following World War II, there was a reawakening in the Black community that demanded justice and equality. The rise of the Civil Rights Movement also saw an increase in protest songs across many genres; many being adopted from old hymns, while others were originals. All took lyrics and music from the past and applied it to the civil rights struggle. The 19th century protest song, “I Will Overcome,” was revised by the cigar workers in Charleston, SC, in the 1940s. It was revised again by Pete Seeger at the Highlander Folk School in the 1960s and retitled, “We Shall Overcome,” and adopted by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
“This Little Light of Mine,” popular among Sunday school children, would become the song sung by civil rights activists as they marched and demonstrated throughout the south. The words, “I’m gonna let it shine” signified a determination to break out of the darkness of segregation in order to bloom as a free person.
Songs were created to express the determination of the movement to end segregation in America. “Keep Your Eyes on the Plot, Hold On,” a popular song on Johns Island, SC, was changed to “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” Alice Wine, a member of the Progressive Club and Moving Star Hall, brought the song to the movement. Its lyrics, which included the line, “Oh, freedom…and before I’ll be a slave, I will be buried in my grave,” were rooted in opposition to slavery and encouraged people to endure during the long struggle for freedom. Folk singer Joan Baez popularized the song when she sang it during the March on Washington in 1963. “We Shall Not be Moved” is another song which had taken root in the early labor movement and was transformed by the Civil Rights Movement. The song emphasized standing up against those in power and refusing to give in: “Like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved.”
Iconic artist and activist Nina Simone sacrificed her career for the cause. “To be Young, Gifted and Black” was a tribute to young Black men and women and their heritage. During the height of the movement, when Blacks were killed and beaten in the south, she recorded “Mississippi Goddam” as part of her ever-growing protest repertoire. She said that it was the role of the artist to remind America that change had to come, most recently recounted in Liz Garbus’ 2015 documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?.
The Staples Singers, the “choir members” of the Civil Rights Movement, were looking beyond race and racism in recording, “I know a Place, ya’ll (I’ll take you there), ain’t nobody cryin’, ain’t nobody worried…” Their song “Respect Yourself” speaks to Black people of the need to respect oneself and others while letting white people know “to take the sheet off your face, it’s a brand new day.” Sam Cooke let everyone know through his song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” that even though it has been a long time coming, times will get better. Civil rights activists considered Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” recorded by both Aretha Franklin and the Impressions, a call for people to get ready to march and be ready for change. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, said it best when he proclaimed that Black people should “Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
The decades of the 1950s and 1960s saw tremendous change in urban areas, marred by the construction of massive highway systems through Black neighborhoods that severely disrupted these communities. In the face of white flight and decreased opportunities, the Black middle class left these communities as post-industrialization witnessed the closing of factories, a dramatic drop in property values, and increased crime and gangs.
Influenced by the Black Power Movement and Black Arts Movement, H. “Rap” Brown, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, and The Last Poets continued the spoken word tradition within the Black community. This gave rise to rap and hip hop, which would become the voice of the new urban scene. Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash emphasized “rappin’” rather than gang violence. The Sugar Hill Gang released the Sylvia Robinson-produced hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” in 1979. Public Enemy‘s “Fight the Power,” featured in Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, became an anthem for African American youth, despite the song’s controversy.
African American music and musicians have a long tradition of speaking to issues of slavery, Jim Crow, systemic racism and police brutality and killing. GRAMMY and BET Hip Hop Award winner J. Cole, who recorded “Be Free” following the police killing of Michael Brown, said in a statement on the Dreamvillain site, “That could’ve easily been me.” His song speaks to breaking the chains that bind us as a people and says that “All we want to do is be free,” a sentiment we feel as a people.
The National Museum of African American Music is now open to the public. Plan your visit and purchase tickets for timed, self-guided tours, and explore the music behind the movement for social justice with our specially-curated playlist.
—John E. Fleming, Ph.D. is NMAAM’s Director-in-Residence
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