Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images
Fight The Power: 11 Powerful Protest Songs Advocating For Racial Justice
From the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to the streets of Ferguson, activism certainly has a sound. Whether it’s the slow hum of Pete Seeger's "We Shall Overcome" or the energetic repetition of YG’s "FTP," when the chants of freedom slow, we often hear an emotional outcry about political issues through music. The current state of unrest in the United States surrounding the violent treatment of Black people and people of color at the hands of police has caused a resurgence of music addressing the current state of affairs directly in lyrics and tone.
As we celebrate Juneteenth (not to mention Black Music Month), a date that signifies liberation for African American people as Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, TX that the enslaved people there were free in 1865, we have to recognize the importance of music when it comes to freedom, protest, survival and celebration in Black culture.
Music has always been deeply rooted in African culture. It only continued after men and women were captured and enslaved in the U.S through the Middle Passage. For slaves, it was a form of communication and later became so much more. That tradition of music has continued over centuries as each new movement—specifically involving the fight for self-love, equality, and fair treatment for Black Americans—creates its own soundtrack.
2020 will see its own host of songs that highlight the times, from Meek Mill’s "The Otherside of America" to H.E.R.'s "I Can’t Breathe," which she recently premiered in her performance for IHeartRadio’s Living Room Concert Series. But before this moment, there were a few of the songs that have been at the center of protest, revolution, and radical political change over the years.
"Say It Loud," James Brown (1968)
Being proud to be Black was almost a foreign concept commercially during this time and James Brown took the lead on empowering Black people all across the world. "Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud," became an affirmation recited far and wide specifically in such a turbulent year as 1968. This was at the height of the Civil Rights movement and the same year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
"Comment #1," Gil Scott-Heron (1970)
A poem featured on his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Heron was challenging the white left-wing student movement. In his estimation, there was no common ground based on what Black people had endured for centuries that college-educated students from the suburbs would understand. The song was later sampled by Kanye West in "Lost In The World" featuring Bon Iver.
"What’s Going On," Marvin Gaye (1971)
Based on the real-life experience of Gaye’s brother who returned from Vietnam with a much different outlook on life, this song asked what was happening in America. This was a turbulent time where Black soldiers were not receiving the same benefits as their white GI counterparts when returning home from the same fight. And much like Scott-Heron, Gaye was exploring the hippie era clash that, to many Black people, didn’t have a real grasp on poverty and systematic racism plaguing the community.
"F**k Tha Police," N.W.A. (1988)
A song met with much discourse including the arrest of N.W.A. members in Detroit during a 1989 tour stop. The group was apprehended following their show after being told by the DPD not to play the song in their set. Unfortunately, not much has changed and streams have skyrocketed amidst global protests for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor more than 20 years later
"Fight The Power," Public Enemy (1989)
The song originally appeared in Spike Lee's "Do The Right" thing, which explored racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood and would become Public Enemy’s most popular song to date. Later released on their album Fear of a Black Planet, the song was received with high acclaim including a GRAMMY nomination for Best Rap Performance.
"Changes," 2Pac featuring Talent (1998)
2Pac was seen as both an activist and a young man wise beyond his years, though his career was also marred by controversy and rap beefs. Songs like "Changes" are more representative of the former. Here, Pac was chronicling the fact that things have been the same in Black communities over the years. When listening back, you can hear how poignant his words were over 20 years later.
"Glory," John Legend and Common (2014)
The Oscar-winning song from the original motion picture soundtrack to "Selma" directed by Ava Duvernay came at the epicenter of the country’s most recent unrest. Two years after the death of Trayvon Martin, the song was the perfect bridge from the Civil Rights movement of the '60s depicted in the film into today's current fight for equality.
"Alright," Kendrick Lamar (2015)
To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar’s sophomore release, was a sharp contrast to the cinematic good kid, m.A.A.d. City but yielded the freedom song of a generation. Crowds at protests and university auditoriums across the country erupted into the song's potent lyrics, "But if God got us then we gon be alright!" The GRAMMY-winning song became the unofficial anthem to the Black Lives Matter movement after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mich., and Sandra Bland in Waller County, TX at the hands of police.
"F.U.B.U.," Solange (2016)
A nod to the 90s hip hop apparel company, the acronym stands for For Us, By Us. The song appeared on her third studio album A Seat at the Table, her most critically acclaimed and political album to date. Both the song and album highlight Black entrepreneurship, culture, and trauma.
"Freedom," Beyoncé ft. Kendrick Lamar (2016)
This hard-hitting track samples "Let Me Try" by Frank Tirado and comes as a reprieve in the album sequencing but packs a powerful message. The ending also features audio from Jay-Z’s grandmother Hattie White. At her 90th birthday party she explains, "I was served lemons, but I made lemonade"—apropos in the discussion of the American Black experience.
"This is America," Childish Gambino (2018)
Accompanied by a captivating visual directed by Hiro Murai that paired dancing with African influence, and violent yet thought-provoking imagery, Gambino's effort made everyone pay attention. The song garnered the multi-disciplined artist a GRAMMY for "Song Of The Year," and his first No. 1 single while leaving both critics and fans alike in deep conversations about its political symbolism.