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American Pride? 11 Songs About A Complicated America, From Prince, Dolly Parton & More
In America's current political climate, 4th of July 2022 may be approached with mixed feelings. But as artists like Childish Gambino and Nina Simone have expressed in song, the U.S. has long had its challenges.
As America turns 246 years old on July 4, this Independence Day may not find most Americans feeling as free as they might have on Fourth of Julys past. Yet, as the fight to maintain democracy heats up to an uncomfortable degree, we can still seek solace and strength from the songs that are written about America and use them to inspire change.
The 11 songs presented here span more than 50 years of social activism. They collectively illuminate how fighting for rights and equality have threaded American society, and how there's still plenty of room for growth. There's a lot to despair over right now, but the accompanying playlist is intended as a reminder not to lose hope during the long fight ahead.
Nina Simone — "Mississippi Goddam" (1964)
Racial segregation and oppression in the civil rights movement battleground states — Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee — are Nina Simone's focus in "Mississippi Goddam." "Desegregation," she sings, as her band responds, "Do it slow." "Mass participation (do it slow)/ Reunification (do it slow)/ Do things gradually (do it slow)/ But bring more tragedy (do it slow)/ Why don't you see it/ Why don't you feel it?"
"I didn't like 'protest music' because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate," she wrote in her 2003 book I Put a Spell On You. "But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with 'Mississippi Goddam,' I realized there was no turning back."
Gil Scott Heron — "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (1971)
Originally recorded as a poem for Gil Scott Heron's 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" was set to music for his Pieces of a Man album that was released the following year. The idea of not being able to just sit home and watch real change take place still resonates in a digital activism era.
"The revolution will not be right back/ After a message about a white tornado," he says in the piece. "White lightning, or white people/ You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom."
Pointer Sisters — "Yes We Can Can" (1973)
Oakland's hit-making Pointer Sisters recorded "Yes We Can Can" the same year as the case of Roe vs. Wade was decided in the Supreme Court. It's an apt time to return to the song's hopefulness as fuel in the fire to regain reproductive rights.
"We got to iron out our problems/ And iron out our quarrels," the Sisters sing. "And try to live as brothers/ And try to find peace within/ Without stepping on one another/ And do respect the women of the world/ Remember you all have mothers."
Prince and The Revolution — "America" (1985)
Thanks to a funked-up thread of the familiar refrain of "America, America, God shed his grace on thee" — from the 19th Century standard "America the Beautiful" — Prince's "America" can pass as a thoroughly patriotic song to people who don't dig deeply into the still-relevant critiques in his lyrics.
"Jimmy Nothing never went to school/ They made him pledge allegiance/ He said it wasn't cool/ Nothing made Jimmy proud/ Now Jimmy lives on a mushroom cloud."
The anxiety of nuclear war that weighed heavily on songs of this era can be understood in the context of the present, with Russian attacks on Ukrainian nuclear power plants that have taken place in just the last few months.
Rage Against The Machine — "Take The Power Back" (1992)
This early Rage Against The Machine song from 1992 stands well today as an activist anthem in the disinformation age of book-banning and school curriculum upheaval. "Take The Power Back" advocates for the truth to be told and for the power to return to the people.
"In the right light, study becomes insight," sings frontman Zack de la Rocha. "But the system that dissed us/ Teaches us to read and write/ So called facts are fraud/ They want us to allege and pledge/ And bow down to their god."
Tune-Yards — "My Country" (2011)
It's been over a decade since Oakland musicians Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner — together, known as Tune-Yards — released "My Country." But the song's lyrics about America's vast inequalities, especially for those seeking a new home here, still apply just as much as they did in 2011.
"My country, 'tis of thee/ Sweet land of liberty/ How come I cannot see my future within your arms," Garbus sings angrily.
Childish Gambino — "This Is America" (2018)
Donald Glover's unflinching look at being Black in America hits hard — and is especially potent when absorbed with the accompanying music video, which won the GRAMMY for Best Music Video in 2019. The video brings the song to life in vivid detail, including burning cars, police terror and Gambino murdering a choir with a machine gun.
The song's lyrics about the anxiety of guns expresses a sentiment that unfortunately still holds true today, as the first half of 2022 has been particularly deadly with gun violence across the country. "Yeah, this is America," he raps with increasing alarm on the song. "Guns in my area/ I got the strap/ I gotta carry 'em."
"I just wanted to make, you know, a good song," Glover told E! in an interview on the red carpet at the Met Gala in 2018. "Something people could play on Fourth of July."
Glover took home three more GRAMMY Awards for "This Is America" in 2019: Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance.
Dolly Parton — "19th Amendment" (2018)
Dolly Parton steps in with some crucial history about women's rights in "19th Amendment," presented in her endearingly bubbly style. The song is a highlight of 27: The Most Perfect Album, a compilation of songs from various artists who wrote about one of the 27 Amendments to the Constitution. (On the album, it's titled "19th Amendment," as each track's title is the Amendment it's about. Parton refers to the song as "A Woman's Right.") The project was released in 2018 by Radiolab at New York's WNYC Studios before the midterm elections.
"It is the duty of the women of this country to secure for themselves the sacred right to vote," she insists in the song.
"Being lucky enough to be a successful woman in business, I wanted to exercise my right to write about the 19th Amendment to praise and uplift women," Parton said in an interview with WNYC.
Gary Clark Jr. — "This Land" (2019)
Gary Clark Jr. is a six-time GRAMMY winner who is lauded around the world for his artistic prowess. But as an American — and, more specifically, as a Texan — he is still keenly aware of how racism still persists in this country. "This Land," which is the title track to his 2019 album, was written after a neighbor confronted him in disbelief that a Black man could own the property where Clark lives, a 50-acre horse ranch in Kyle, Texas.
"N<em></em><em></em> run, n<em></em><em></em>a run/ Go back where you come from," stings the chorus.
"I just wanted to let it be known: this land is your land, but it's mine too, and we all, as Americans, as citizens of this country, should all have an equal shot," he told The Guardian.
Maino — "I Can't Breathe" (2020)
The death of George Floyd inspired a lot of powerful music in 2020. Before the late Eric Garner was killed at the hands of NYPD in 2014, he said, "I can't breathe," which Floyd also said when he was killed by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The phrase is now associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and international activism against police brutality.
While several artists have released songs pertaining to police brutality, a few have specifically named songs "I Can't Breathe" — including H.E.R., whose single won the GRAMMY for Song Of The Year in 2021. "Stripped of bloodlines, whipped and confined/This is the American pride," she says in a spoken word portion of the song.
Brooklyn rapper Maino also released a song called "I Can't Breathe" in 2020, using the compelling track to call out the history of the continued police brutality against Black people. "Think I'm tired of bein' silent," he rhymes over an interpolation of the music from Fugees' "Ready or Not." "Tired of people not tired to see us dyin.'"
Lukas Nelson — "Untitled" (2022)
"Now the stars don't shine for her at night/ They're just holes in the sky," sings Nelson (who is Willie Nelson's son and the frontman of Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real). "They don't give no light/ And the darkness lingers/ Endlessly/ For she must carry the seed."
Rolling Stone noted that it joins notable songs about abortion that have recently been released, such as "Disorders" by Ani DeFranco and Stone Gossard, or re-recorded, like Cyndi Lauper's new version of 1993's "Sally's Rights."
The soul of America has long been reflected in the music that's written about it. As history has shown, artists aren't afraid to speak their minds in song — and as the fight for a more equal, peaceful country continues, there are likely many more to follow.
Photo: Courtesy of Olen
Hip-Hop Re:Defined: Watch Olen Put A Dreamy, Melodic Spin On Childish Gambino's "Heartbeat"
In the debut episode of Hip-Hop Re:Defined — a limited performance series celebrating hip-hop’s 50th anniversary — Orange County-based singer/songwriter Olen delivers a bright rendition of Childish Gambino’s "Heartbeat."
Beneath all the sexual bluster of Childish Gambino's 2011 single "Heartbeat" is a thick fog of yearning and longing. And a singer/songwriter like Olen is perfect to tease out its emotional essence — and imbue Donald Glover's razor-sharp raps with infectious melody.
Backed by guitar, bass, drums, and keys, the Orange County-based artist conjures the fractured emotions of "Heartbeat" with ease. "I wanted you to know/ That I am ready to go, heartbeat/ My heartbeat," Olen croons over a pillow of synths. "I wanted you to know/ Whenever you are around, can't speak/ I can't speak."
In the inaugural episode of Hip-Hop Re:Defined — a limited series paying tribute to some of hip-hop's greatest hits, for the genre's 50th anniversary — watch this evocative performance from a keen interpreter.
Armani White, Bizzy Banks and Asha Imuno are among the artists included in this 10-episode series. Hip-Hop Re:Defined will be posted weekly for six episodes and then begin posting every other week for the remainder of the series.
Check out this potent performance above, and keep checking GRAMMY.com for new episodes of Hip-Hop Re:Defined!
Photo: Rob Ball/Redferns via Getty Images
Remembering Sinéad O’Connor: 5 Essential Tracks By The Iconoclastic Singer/Songwriter
Sinéad O’Connor passed away on July 26 at age 56. The Irish musician had a voice like no other, which she used to speak against injustice.
Few had a voice that compared to the eight-time GRAMMY nominee Sinead O’Connor. An artist and an activist, O’Connor wrote with conviction and pathos, packing a punch with both poetry and politics. Her voice was her main instrument and lifelong weapon — one she wielded well in a whisper or a wail.
Born Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor in Glenageary, County Dublin, Ireland on Dec. 8 1966, the singer passed away on July 26, 2023. She was only 56.
"The Recording Academy mourns with the music community today as we learn of the passing of Sinéad O’Connor," said Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. "Revered by audiences around the globe, her music has left an indelible mark on our culture that will continue to inspire. Our thoughts are with her loved ones at this difficult time."
Tributes on social media arrived throughout the day. Everyone from heads of state to fellow GRAMMY winners and nominees paid their respects. Bryan Adams wrote: "RIP Sinead O’Connor. I loved working with you making photos, doing gigs in Ireland together, and chats, all my love to your family." Tori Amos called O’Connor "a force of nature and a brilliant songwriter and performer whose talent we will not see the like of again. Such passion, such intense presence & a beautiful soul, who battled her own personal demons courageously." Billy Bragg added that she was "braver than brave," and Yusuf/Cat Stevens called her a "tender soul."
O'Connor's 1987 debut record, The Lion & The Cobra, received critical acclaim and achieved gold certification in the U.S., the U.K. and the Netherlands. Over the course of a three and a half-decade career, the songwriter released 10 studio albums (her last, I’m not Bossy, I’m the Boss, came in 2014) that demonstrated her broad influences and desire to constantly explore new genres, from jazz to pop. One of these forgotten side roads traveled from the mid-2000s was her first reggae album (Throw Down Your Arms), produced by Sly & Robbie.
The oft-misunderstood artist was a non-conformist and was ok with that. Fame was not always her friend and caused much anxiety; later, she lived behind a veil after converting to Islam in 2018. O’Connor had a troubled upbringing marked by trauma and tragedy, much of which she detailed for the first time in her candid 2021 memoir Rememberings. Just last year, the songwriter lost her son to suicide. The grief of this no doubt constantly consumed her.
To some, O’Connor is remembered as much for her action as her albums — specifically tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II (that once hung on her mother’s wall) following her October 1992 "Saturday Night Live" performance to raise awareness about sexual abuse within the Irish Catholic church. This act got her black balled for life by NBC, but she never regretted this fit of rebellion nor any other public stance she took on causes and issues she championed.
Her songs were a gift that will keep on giving for generations to come. To get a sample of the beauty and the passion of this artist gone far too soon, here are five essential Sinéad O’Connor tracks.
The second single off O’Connor’s debut The Lion And The Cobra, "Mandinka" (named for a West African ethnic group) resonated most. In Rememberings, O’Connor wrote that watching "Roots’" — a TV miniseries aired in the late 1970s based on Alex Haley’s book of the same name — inspired this song.
"Mandinka" became a college radio hit and was nominated for a GRAMMY Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female. The then 20-year-old performed "Mandinka" at the 31st GRAMMY Awards, sporting Public Enemy’s symbol on her shaven head in solidarity with the hip-hop artists who boycotted the ceremony that year in protest of the inaugural Best Rap Performance award not being included in the telecast.
"Drink Before the War" (1987)
One of O’Connor’s earliest demos (she wrote it as a teenager), the song showcases the incredible range — and rage — that the singer was capable of.
"Drink Before the War" was written about the headmaster at O'Connor's Catholic reform school who tried his best to whip the creativity out of her. As this song shows, it just furhter fueled her muse and her ire.
"Nothing Compares 2 You" (1990)
O’Connor took this song Prince-penned and made this pop lush, string-laced ballad her own. Her voice builds gradually like a steam engine before reaching a climax in the chorus, when the singer shows the full range of her instrument.
"Nothing Compares 2 You" became an MTV staple, which helped the song climb to the top spot on the U.S. Billboard charts and hit No. 1 in the UK. This single received three GRAMMY nominations as well as her first — and only — golden gramophone for Best Alternative Music Performance. Famously, O'Connor did not attend the ceremony to accept the award, and instead penned an open letter detailing her reasoning.
"Black Boys on Mopeds" (1990)
From its opening lines, O’Connor wastes no time telling listeners what the song is about.
Referencing the Chinese government’s handling of the student protests that occurred in Tiananmen Square the previous year, the singer lashes out at Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government for its brutality, singing in reference to police racism on the homefront: "it’s strange she should be offended when the same orders are given by her."
Backed by the simple strums of an acoustic guitar, O’Connor's biting chorus further reveals this inherent hypocrisy: "England’s not the mythical land of Madame George & roses, it’s the home of police who kill Black boys on mopeds."
"No Man’s Woman" (2000)
From her 2000 release Faith & Courage, this anthem with a bouncy beat was inspired by the birth of O’Connor’s daughter. After more than a dozen years working in a male-dominated record industry — and after being blackballed and ostracized by many throughout the late 1990s following her "SNL" stunt — O’Connor returned with this empowering song that shows both her feminist and spiritual side.
Photo: Robin Platzer/IMAGES/Getty Images
GRAMMY Rewind: Whitney Houston Admires Dolly Parton After "I Will Always Love You" Wins In 1994
Whitney Houston had the chance to thank Dolly Parton — who wrote "I Will Always Love You" — for "writing beautiful songs" during her acceptance speech for Best Pop Female Vocal Performance.
Nearly 50 years after its initial release, Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" has been covered by thousands of musicians. But no other rendition compares to Whitney Houston's iconic 1992 cover for the Bodyguard soundtrack — and in 1994, the two shared a full-circle celebration of the song's massive success.
In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, relive Houston's Best Female Pop Vocal Performance win for her version of "I Will Always Love You" at the 1994 GRAMMY Awards.
"Dolly, of course, coming from you, this is truly an honor. You wrote a beautiful song. Thank you so much for writing such beautiful songs," Houston said to Parton, who presented the award and originally released the recording (which she wrote herself) in 1974.
Houston praised Rickey Minor, her band, and David Foster, who helped Houston arrange the ballad. "All the songwriters and producers on The Bodyguard, BeBe [Winans], I love you," she added before performing an impromptu song to thank her team members at Arista Records.
"I love you, Mommy and Daddy — I wouldn't be here without you. And always first in my life, I thank my Father, Jesus Christ. Without them, I am nothing," Houston said. Before leaving the stage, Houston took a second to uplift her supporters. "To all the fans, I love you! Thank you, and God bless you!"
"I Will Always Love You" also took home Record Of The Year that night, and The Bodyguard won Album Of The Year — one of only four soundtracks to date to win the coveted award.
Press play on the video above to watch Whitney Houston accept her award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 36th Annual GRAMMY Awards, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.
Photo: Mason Rose
5 Takeaways From Janelle Monáe’s New Album, 'The Age of Pleasure'
On her first album in five years, Janelle Monáe trades a sci-fi world for a lush sense of escape. Out June 9, 'The Age of Pleasure' offers a utopia of sensual and sonic exploration.
Since her 2010 debut album, The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monáe’s work has been grounded in intricacy.
Whether Monáe is building sci-fi worlds, continuing the Afrofuturism narrative of her Cindi Mayweather character or analyzing the concept of American identity on 2019’s Dirty Computer — which scored a nomination for Album Of The Year at the 2019 GRAMMYs — she tasks listeners with digesting various storylines and concepts.
Now, Monáe is shaking off all expectations with her fourth studio album, The Age of Pleasure. Released on June 9, the 14-track album takes a more streamlined approach, creating an escape in just over 30 minutes. The artist appears lighter, even more self-assured and quite frankly (as seen with her near-nude promo campaign) ready to get wild.
The Age of Pleasure is Monáe's first album in five years and trades in her previous warnings of AI-driven dystopian futures for a lush paradise, replete with a reggae swing. With warm melodies and lyrics meant for the bedroom (or wherever one enjoys pleasure), the album creates a utopia where all are welcome.
"I think being an artist gets lonely," Monáe told Rolling Stone in May. "Most people don’t understand what’s going on in my brain. Community has been so helpful to me; it’s beautiful that I have a title called The Age of Pleasure because it actually re-centers me. It’s not about an album anymore. I’ve changed my whole f—ing lifestyle."
Throughout its journey of self-exploration, here are five takeaways from Janelle Monáe’s new album, The Age of Pleasure.
Janelle Embraces Sexuality Across The Spectrum
In 2018, Monáe shared that she was pansexual and came out as nonbinary last year (using the pronouns "free-ass motherf—er, they/them, her/she"). Her journey of discovering more about her queer identity (which was alluded to in previous albums, most notably Dirty Computer’s woman empowerment anthem "Pynk") envelopes The Age of Pleasure.
"Lipstick Lover" is a hazy, reggae-tinged ode to the queer woman gaze ("I just wanna feel a little tongue, we don't have a long time," Monáe urges), while "The Rush" mimics an orgasm complete with a breathy spoken word by actress Nia Long and a naughty verse from Ghanaian American singer Amaarae. And then there’s "Water Slide," which floods the speakers with barely-concealed innuendos.
The idea of "guilty pleasure" is completely stripped of guilt. Here, there isn’t shame or taboo surrounding sexual acts or what one identifies as.
She Showcases The Beauty Of The Diaspora
While creating this album, Monáe got inspired through parties hosted on her Wondaland West property in Los Angeles. People from all backgrounds were welcomed, and the album celebrates the joining of the communities. Monáe called upon artists across the diaspora — Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica and the Dirty South — to be part of her utopia.
Fela Kuti’s son Seun and his band Egypt 80 open the album on "Float," queer icon Grace Jones seduces the ear with the French-speaking "Ooh La La" interlude, Jamaican dancehall legend Sister Nancy provides reggae authenticity "The French 75." The end result shows there is power in creative numbers, as well as sonic commonality across the African diaspora.
Self-Confidence Is At An All-Time High
The artist is completely free lately, from displaying her breasts on red carpets to dancing on bar tops at afterparties. She adores every curve of her body, and that confidence radiates on The Age of Pleasure. It’s best displayed on "Phenomenal," where Monáe and rapper Doechii trade cocky lines atop a deliciously wacky beat that fuses South African amapiano with New York City ballroom culture. "I'm lookin' at a thousand versions of myself and we're all fine as f—," Monáe muses more than once.
She doesn’t want you to forget just how good she looks and wants everyone to feel that same way about themselves. The "I'm young and I'm Black and I'm wild" line on "Haute" is better digested as an affirmation in front of the mirror.
Pleasure Is Meant For Fun In The Sun
Pleasure is best enjoyed in the sweltering heat, so it only makes sense the artist released this album at the brink of summertime. Her "Lipstick Lover" music video is a hedonistic dream, with queer women and femmes enjoying each other’s company (and body parts) at a sweaty, West Coast pool party.
Album highlight "Only Have Eyes 42" winks at polyamory and its dreamy flip on the Flamingos’ 1959 doo-wop classic is best served with a Red Stripe beer and sand beneath one’s feet. Whether you’re enjoying the lapping waves on a Caribbean island or soaking up the rays in your backyard, The Age of Pleasure is the fuel for your own fiesta.
She Hasn’t Lost The Funk
As the late Prince’s mentee, Janelle Monáe is a master at funk. While she boasts "No I’m not the same" on the album opener, parts of Monáe’s previous sound excitedly peek through.
Her discography is stuffed with dancefloor jams, and The Age of Pleasure keeps the party going with a seamless fusion of rap, R&B and funk. Still, its exploration of new sounds like reggae, dancehall, amapiano and Afrobeats is a thrill.
From the triumphant horns on "Float" to the electric groove of "Champagne S—", the album is begging for a live rendition. It just so happens that Monáe is embarking on a North American tour. It kicks off on Aug. 30 in Seattle and will keep the good vibes going until Oct. 18 in Inglewood, California.