Freedom For My Body, Freedom For My Mind: The 'Panther' Theme Song Turns 25


Freedom For My Body, Freedom For My Mind: The 'Panther' Theme Song Turns 25

As protests surge around the world following the police killings of George Floyd and numerous other Black Americans, "Freedom" feels designed to anchor the social revolution of 2020

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 08:27 pm

"We will not bow down to racism," Vanessa Williams sings in a warm gospel a cappella, answered by SWV's soothing melisma and three-part harmonies: "We will not bow down to injustice."

That's the intro to "Freedom," a mega-collaboration featuring over 60 Black women from R&B, rap and pop. 25 years later, it feels more like a national anthem for those fighting institutional racism and incalculable injustice: As protests surge around the world following the police killings of George Floyd and numerous other Black Americans, "Freedom" feels designed to anchor the social revolution of 2020.

The message was just as evergreen in 1995, when Mercury Records released the soundtrack to director Mario Van Peebles' Panther, which adapted his father Melvin's novel about the revolutionary Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The album's executive producer, Ed Eckstein, recruited a massive pool of talent, including individual songs from artists like jazz-fusion bassist Stanley Clarke and Teddy Riley's R&B/new jack swing act Blackstreet; a duet between Usher and Monica; and a massive hip-hop team-up between, among others, the Notorious B.I.G., Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Busta Rhymes, Coolio, Redman and Digable Planets.

But as Eckstein recounted to Zora, he also craved a "flagship song" for the movie, using Black Men United's "You Will Know" as a model of inspiration.

That track—featured in the erotic drama Jason's Lyric and penned by D'Angelo one year before his beloved debut LP, Brown Sugar—featured dozens of male rappers and R&B artists, including Snoop Dogg, Usher, Ice-T and Boyz II Men. The executive conceptualized a spin on that all-star model, using the voices of black women as a symbol for the Black Panthers' often unrecognized female core. But instead of commissioning new material, Mercury decided to revamp a recently issued song that perfectly fit that collective vision.

Joi, a versatile singer-songwriter best known as a member of the Atlanta-based Dungeon Family collective (Outkast, Goodie Mob), released the original "Freedom" on her semi-obscure debut LP, 1994's The Pendulum Vibe. That version is more raw and psychedelic, layering so much fuzz on her lead vocal that it frequently screeches like a stoner-metal guitar solo. For "Freedom" 2.0, producers Dallas Austin and Diamond D polished the mix but kept the words intact, only shifting the pronouns ("I" to "we," "me" to "us") to fit the broad cast of musicians they assembled in January 1995, immediately following that year's American Music Awards. 

The lineup is staggering—not only in its star power, but also in how deftly the production team (including vocal arranger Angie Stone) spliced together the timbres and textures of powerhouses like Williams, SWV, Mary J. Blige, TLC, Monica, En Vogue, Queen Latifah, Me'shell Ndegeocello, Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Eshe of Arrested Development and Lalah Hathaway. The updated "Freedom," still set to a crackling drum groove (and featuring a supremely funky bass cameo from Ndegeocello in the final minute), is full of blissful contrasts—just compare Aaliyah's soft sweetness with Brownstone's impassioned belting almost a minute later.

But the talent level never overshadows the lyrical themes. "Women played a major role in black resistance, from Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks to Angela Davis," read the CD liner notes, describing "Freedom" as a "tribute to the empowerment of women." The music video, filmed in a simple but powerful black and white format, highlighted the importance of that subject matter: The singers appear both solo in the vocal booth and together on massive choral risers, with images of civil rights leaders (including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and, naturally, the Black Panthers), protestors and police interspersed throughout. 

Perhaps its spirit of solidarity was too much for mainstream America to handle: "Freedom" was only a minor hit in its day, peaking at Number 10 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop chart. But its evergreen message is radiating in the present. "Still you continue to keep us oppressed," Karyn White quivers and growls on the song. "But no, we ain't goin' out like that."

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Fight The Power: 11 Powerful Protest Songs Advocating For Racial Justice

Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images


Fight The Power: 11 Powerful Protest Songs Advocating For Racial Justice

From Childish Gambino's "This Is America" to James Brown's "Say It Loud," these racial justice protest anthems demonstrate the ongoing—and still deeply relevant—sound of activism

GRAMMYs/Jun 19, 2020 - 08:00 pm

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.


"Fk 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.

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The Magic Of ESSENCE 25th Anniversary Celebration: "It's Like A Family Reunion Even Though You Don't Know Everybody Here"

Mary J. Blige

Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Images


The Magic Of ESSENCE 25th Anniversary Celebration: "It's Like A Family Reunion Even Though You Don't Know Everybody Here"

"Being able to celebrate black culture at this magnitude means everything because we've never had anything like this," MC Lyte said

GRAMMYs/Jul 9, 2019 - 04:57 am

New Orleans' Central Business District looked starkly different Monday morning as city locals hurried to work in ties and business attire. Gone were the crowds of people walking around in the heat of the southern city in their most fabulous summer outfits as R&B, hip-hop, soul and more took over the Big Easy's Superdome once again for ESSENCE Fest 25th anniversary

This year locals and those from far and wide came together to watch performances from iconic artists like Missy Elliott and Mary J. Blige and hitmakers like Pharrell Williams and Timbaland to emerging artists like Normani and H.E.R at the biggest festival celebration of black culture in the country that took place July 5–7. But the festival was more than just music, it was a space where conversations around food, politics, business and more.  

While the fest has happened in New Orleans since its inception, this year was different for great reason. The fest, born out of ESSENCE magazine aimed mostly to its black female readership, celebrated 25 years of brining different parts of black culture under one roof and the musical artists performing reflected on the milestone. MC Lyte, who curated one of the ESSENCE events that took over the venues all over the city, with women in hip-hop broke down why the fest means so much. 

"Being able to celebrate black culture at this magnitude means everything because we've never had anything like this. Growing up, we certainly didn;t at least in my era and even now to date. The ESSENCE Music Festival is truly one of a kind," she said. 

For some performers like New Orleans native  PJ Morton, the 25th anniversary was a very special moment as it brought him back full-circle.  

"I've been going to this festival since I was 14 years old and really changed my life as far as wanting to be a musician and seeing how it was presented, " he said. "When ESSENCE asked me to be a part [of the festival] again, I said 'I just don't want to play it again, I've played it before, let's do something special. Especially to kind of commemorate all these things, winning the GRAMMY award this year and me being able to come home. Part of winning that GRAMMY and writing those songs and making that album was me leaving L.A. and moving back home to new Orleans three years ago, so for me it was just a perfect full-circle moment to do a recording."

The singer made history during the night of his performance by recording a live album at the fest for the first time ever.

But he wasn't the only local with special ties to the fest. Rising star Normani, also a big easy native and first time performer at the fest, shared why the fest is so special to her.

"I'm grateful that I can finally be a part of it. For as long as I can remember growing up ESSENCE was ESSENCE and it's just really coolfor me to be a prt of it. My grandmother, she came, my nanny came,  my uncles they came out too and it's beautiful for me to be able to really represent my city in such a way, she said."

The opportunity to talk and have conversations with other women in particular is what excites singer Mumu Fresh the most about the festival. "[Women] who are affirming you and just sharing their stories."

"It's like a family reunion even though you don't know everybody here.They've shared your experience and everyone's just loving and gorgeous, all day long I've been walking by strangers who have been like 'YES hair, YES shoes YES face' and I'm like 'Awww heeyy, you too.' It's really fun, it's really beautiful."

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Global Pride 2020 Announces Lineup Additions, Will Focus On Black Lives Matter: Todrick Hall, Adam Lambert, Kesha, Leann Rimes And More Confirmed

Attendees at 2019 Pride Parade in New York City


Photo: Erin Lefevre/NurPhoto via Getty Images


Global Pride 2020 Announces Lineup Additions, Will Focus On Black Lives Matter: Todrick Hall, Adam Lambert, Kesha, Leann Rimes And More Confirmed

Taking place June 27, the inaugural 24-hour online LGBTQ+ pride event will also feature speakers like former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Speaker Of The U.S. House Of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others

GRAMMYs/Jun 15, 2020 - 02:00 am

Global Pride, a newly launched worldwide 24-hour online LGBTQ+ pride event, has announced additional speakers, performers and guests for its forthcoming inaugural celebration, which takes place June 27. 

Newly added artists include Adam Lambert, Kesha, Natasha Bedingfield, Leann Rimes, Pussy Riot, Village People, Mel C of Spice Girls, Calum Scott and Mary Lambert. They join previously announced artists like Pabllo Vittar, Ava Max, Olivia Newton-John, Deborah Cox and several others. 

The event will also include newly announced speakers like former U.S. Vice President and current Presidential Democratic candidate Joe Biden, Speaker Of The U.S. House Of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Pussycat Dolls, Rita Ora, Bebe Rexha and others from the worlds of music, entertainment, advocacy and politics.

Singer, songwriter, actor and director Todrick Hall will host. 

According to a press release announcing the news, the event will "amplify black voices" and will center on the Black Lives Matters movement; Global Pride organizers are working in conjunction with the organization's founders for the event.

"As a Black woman in the LGBTQIA+ community, I feel we must confront the systemic racism and violence facing my Black brothers, sisters and non-binary siblings, in the larger culture and within the LGBTQIA+ community. I could not think of a larger platform than Global Pride to do this," Natalie Thompson, co-chair of the Global Pride organizing committee, said in a statement. 

“I am proud to work beside so many diverse colleagues from around the world," she continued. "Our community knows well that we must confront hate and prejudice head-on. We have been watching an epidemic of violence against trans people of color – mostly women – in the past decade and this larger discussion must be inclusive and all encompassing. All Black Lives Matter.”

Billed as the "world’s biggest ever LGBTI+ Pride event," per the event's website, Global Pride is a 24-hour livestreamed event comprising music, performances, speeches and messages of support. The event will be available to watch on host Todrick Hall's YouTube channel, iHeartRadio’s YouTube channel and on the Global Pride website.

Produced by Pride organizations from around the world, including InterPride and the European Pride Organisers Association, two of the world’s biggest international Pride networks, Global Pride 2020 was launched in response to the more than 500 Pride events that were cancelled or postponed worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Beyoncé: Justice For Breonna Taylor Would Demonstrate The Value Of A Black Woman's Life


Photo: Lester Cohen/Getty Images for NARAS


Beyoncé: Justice For Breonna Taylor Would Demonstrate The Value Of A Black Woman's Life

In an open letter, the global pop star lists the ways political justice can be made for the 26-year-old essential worker killed by police in March

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 04:32 am

In an open letterBeyoncé has listed three ways that can lead to justice for Breonna Taylor, a black woman killed by police in March. Doing so, she writes, would "demonstrate the value of a Black woman's life." 

On March 13, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, an EMT, was shot to death in Louisville, Ky. after cops crashed into her apartment with a no-knock warrant. The controversial search warrant allows police to enter a premise without giving warning or reasoning and so three officers raided the apartment without notice a little after midnight. According to reports, the police came to the apartment in connection with an investigation of two men they believe were selling drugs. Police believed one of the men had received packages at Taylor's apartment. Taylor died during a confrontation between her boyfriend and the police that night. 

The letter to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, published on her website, states criminally charging the three officers executing the warrant would be the first step towards justice. She adds that transparency in the investigation and prosecution of the officers, as well as an investigation into the response of the Louisville Metro Police Department in relation to the death of Taylor and the practices that have led to the deaths of unarmed Black people were also important steps to take in the process.

Taylor's death, which has increasingly gained attention since George Floyd's death, brought the Louisville Metro Council to unanimously pass the ban of no-knock warrants. The law was named in honor of Taylor. But Beyoncé believes more can be done and urged the Attorney General to criminally charge the officers, who are currently on administrative reassignment pending investigation, the Louisville Courier Journal reports. 

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Beyond urging for justice, Beyoncé's letter touched on a greater issue: the importance of the black women's lives taken by police. "Your office has both the power and the responsibility to bring Justice to Breonna Taylor, and demonstrate the value of a Black woman's life," she writes. 

Many argue the stories of Black women killed by police don't get enough attention, in the media and in politics. The #SayHerName campaign was created in late 2014 to bring more attention to Black women's deaths at the hands of police. As Brittney Cooper writes for Time, "Black women are rarely the first thought in our outrage over police shootings ... We keep missing the intersection of race and gender when it comes to Black women."

Read the full letter here

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