"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.
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."