Black History Month

Black History Month

Black History Month

UNSPECIFIED - OCTOBER 18, 1964: American pianist and jazz singer Nina Simone performs October 18, 1964 in an unidentifed location. Simone, whose deep, raspy voice made her a unique jazz figure and later helped chronicle the civil rights movement, died in her sleep on April 21, 2003 of natural causes after a long illness. She was 70.

A large part of protests and celebrating Black pride is through music. These artists such as Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, N.W.A., and others have honored and highlighted the overcomings of Black Americans through their words and have a special place in Black history.

Take a look at 10 songs that honor Black pride and protest:

  • 1. 'Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing' — John & James Johnson, 1900

    “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was originally written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson. James Johnson later became a leader within the NAACP which adopted the poem as its official song. 

  • 2. 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' — Unknown

    “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was amongst some of the spirituals that were used as a coded communication amongst enslaved people. The melody to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was used as a warning in the antebellum South for slaves to know that it was time to escape. The song was reportedly one of Harriet Tubman’s favorites. 

  • 3. 'Strange Fruit' — Billie Holiday, 1939

    Like “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” “Strange Fruit” also originated as a poem. It was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher and civil rights activist from the Bronx. The eerie lyrics never specifically mention lynching but the metaphors reference the horrible occurrences that happened in the South.

  • 4. 'A Change Is Gonna Come' — Sam Cooke, 1964

    Two incidents created the monumental hit “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Sam Cooke took inspiration from the song from a racist incident that barred him from getting into a Lousinna hotel and off of the premise that a white artist Bob Dylan made an anthem (“Blowin”) on race in America but he had not. He then wrote and recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1964. Unfortunately, the singer was only able to perform the song once and it was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, as he was killed at an L.A. motel later that year.

  • 5. 'Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud' — James Brown, 1968

    Shortly following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, four months later James Brown released “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” In this song, Brown helped remove the stigma of Black Americans referring to themselves as “Black” since it was commonly used as an insult. The song provided a sense of pride within the community.

  • 6. 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' — Gil Scott-Heron, 1971

    In 1970 Gil Scott-Heron released Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. The first track off of the album was “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” speaking on how Black Americans began taking to the streets to demonstrate the inequality and racial bias that white Americans couldn’t help but acknowledge despite distractions found on television. On the album, Scott-Heron spoke his poetry over drums which is considered to be one of the beginning stages of hip-hop.

  • 7. 'What’s Going On?' — Marvin Gaye, 1971

    ‘What’s Going On?” is a response from the legendary singer Marvin Gaye to police violence against Vietnam War protesters. In the song, Gaye keeps his notable soulful tone as he advocates for peaceful protests. Although, not as radical as some of the songs released about Black liberation, Motown was still reluctant in releasing the song. After being given an ultimatum by Gaye who told them if they were not going to release the song he would never record with them again, the label released the song and it ended up being a hit. 

  • 8. 'F--- tha Police' — N.W.A., 1988

    The Compton rap group N.W.A. which was comprised of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella pioneered “gangsta rap” and did not hold back on expressing the truth about the relationship between the LAPD and the Black community. “F— tha Police” was released as part of their debut album Straight Outta Compton. In the song, the rappers detail the racial bias which resulted in racial profiling and police brutality. The album cover was the first to carry a “Parental Advisory” label warning due to the nature of “F—Tha Police” claiming that the lyrics encouraged violence against law enforcement. 

  • 9. 'Fight the Power' — Public Enemy, 1989

    The title “Fight the Power” was inspired by a 1975 song of the same name by the Isley Brothers. For Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the famed director enlisted Public Enemy to make an original song for the film and originally suggested a take on “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” but Chuck D and Flavor Fav had another idea. Chuck D wrote the lyrics being inspired by the works of Bob Marley and James Brown. In “Fight the Power” Public Enemy also calls out white American celebrities like Elvis Presley for stealing traditional black musical elements in his rise as a rock icon and John Wayne who was known for racist remarks in part once saying he believed in white supremacy until “blacks” were properly educated in a Playboy interview back in 1971. The song as does the film speaks on tense race relations between characters in the movie.

  • 10. 'Mississippi Goddam' - Nina Simone, 1964

    Following the death of four young girls in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963, Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” out of her hurt and frustration over the incident. The song illustrates how Black Americans felt at the time over the senseless racially motivated murders. Many banned the song after it was released but furthermore the song was used in countless protests and demonstrations over the years.

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