H.E.R - "I Can't Breathe" (2020)
H.E.R puts into words the anger, frustration, and pain felt after witnessing the death of George Floyd, yet another innocent, Black individual lost to the deep and systemic issue of police violence in our society. The track culminates in an unapologetic spoken word monologue speaking out against these wrongs. This track won Song of the Year at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards.
Romanticizing the theft and bloodshed
That made America the land of the free
To take a black life, land of the free
To bring a gun to a peaceful fight for civil rights
You are desensitized to pulling triggers on innocent lives
Blue Scholars - "Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant" (2011)
This track ties the invention of the camera by Oskar Barnack to the Oakland, CA police shooting of Oscar Grant III in 2009, for which direct evidence of the shooting was documented by video cameras held by passengers on the train idling next to the platform. This was one of the first times that the widespread use of cameras in mobile phones was used to record police actions. The shooting, and the protests against it, were an important precursor to the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in 2013.
Bad people mad justifyin' the abuse
And youth, especially the ones with darker features bein' targeted to boot
And true, some people can't handle the truth
Now keep that feelin' in mind when you pull that camera out and ask a pig to smile at you
Public Enemy - "State of the Union (STFU)" (2020)
Hip-hop legends Public Enemy reunited again with this political protest song. “An unflinching statement about the destruction the current [Trump] administration has unleashed on the country and its people, “State of the Union (STFU)” speaks truth to power while urging people to fight against racism, injustice and oppression with their vote,” the group said in a statement. The video mixes performance footage with video of protests and police brutality, including the killing of George Floyd.
Here's another scare, keep them hands in the air
Better not breathe, you dare not dare
Don't say nothing, don't think nothing
Make America great again the middle just love it
When he wanna talk, walk y'all straight to them ovens
Human beings of color, yeah we be sufferin' (come on)
Dave Hause - "Your Ghost" (ft. Amythyst Kiah and Kam Franklin) (2020)
Wrestling with the worth of releasing another song about someone else’s experience, Hause recalled post-gig conversations where fans spoke of his music changing their perspectives on racial justice and decided to release this poignant tribute to George Floyd which also serves as an urgent reminder to continue the fight against racism and police brutality. All proceeds from the song are going to the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund.
Oh, what a privilege to pretend that we can't see
The chain, the whip, the badge, the gun, and now the ever-pressing knee
The knee we hired to protect us
The same knee he used to pray
Leon Bridges - "Sweeter" (ft. Terrace Martin) (2021)
In this song, artists Leon Bridges and Terrace Martin weigh in on systemic racism in America. According to a press release, the song was recorded for an upcoming album but was released ahead of schedule in response to George Floyd's murder. In the same press release, Bridges stated that "From adolescence we are taught how to conduct ourselves when we encounter police to avoid the consequences of being racially profiled. I have been numb for too long, calloused when it came to the issues of police brutality."
Hoping for a life more sweeter
Instead I'm just a story repeating
Why do I fear with skin dark as night?
Can't feel peace with those judging eyes
James Brown - "Say It Loud" (1968)
This song, written with Brown's bandleader Alfred Ellis, was released in August 1968, several months after the assassination of Dr. King. Being proud to be Black was still practically a taboo concept in commercial media, but James Brown decided to say it loud in this song. "Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud," became an affirmation recited far and wide, and is one of the songs most popularly associated with the Black Is Beautiful movement.
You know, we are people, too
We like the birds and the bees
But we'd rather die on our feet
Than keep living on our knees
Say it loud (I'm Black and I'm proud)
Marvin Gaye - "What's Going On" (1971)
This song was based on Gaye's experience of his brother returning from Vietnam, a time when Black soldiers were not receiving the same (also limited) benefits as their white GI counterparts, along with domestic issues like the Kent State shootings that saw four students killed by national guardsmen. Gaye's disappointment isn't just societal, it's personal.
Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
Oh, what's going on
2Pac - "Changes" (ft. Talent) (1998)
2Pac was both artist and activist. Songs like "Changes" directly confront racism faced by the Black community (explicitly pushing for reconciliation between Black and white America), also referencing the war on drugs, police brutality, and the perpetuation of poverty and its accompanying vicious-cycle value system in urban African American culture.
I got love for my brother
But we can never go nowhere unless we share with each other
We gotta start makin' changes
Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers
And that's how it's supposed to be
Lauryn Hill - "Black Rage" (2014)
This song remixes "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music, rededicated after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri. The track has continued to be relevant as the fight for black rights has moved more and more into the public stage in the 2010s and here in 2020s. The song voices the unrest and anger coming from the African-American community which is expressed directly by the name “Black Rage.”
Black rage is founded on draining and draining
Threatening your freedom to stop your complaining
Poisoning your water while they say its raining
Then call you mad for complaining, complaining
Nina Simone - "Mississippi Goddam" (1964)
First released on Nina Simone in Concert, recorded during her Carnegie Hall run from earlier that year. She wrote the song in an hour, out of anger and in response to the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi on June 12, 1963, as well as the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963. It remains today one of her most famous, as well as one of her first protest songs.
School boy cots
They try to say it's a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister my brother my people and me
The Spirituals - "(Something Inside) So Strong" (originally 1987)
This song was originally written and recorded by British singer-songwriter Labi Siffre, released in 1987. The song was inspired by the atrocities of South African Apartheid, but has resonated with audiences as an anthem of perseverance in the face of adversity across the world since. This cover was recorded by The Spirituals (ft. Annatoria & Ché Kirah) as part of their Black History Project EP.
They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger,
A warrior, more than a survivor, you can thrive,
Transformed by adversity you face,
Every challenge on your way, strand strong, you can overcome
Common and John Legend - "Glory" (2014)
This Oscar-winning song was written for the motion picture soundtrack to Selma, directed by Ava Duvernay, a film based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches initiated and directed by James Bevel and led by Martin Luther King Jr., Hosea Williams, and John Lewis. Two years after the death of Trayvon Martin, the song was a perfect bridge from the Civil Rights movement of the '60s depicted in the film into today's current fight for equality.
Now we right the wrongs in history
No one can win the war individually
It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people's energy
Welcome to the story we call victory