As we wrap up Black History Month, check out this dynamic “Black Power and Protest” playlist in order to jam, bop, and be reminded to fight for justice year-round. 

  1. “We Shall Overcome”

Starting as a spiritual sung in fields during slavery, “‘l’ll Overcome Someday,” evolved over the years as a church hymn (1901) and then the Civil Rights rallying song “We Shall Overcome.” With a catchy tune and simple, meaningful verses, such as “We are not afraid,” and “We’ll walk hand in hand,” for centuries the song has served as a message that justice and equity can and will be achieved. 

  1. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1900), James Weldon Johnson

At the dawn of the 20th century, James Weldon Johnson decided to write the lyrics and have his brother J. Rosemond Johnson create the tune to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” for a celebration commemorating President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in Florida.  More than 100 years later, the tune serves as the Black National anthem, and plays an integral role in the continued reminder to “march on, til victory is won.”

  1. “Strange Fruit” (1939), Billie Holiday

In only a way her uniquely gut wrenchingly, beautiful voice could deliver, 23-year-old Billie Holiday debuted the chilling lyrics of “Strange Fruit,” at a New York City nightclub in 1939: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black body swinging in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” While the song was well received in some crowds, she was prevented from singing it at other venues throughout the U.S., and the tune, in addition to her drug use, made her a target for the highly racist law enforcement.  Despite the mixed reception, “Strange Fruit” was one of the crooner’s most famous hits, which she performed worldwide for two decades until her passing.  

  1. “Mississippi Goddam” (1964), Nina Simone

Banned in several Southern states, Nina Simone’s civil rights anthem is in response to tragic injustices such as the murders of Emmett Till (1955) and Medgar Evers (1966) in Mississippi and other racist incidents throughout the South. “Alabama’s gotten me so upset. Tennessee made me lose my rest. And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” the lyrics boldly decry.

  1. “A Change is Gonna Come” 1964, Sam Cooke

When Sam Cooke declared in that high-pitch, long-voweled, gorgeous way that he was, “booorrrn by the river, in a little tent. And oh like that river,” he’s been “running ever since,” audiences immediately resonated with his message: the constant fight that is the Black experience. While the star and activist discussed the trials of Black existence through his famous tune, he also offered hope: “It’s been a long time coming, but I know, change ‘gon come.”

  1. “Say It Loud- I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968), James Brown

The King of Funk begins this late 1960s tune saying, “Uh, with your bad self, say it loud: ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud,’’ kicking off the Black is Beautiful movement.  Not only a reminder of the beauty in Blackness, the hit also became known as the unofficial song of Black Power.

  1. “Ball of Confusion” (1970), The Temptations

While The Temptations were known for their smooth sways from side to side, this Black Power anthem is more of a fist up kind of track, as the first verse begins: “People moving out, people moving in, (Why?) Because of the color of their skin. Run, run, run, but you sure can’t hide.” Having already won audiences over with crossover tracks such as “My Girl,” this 1970 anthem came at an integral time of change for both the United States and the ever evolving group.

  1. “What’s Going On” (1971), Marvin Gaye

“Picket lines (sister) and picket signs (sister). Don’t punish me (sister) with brutality,” Marvin Gaye sang on the tune, which also served as his album title in 1971.The concept of the album was to speak from the perspective of a Vietnam War veteran returning to witness and grapple with the racial and social unrest in the U.S.

  1. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1971), Gil Scott-Heron

Inspired by a popular Black Power slogan of the 1960s and in response to “When the Revolution Comes,” by the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron’s poem turned song is a call to active participation in fighting for justice, starting with the lines: “You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip out for beer during commercials, because the revolution will not be televised.”

  1. “Get Up Stand Up” (1973), The Wailers 

While this song was actually the way Jamaican reggae stars Bob Marley and Peter Tosh processed witnessing poverty and racism worldwide, the song screams action and Black Power in its first few lines, “Get up, stand up. Stand up for your right. Get up, stand up. Don’t give up the fight.” 

  1. Happy Birthday (1980), Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder originally wrote the homage to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in frustration that some folks were against making his birthday a federal holiday. The singer used his star-power and the catchy tune as a way to honor King’s life and convince others he was worthy of the nationwide celebration, leading to President Ronald Reagan approving the official holiday in 1983. While the song is meant to celebrate King, it has become the unofficial “Black birthday song.”

  1. “Fight the Power” (1989), Public Enemy

When Spike Lee went to Public Enemy to record a song for his film “Do the Right Thing,” the hip hop group created an anthem and call-to-action to speak out against the abuse of power and systemic racism. “Our freedom of speech is freedom or death. We got to fight the powers that be. Lemme hear you say, ‘fight the power,” the group boldly pronounced in their song, which also pays homage to the Isley Brothers 1975 tune by the same name.

  1. “Glory”  (2015), Common and John Legend

While the two teamed up for the soundtrack of the film “Selma,” which chronicles the famous 1965 voting rights marches in Alabama,  Common and John Legend created a song that captures the tone of the trials African Americans have fought for centuries and continue to face today.  Combining rap and soulful R&B, the highly lauded song has won several awards including a Golden Globe for “Best Original Song” and Grammy for “Best Song Written for Visual Media.” 

  1. “Alright” (2015), Kendrick Lamar

In the first seven words of the track, Kendrick Lamar pays homage to one of the most quotable lines from “The Color Purple,” that also explains the Black American plight:  “All(s) my life I had to fight.” In an uplifting reminder with a beat that’s a true bop, the rapper reminds Black Americans that through all the challenges, “we gon be alright.”

  1. “Freedom” (2016), Beyoncé featuring Kendrick Lamar

Appearing on Beyoncé’s Black Girl Magic clapback and artistic masterpiece that is “Lemonade,” “Freedom” is one of the justice inspired songs on an album that is in response to infidelity, social constructs and racism. In the tune that meshes pop, R&B, rock and rap, the barrier-breaking superstar declares, “I break chains all by myself, Won’t let my freedom rot in hell. Hey! I’ma keep running, ‘cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.”

Micha Green

WI Managing Editor Micha Green is a storyteller and actress from Washington, D.C. Micha received a Bachelor’s of Arts from Fordham University, where she majored in Theatre, and a Master’s of Journalism...

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