While the fight against institutionalized racism and systemic oppression is very much ongoing, it is important to commemorate those who shaped our history. There is a fine line between cultural and political change. Music is often entwined with collective fights for social justice, marking the movements with timeless hymns.
“The revolution will not be televised” recites Gill-Scott Heron in 1971, warning that change cannot be seen on our TV screen, it first must occur in our mind. But perhaps can it be heard? Much like an echo chamber, music can encapsulate in perfectly placed harmonies, the various sounds of insurgence against current climes. Despite being recorded in 1971, Gill Scott-Heron’s powerful album “Pieces of a Man” is no more a legacy of the past than it is a reverberation of our present times. To this day, it still resonates.
Polymorph by nature, music has accompanied cultural and political changes for centuries. One of the first protest songs to have become a widely known rallying cry in the U.S, was the spirituals “Sampson” and “Come Along Moses”: the latter was based on the Old Testament stories about enslaved Israelites in Egypt. Stemming from African oral traditions, spirituals became protest songs against slavery, emblems of freedom and solidarity.
In her biography, Harriet Tubman was described singing spirituals such as “Go Down Moses” and “Wade in the Water” as signal songs and secret codes while helping hundreds of slaves to escape via the Underground railroad. Sacred music has indeed been rooted in American culture and a powerful means to trace back history through storytelling. A version of “Bound for the Promised Land” sang by the Choctaw people, was a fictitious depiction of native Americans who provided havens to runaway slaves. Within a continuum of social injustices to combat, the 20th century birthed vibrant movements that synchronized their tones and melodies to the aspirations of the time. Some of them became cultural identities.
In gospel music, “I’ll overcome one day” by Charles Tindley, later became “We shall overcome”, an anthem for the civil rights movement. After the WWII, “bebop” musicians with the likes of Thelonious Monk, juggled through polyrhythms and significant saxophone feats as a remarkable creative response to major shifts and tensions that afflicted the Black community. From blues to jazz to soul music, the rich cultural landscape saw the rise of key figures such as James Brown with “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” and The Last Poets with “When the revolution comes”, that gave a new dimension to black empowerment.
It would be inconceivable to mention the vestiges of soul music without taking a moment to ponder upon the legacy that Nina Simone left behind her. The legendary performer and civil rights activist infused the music with the movement. “Mississippi Goddam” for example, was a direct reaction to the Birmingham Church bombing that killed four African American girls. Her vast musical catalog is a timeless resource for ethical prowess and a staunch advocacy for black love and empowerment. Artists like Simone, Gill Scott-Heron and so many more cemented music as a powerful vehicle of civil rights activism.
The Hip-Hop forefathers such as Gill Scott-Heron, or the Last Poets gave a second wind to celebratory and protest songs, creating the blueprint for a new genre framed in its current social circumstances. In the 70s, the Harlem based group performed vitriolic commentaries laced with immense wisdom and backed with an enchanting fusion of reggae, dub, jazz, and African percussion. “Understand what black is” is a timeless ode to blackness and humanity that penetrated the consciousness of generations to come. Their tracks were sampled by Biggie, NWA, A Tribe called Quest, and many more, keeping the legacy alive.
“Black is humanity Making hope stand tall and not wilt Because Black knows Did it before Tested by fire Washed in the waters of life”
Themes of police brutality, crime, drugs, black power, and liberation punctuated the flow of the 80s and 90s with anthems akin to “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. Storytelling embraced another meaning with Nas’ emblematic album “Illmatic”, holding a mirror to the inner-city youth and culture. His sharp delivery and acute depiction of New York percolated the streets of so many and rose beyond limits.
Whether it is about race, class or gender, music does not shy away from controversy. On the contrary, not only does it speak volume to the masses, but it also taps into our collective rage at times where racial tensions are heightened, and fundamental rights are threatened. As Yassin Bey’s UMI once said “shine a light on your world / shine a light for the world to see”. In tune with the world and their times, artists made history out of history.
In the light of recent events, we wanted to highlight a few songs that may have gone under the radar but have nonetheless captured searing images of our current society.
Starting with “It ain’t fair” - The Roots Ft Bilal:
The music truly speaks for itself, delivering a plethora of memorable and timeless quotes such as the following “Justice is never color blind, never gun shine / For one crime, you may never see the sunshine”.
War - King Los:
In his first single off “God, Money,War”, King Los paints with one stroke brush vivid imageries of social topics and conflicts.
“Basquiat” - Jamila Woods Ft Saba:
“Legacy! Legacy!”, an album documenting historical moments of black empowerment. Each song is named after a staple figure and tells their story from their point of view, much like "self-portraits". Basquiat, "the radiant child" was often asked in interviews "what makes you angry?”, an invasive question implying that he should suppress his anger.
Song 33 - Noname:
In what seems to be simultaneously a whetted retort to J Cole’s bruised ego and a response to the recent events, this time, Noname sharpens her pen again to galvanise the crowds for what matters: black lives. She pays homage to Oluwatoyin Salau, George Floyd, and the many victims of patriarchy and institutionalized racism.
Lockdown - Anderson Paak:
Released on Juneteenth, Anderson Paak crystallizes the complex emotions that were born out of the current climate. From a pandemic to police violence, “Lockdown” addresses the world state of mind in a poignant protest song.
A playlist is available for more audible moments of resistance.