Perhaps there has been no greater cultural export from
African-American culture than its music. If, as Chuck D once announced,
rap is black America’s CNN, then music overall has served as a rallying
cry against injustice and fueled black America’s soundtrack for change.
In honor of Black Music History Month, here are 25 songs that speak to
music’s ability to evoke thought, dialogue and action.
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” - Nina Simone
versions by Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin are more well-known,
Nina Simone originated this song, which became popular during the
ongoing civil rights struggle, in 1970 as a tribute to her friend
“We Shall Overcome”
from the refrain of the gospel song “I’ll Overcome Someday” (1900) from
Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley, the song “We Shall Overcome,” which
was adapted at the Highlander Folk School in 1946, an important training
ground for many civil rights leaders, is a key Civil Rights Movement
anthem that was sung during many key protests.
“Fight the Power” - Public Enemy
Released on the Do the Right Thing soundtrack
in 1989, this song was a wake-up call to many in the hip-hop generation
to rally against abuse of power. Taking sampling to new heights, “Fight
the Power” serves as an aural tapestry of African-American culture as
well as a tribute to the African-American tradition of freedom fighting
and rallying cry.
“Self-Destruction” - The Stop the Violence Movement
by KRS-One in response to escalating gun violence in the black
community, which included the death of his friend Scott La Rock, this
1989 powerhouse recording brought together hip-hop superstars such as
Public Enemy and MC Lyte to raise awareness and spur action to end the
“Wake Up Everybody” - Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
1975 hit, featuring Teddy Pendergrass on lead vocals, is full of
socially conscious lyrics that, as evidenced by John Legend’s acclaimed
2010 cover, continue to resonate today. In addition, the song is easily
among the best offerings from legendary producers Kenny Gamble and Leon
“Go Down Moses” Often sung in tribute to
Harriet Tubman, who was called the “Moses of her people,” this enduring
Negro spiritual, recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and frequently
performed by Paul Robeson, is known as an Underground Railroad anthem.
Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” - James Brown
months after Dr. King’s assassination, this song is one of James
Brown’s crowning achievements and is credited as the anthem for “black
pride”. Released at a time when Negro was still the predominant term,
this song helped a nation embrace the term “black” as well as natural
hairstyles and Afrocentric clothing.
“F**k Tha Police” - NWA
interpreted by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies as an
anti-police song, this 1988 NWA classic continues to speak to the police
brutality many people of color regularly experience. Subsequent
incidents such as the Rodney King beating and racial profiling continue
to attest to the truth illustrated in the song.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe
music from “John Brown’s Body,” a popular song about the well-known
abolitionist, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published by the
“Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments,” was a popular
marching song for the U.S. Colored Troops. Dr. King even recited a line
from the song during the last sermon before his assassination
“Keep on Pushing” - The Impressions
title song of a 1964 album, this track, written by Curtis Mayfield
(pictured), who also sang lead, was the first of many that was embraced
by Dr. King and many others who worked tirelessly for justice and
equality. Follow-ups include “People Get Ready” and “Move on Up”.
“We Are the World” - USA for Africa
the greatest celebrity charity song ever done, more than 40 stars
Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and produced by Quincy
Jones and Michael Omartian, 1985 classic is arguably the greatest
celebrity, charity song ever done. More than 40 stars, including Stevie
Wonder, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Harry Belafonte and Diana Ross,
recorded the song which helped
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” - James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson
written as a poem by civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson to
honor a school visit by Booker T. Washington (pictured), “Lift Every
Voice and Sing,” set to music with the assistance of his brother John
Rosamond Johnson in 1905, quickly became the “Negro National Anthem.”
The song’s enduring legacy is its hope for the future
“The Star-Spangled Banner”
African-Americans like Marvin Gaye and Whitney Houston have performed
the national anthem well, it’s generated pride in all Americans. Equally
important, bold action like that of 1968 Olympic medalists Tommie Smith
and John Carlos, who raised black gloved fists in protest as it played,
has brought much needed attention to injustice and inequality
Get Up, Stand Up” - Bob Marley & The Wailers
by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, “Get Up, Stand Up,” released in 1973, was
among The Wailers’ first international hits. A song of political
importance encouraging ordinary citizens to “get up, stand up, stand up
for your rights,” Marley frequently ended his concerts with this song,
which is reportedly the last song he performed live on stage before his
death in 1981
Happy Birthday” - Stevie Wonder
simplicity can compel a cause and this 1981 Stevie Wonder hit,
advocating for a national holiday commemorating Dr. King’s Birthday, is a
testament to that. In addition to rallying African-Americans around a
King Holiday, this version of “Happy Birthday” has supplanted all others
for most African-Americans.
“Man in the Mirror” - Michael Jackson
of Michael Jackson’s most introspective songs, this 1988 classic,
co-written by Siedah Garrett, didn’t just speak of social ills but
challenged the singer and those listening to “take a look in the mirror
and then make a change.” “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” - Gil Scott-Heron
the most well-known composition from Gil Scott-Heron, who passed on May
27, this spoken word classic, set largely to bongo drums and congas
when it was first recorded in 1970, has captivated and influenced
conscious hip-hop artists like Public Enemy’s Chuck D as well as become a
popular expression attesting that African-Americans will not find
freedom in American mass culture, among other realities.
“What’s Going On” - Marvin Gaye
one of Marvin Gaye’s greatest songs ever, “What’s Going On,” released
in 1971, was a huge departure from Motown’s decidedly apolitical stance.
Leaked over the objections of Berry Gordy, who found the song risky,
Gaye created an anthem that addressed the Vietnam War as well as police
brutality and other social ills at home
“Dear Mama” - Tupac Shakur
Tupac released this song in 1995, hip-hop had no bone fide mother
tribute songs. Paying homage to his mother Afeni Shakur, a Black Panther
and activist who raised him and his sister as a single mother amid her
own struggles with crack cocaine, “Dear Mama” also exposes the pressures
of young black men growing up in harsh, urban environments
“Let’s Talk About Sex” - Salt-N-Pepa
in 1991, this song, which dealt with sex head on, was a bold statement
from Salt-N-Pepa, especially since the controversial video introduced
talk of AIDS and HIV to many in the hip-hop generation. It was so
effective that “Let’s Talk About AIDS” also followed.
“A Change is Gonna Come” - Sam Cooke
and recorded in 1963 and released in 1964, this Civil Rights anthem has
proved to be a timeless classic against racism and injustice that long
outlived its creator. Inspired by the times as well as musicians who
used their art to promote positive social change, this song is
considered Cooke’s most enduring legacy.
“The Message” - Grandmaster & the Furious Five
“The Message,” released in 1982, hip-hop songs were largely party or
bra docio songs. This song not only exposed the conditions and
pressures of life in the “ghetto” but also included sociopolitical
commentary on such topics as unemployment, homelessness and drug use.
“Tennessee” - Arrested Development
its Southern-centered lyrics and evocation of Jim Crow and slavery,
“Tennessee,” a 1992 hit on both the R&B and rap charts, is
considered the first socially conscious Southern rap song that also
infused spirituality as well as embodied the popular axiom “to know your
past is to know your future
“Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” - McFadden and Whitehead
in 1979, this disco classic was intended as a tribute to African
American progress. It enjoyed a popular resurgence during Barack Obama’s
2008 presidential campaign when it was played the night he accepted the
Democratic Party’s nomination for president
This is a dope list. If you’ve never heard any of these please refer to youtube and be enlightened.
Less than a day after Michael Jackson’s death, the mayor of Rio
de Janeiro, Brazil, announced that the city would erect a statue of the
singer in Dona Marta, a favela that was once notorious for drug dealing
and is now a model for social development. The change was spurred partly
by Jackson’s 1996 visit to film the video for “They Don’t Care About
When Jackson came to Brazil to shoot the video, directed by
Spike Lee, Rio’s local government became concerned that the singer would
show the world an unflattering picture of poverty. At the time,
Brazilians, like people the world over, saw Jackson as an idol. He’d
been to the country twice before, once with the Jackson 5 in the ’70s
and again in 1993, when he played two concerts in São Paulo to 100,000
people each night.
At the time, the concert promoter Dodi Sirena recalls a
“sensitive” artist who asked for an amusement park to be reserved for
his use, then invited children from the poorest public schools. “He
displayed great concern for everything in the country, with poverty,
with street children,” Sirena says.
In that context, Jackson’s choice of locale for his video made
sense. “The video is about the people no one cares about,” says Claudia
Silva, press liaison for Rio’s office of tourism.
When Jackson shot the video in Rio, Silva was a journalist for
the daily newspaper O Globo, but Lee and his staff had banned
journalists from the shoot because Dona Marta drug dealers didn’t want
the attention. But Silva found a family that let her spend the night at
their home and saw the favela residents washing the streets to prepare
for Jackson’s arrival. “The people were so proud,” Silva says. “That was
the best thing for me. People got up early to clean the area, they
prepared for him, they took out the trash.”
Jackson arrived by helicopter but walked the streets of Dona
Marta shaking hands and distributing candy. “People were very surprised
in the end, because they were expecting an extraterrestrial guy,” Silva
says. “And he was—it sounds strange to say this—a normal guy.”
Jackson shot scenes in Salvador, alongside throngs of people,
accompanied by the Afro-Brazilian cultural group Olodum. In the video,
he can be seen dancing to the beat of hundreds of Olodum’s drummers and
with cheering fans who reach out to touch him—and at one point burst
through security and push him to the floor.
"This process to make Dona Marta better started with Michael
Jackson," Silva says. "Now it’s a safe favela. There are no drug dealers
anymore, and there’s a massive social project. But all the attention
started with Michael Jackson." —Leila Cobo
In the past we’ve commemorated Black History Month by celebrating the names of great figures in history and the civil rights struggle. This year we salute some of the notable thespians, some now forgotten, who have contributed so much to the cultural fabric of this country -- and of course paying particular attention to their distinctive names.
Nina Mae McKinney played the lead in the 1929 film Hallelujah, creating a sensation with her “Swanee Shuffle” dance. In Europe she was dubbed the “Black Garbo.” Nina is an appealing multi-cultural staple, with references as varied as a Spanish word name, an Incan goddess, a Chekhov character and jazz great Nina Simone.
Canada Lee is remembered for his passionate performance in Hitchcock’s classic, Lifeboat, in which he refused to speak in stereotypic black dialect. He was a vocal civil-rights activist who suffered from the Hollywood blacklist. His name at birth was LeonardLionelCornelius Vandgata, but stage name Canada makes an intriguing place-name possibility!
Ethel Waters went from a career as a sexy blues singer to playing the beloved, maternal Berenice in The Member of the Wedding. Names like Ethel and Elsie are showing signs of making a return that’s a big surprise to the grandma generation. LilyAllen gave it some starbaby cred when she chose it for their daughter.
Rex Ingram (1895-1969) was discovered on a street corner, debuting in the first (1918) Tarzan film. He had memorable roles in such later movies as The Green Pastures and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Rex is a regal name, re-appreciated these days especially for his x-ending and possibly even for his role in Toy Story.
Hattie McDaniel is well remembered for her Oscar-winning Mammy role in Gone With the Wind -- the first African American to earn an Academy Award. Hattie is one of the vintage nickname names making a comeback, especially after Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott chose it for their third child.
Lorenzo Tucker, (1907-1986) known as the “Black Valentino” was a stage and screen actor who played the romantic lead in the early black films of OscarMicheaux. (Trivia note: Much later he became an autopsy technician whose subjects included Malcolm X and the above-mentioned Nina Mae McKinney.) This rhythmic Latin version of Lawrence is one of the traditional Italian names entering the mainstream full force, now at Number 307.
Actress Juanita Moore, a one-time Cotton Club chorus girl, went on to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in Imitation of Life. Juanita is a standard classic in Spanish cultures; it reached as high here as Number 48 in 1923, but began a precipitous drop from that point on.
Born in Miami to Bahamian parents, Sidney Poitier was the first black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, which was for his role in Lilies of the Field in 1963; more recently he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Before Sidney, as Sydney, was coopted by the girls in the 1990s, it was a solid -- if declining--male name with aristocratic British roots, a Top 100 name until 1920. The patient is showing no signs of recovery.
Before she became an Oscar-nominated actress for her role in Sounder, the distinguished Cicely Tyson was a popular fashion model; she later was married to jazz great Miles Davis. Delicate name Cicely, along with twin Cecily, is beginning to attract some namers’ attention, after being neglected since the 1970’s.
Nominated five times for Academy Awards, the versatile Morgan Freeman won in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby. He inherited his first name from his father, at a time when it was primarily a boys’ name. At present, Morgan is Number 587 for boys and 82 for girls.
Ruby Dee, who often worked with her husband Ossie Davis, is not only an actress, but a poet, playwright, screenwriter and activist, and has won Grammy, Emmy, Obie and SAG Lifetime Achievement Awards. The vibrant gem name Ruby has been a big hit across the English-speaking world in recent years, and is now Number 106 in the US, 13 in England.
Denzel Hayes Washington, Jr., winner of two Academy Awards, started in TV on St. Elsewhere, then became a superstar after the 1987 Cry Freedom. Denzel is an old Cornish name that was rarely heard in this country before the ascension of Mr. Washington.
Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker has been acclaimed most recently for his fine character portrayal in the recent film Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Yet another Junior with an interesting name, he was actually the third generation to bear his arboreal appellation -- a family word-name tradition he carried on with children Sonnet, True and Ocean.
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