Black History Month is a contentious month on the calendar, with certain groups suggesting that black history should be studied all-year-round, and other, less-informed groups, suggesting that it shouldn’t be studied at all. But, one of the most colourful aspects of black history is the music that has underpinned it from the very beginnings of the sorrow songs of slavery, throughout the horrors of the Jim Crow and civil rights eras, and that continues to shine as an outlet of political unrest in today’s society. To celebrate this wealth of fantastic, socially conscious music, The Gryphon put together a list of eleven of the most important songs that show us exactly why we need Black History Month, with a specific focus on the US.
Billie Holiday – ‘Strange Fruit’ (1939)
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”
The live recording of this song is one of the most haunting renditions of music you will ever see. The physical agony and emotional torment in Holiday’s eyes is brutally present, as she belts out the powerful melody of ‘Strange Fruit’. Referring to the bodies of lynched African Americans as “Strange fruit” in an extended metaphor that is as clinical as it is harrowing, Holiday was forced to temporarily switch labels simply in order to record ‘Strange Fruit’, as ‘Columbia Records’ feared excessive backlash to such an explicitly graphic song. At a time when black musical voices were practically owned by white record companies, Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ showcased the political potential of blues music, and certified black women as a force for political protest in the process.
Sam Cooke – ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ (1964)
“There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long / But now I think I’m able to carry on / It’s been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change gon’ come”
Those lines alone cement ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ as one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century. Lyrically poignant, musically breath-taking, Sam Cooke’s heart-felt letter to the world is an epic and a flag-bearer of the civil rights movement. It was also a risk. Well aware that it would likely underperform compared to his other more commercial numbers, this was the first time that Cooke explicitly challenged social issues in his music, a move that was sure to lose him the large array of fans he had acquired as a ‘crossover’ artist. Nevertheless, Cooke wrote and sang his epic with a heart filled with passion and pain; so much so that is impossible not to feel something shift within your very soul once you’ve heard it. Passing away later that year, Cooke only sang ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ in front of a live audience once.
Nina Simone – ‘Mississippi Goddam’ (1964)
“This whole country is full of lies / You’re all gonna die and die like flies […] You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality”
This song is just plain fucking awesome. Starting off with some clunky piano chords, the song sets you up for an upbeat, poppy show-song. But what comes out of Simone’s mouth is pure, scorching fire. Singing with a viper’s tongue, Simone spits with a rage that only she could convey, bitterly mocking the American government’s response to the hostile state of race relations that had reached boiling point a long time before this song was even written- “Desegregation (Do it Slow)”. Composed largely in response to the death of Medgar Evers in 1963, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ marked a deviation in Simone’s music towards more political subjects, which she would continue to develop in songs like ‘Baltimore’, ‘Backlash Blues’, and ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’. It was an uncomfortable listen for the mostly-white audiences that came to see the Simone play, and she enjoyed every minute of that unpleasantness.
Aretha Franklin – ‘Respect’ (1967)
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me”
What more is there to be said about Aretha Franklin’s defining hit? From the moment those sighing horns and the twanging guitar open the song, you know you’re in for a ride full of sass and outspoken testimony. A cover of the original released by Otis Redding in 1965, Franklin’s version flips the original on its head, turning it from a desperate plea from a horny man into an unmistakeably strong and confident statement of female sexuality. In just two minutes, it reclaims agency for a twice-marginalised group, and asserts that group’s authority. For black women, who had for generations been portrayed in film and literature as either overtly sensuous or not sensuous at all, it was a turning point, a vocalisation against generations of oppression. An anthem of both the civil rights and feminist movements, ‘Respect’ remains as important today as it did in 1967.
Gil Scott Heron – ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televized’ (1970)
“The revolution will not be right back after a message / About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people […] The revolution will be no re-run brothers / The revolution will be live”
Gil Scott Heron was a poet of profound proportions. Littered with cultural references, this particular addition to his repertoire is perhaps his most on-point. Speaking with a razor-sharp clarity and a lightning wit about institutional racism in the US, Heron pointed out with scathing humour the all-too-obvious realities that lay just below the surface of America’s idealistic self-definitions. Uncovering the suggestive power of media and advertising – especially through the Television – in modern society, Heron urges his listeners to look beyond the borders of their TV sets and onto the reality of the broken streets. Linking black liberation with student protest and a general rejection of American consumerism, Heron defines the civil rights movement as not just a transformation, but a revolution. He was only 21 years old when he wrote it, and it’s cool enough to bring snow to the Sahara.
Marvin Gaye – ‘What’s Going On’ (1971)
“Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying / You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some lovin’ here today”
Whereas many protest songs combine direct lyrics with aggressive instrumentation, this particular track is filled with all the sweet blessings of the soul-era. But that isn’t too say that it doesn’t make any less of a statement. Underneath all the meandering strings and the background chatter, is a clear message- a plea to all people, no matter of race, religion or ideology, to reflect on how they are both a product and an influence of the world around them; to ask themselves, “what’s going on?”. Resiliently blocked from release by Motown Records – who taught their acts that protest songs were bad, bad business – when the song finally slipped out, it was an instant commercial success. It was listed by Rolling Stone as the fourth-greatest song of all time, an honour you could even consider harsh.
Bob Marley – ‘Redemption Song’ – 1980
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds / Wo! Have no fear for atomic energy / ‘Cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time”
The last song on his final album, Uprising, ‘Redemption Song’ was the final, politically nuanced bow of a reggae legend. With the lyrics referring to a speech made by Marcus Garvey – one of the most influential figures in the early 20th Century movement of pan-africansim – in 1937, the song embeds itself within a rhetoric that sought to empower all black bodies across the diaspora- not just at home or in the lion’s den of the US. A story of redemption, of life-long persecution overcome by ultimate retribution, the song is a rare instance of Marley performing solo, hinting at the fears of mortality that plagued the Marley throughout his later years. But, despite its introspective composition, ‘Redemption Song’ is a song for the world, a song that begs its listeners to take action; to release themselves from “mental slavery”.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – ‘The Message’ (1982)
“A child is born with no state of mind / Blind to the ways of mankind / God is smilin’ on you but he’s frownin’ too / Because only God knows what you’ll go through”
Bridging the gap between the spoken word wizardry of Gil Scott Heron and the in-your-face bars of gangsta rap groups that would come to dominate the tail end of the 19th Century, was Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. One of the first rap groups to break into the mainstream, the group set the tone for future rap artists with their smooth blend of fast-paced criticism with funky instrumentation. The poppy rap rhythms and the legendary production skills of Grandmaster Flash disguise a calm and collected message; a precise comment on life in American society as a black male. “Don’t push me ‘cos I’m close to the edge”: those lyrics, eternal in their very nature, were but a warning of things to come.
NWA – ‘Fuck tha Police’ – 1988
“Fuck Tha Police / Fuck Tha Police / Fuck Tha Police / Fuck Tha Police”
Speaking out against the police brutality and daily racial profiling that haunted young African Americans in countless communities, the words of NWA are still relevant today, indicative of the lack of progress that has occurred since the rap group first ruffled a few feathers back in 1988. Coming straight out of Compton with a track so provocative it provoked a rogue member of the FBI to send NWA’s manager an official letter of disapproval, NWA fucked off pretty much the entirety of white America with their curse-filled condemnation of the police. It was unceremoniously banned from radio stations, but this lack of airplay did little to prevent the media storm that swirled around the single. Proof that music can influence society to unparalleled degrees, ‘Fuck tha Police’ took NWA to new heights, cemented the importance of gangsta rap, and pissed a lot of people off in the process.
Kendrick Lamar – ‘Alright’ (2015)
“And we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’ / I’m at the preacher’s door / My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow / But we gon’ be alright”
It’s a crime that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly didn’t win the Grammy for album of the year (thanks Taylor Swift!). His 2015 opus is filled with unequalled social commentary; none so much as ‘Alright’ and its fantastic music video. Becoming almost synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement, protestors demonstrating against the killing of unarmed black civilians by white police officers took up the song’s chorus as their anthem. A chant that showed their refusal to lie down, to be beaten, to be persecuted, the hypnotic repetition of “We gon’ be alright” is gritty, fierce, but also with a sense of clear-cut solidarity. It’s for this reason that ‘Alright’ will survive in history as an song that inspired an entire movement.
Noname – ‘Reality Check’ (2016)
“Don’t fear the light / That dwells deep within / You are powerful / Beyond what you imagine / Just let your light glow”
A name less well known than Beyoncé (who, just to clarify, would of course have made this list with the entirety of Lemonade, if her stuff wasn’t only available on Tidal. I’m not paying for that shit. Sorry.), Noname is no less inspiring, and her brilliant ‘Reality Check’ is a prime example of this. In a genre dominated by male rappers, Noname stands out as a spokeswoman of female rappers everywhere. ‘Reality Check’ is a candid message to black women, telling them to never tell themselves that they can’t achieve something just because of their race, gender, or sexuality. It is a genuinely touching composition, and its chorus – featuring Akenya and Eryn Allen Kane – is almost too fucking gorgeous. It’s because of the likes of Noname that, in the future, when critics talk of the rappers who inspired social movements against racism, prejudice and hatred, they won’t only be talking about men.
Music has of course evolved since Billie Holiday first sang strange fruit, and will continue to evolve well beyond what Gil Scott Heron, Kendrick Lamar, and Noname have achieved. But one thing has remained constant; the outspoken protestation of crippling, institutional racial prejudices that continue to define ‘equality’ as a far-from-realised ideal. Through their music, these artists risked their careers to address issues much bigger than themselves, give voices to the often voiceless, and inspire whole social movements in the process.
Their influence should not be overlooked. It should certainly not be forgotten.