Black History - An Exploration of Music As an Expression of Civil Rights

Black History – An Exploration of Music As an Expression of Civil Rights

Racial activism within music isn?t a modern phenomenon, it has been there since the artform?s inception. In the late nineteenth century, marginalized African-American communities invented the Blues largely as an expression of their subjugation; the fact that they also invented the structure of popular music was just a happy accident. By 1939, Billie Holliday released an anti lynching protest song so potent that the owner of Atlantic Records called Strange Fruit “a declaration of war? and ?the beginning of the civil rights movement? that dominated the ?60s. Once this movement reached its crescendo, Sam Cooke?s eternal A Change Is Gonna Come was embraced to a point that it arguably functioned as a new national anthem to those for whom the country’s actual anthem was eager to ignore. Like much of the music of this era, Cooke?s message was more conciliatory in tone, but by the ?70s the nature of activism in music turned from a peace sign to a fist in a black leather glove.

If the ?70s saw black music make a fist, the next decade saw activist hip hop throw a punch. Seminal acts like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions more closely resembled Malcolm X than MLK in their revolutionary tone, and the term ?conscious rap? was embodied as a worldview. Year later, America?s first black president was replaced by one with the soul of a slave owner, and the spate of minorities being killed by police became so rampant that even white people who thought that Rodney King was an aberration started to recognize an epidemic. Black Lives Matter found a second wave with public protests on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War, and inspired a generation more politically inclined than the last. The following selection shines a light on these powerful black voices, with an emphasis on the spoken word style developed by artists who found the boundaries of traditional song writing ill-equipped to communicate the depths of injustice they were forced to endure.

Theo Parrish – We are All Georgeous Monsterss (Excerpt)
Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble – Sounds Like Now
Janelle Monae feat. Wonderland Records – Hell You Talmbout (Video Mix)
Rhiannon Giddens – Cry No More
Camille Yarbrough – All Hid
The Last Poets – Black Wish
Bama the Village Poet – Ghettos of the Mind
Mos Def – Revelations
Big Daddy Kane – Erase The Racism (J. Period Exclusive Mix)
Ice Cube feat. Khalid Abdul Muhammad – Death
Boogie Down Productions – Exhibit B
Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble – The Colors That You Bring
Solange – Interlude: Tina Taught Me
Sault – Little Boy
Blood Orange – Christopher & 6th
Lauryn Hill – Black Rage
Nina Simone and Lauryn Hill – Ready Or Not (Excerpt)
James Brown – Say It Loud (Black and Proud) (Notorious JBs Version)
Brother Ahh – Transcendental March (Creation Song)
George Soule – Get Involved
Five on the Black Hand Side – Original Trailer
Sault – X
David McKnight – Strong Men
Marion Black – Listen Black Brother
The Chambers Brothers – People Get Ready
Ethel Davenport – Free At Last
Martin Luther King Jr – Civil Rights Address Washington D.C.
Nathan Davis – M.L.K.
Sarah Webster Fabio – After Birmingham
Sault – Out the Lies
Amanda Gorman – Biden/ Harris Inauguration Speech
Crowd Chanting Kendrick Lamar “Alright” In Response to Police Harassment
Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble – Power
The Last Poets – Black Is (Chant)
Public Enemy feat. Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jahi, YG & Questlove – Fight the Power 2020
D?Angelo and the Vanguard – 1000 Deaths
Tamika Mallory – Women’s March Speech in Washington
Eddie Kendrick – My People Hold On
Moses Sumney – Power?
PM Dawn – Silence? (Recorded at the Gravesite of Martin Luther King)

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The above text was cribbed from an article I wrote for ResistorMag heralding the latest album by Sault as the best album of the year so far.


Music as a form of activism within African American culture is a phenomenon that has no parallel in human history. Never before have an oppressed community been able to speak past their oppressors and to their oppressors? children. A persecuted culture proved to a world that they could be spiritual, that they could be beautiful, that they could be geniuses, and still that wasn?t enough. For too many, it seems that the only sound that gets a response is the sound of shattering glass. Taken from a radio show I did for black history month a couple of years ago, this selection considers decades of activism in music from the Black Panther era of the 70s, conscious rap from 90s, up to the Black Lives Matter movement. The selection at times feels joyful and hopeful, making it harder to process how little has changed.

Camille Yarbrough – But It Comes Out Mad
Syl Johnson – Is It Because I?m Black?
The Whatnauts – Message From a Black Man
Curtis Mayfield – Stare and Stare
Aretha Franklin – Young, Gifted, and Black
The Last Poets – When the Revolution Comes
Frankie Cutlass – Puerto Rico/ Black People
Public Enemy – Brother?s Gonna Work It Out (Remix)
Boogie Down Productions – The Racist
Big Daddy Kane feat. Gamilah Shabazz (Malcolm X?s Daughter) – Who Am I?
Brand Nubian – Allah & Justice
De La Soul – I Am I Be
Arrested Development – Raining Revolution
Erykah Badu – The Healer
Jamila Woods feat NoName – VRY BLK
Mick Jenkins feat. BADBADNOTGOOD – Drowning (I Can’t Breathe)
Blood Orange – JUNE 12TH (For Sandra Bland)
Saul Williams – Sha Clack Clack
Houz Mon – Intro: King 28 Years Later
Bama the Village Poet – Blackman My Brother
Rahsaan Roland Kirk – Blacknuss
Sam Dees – Heritage of a Black Man
Gil Scott-Heron – Whitey On the Moon
Dr. Mary Sullivan Bain – Do You Know Black History?
Trinikas – Black is Beautiful
YG & Nipsey Hussle – Fuck Donald Trump

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As someone whose adolescence was so immersed in the sort of revolutionary music featured in the above mix, there was always a sort of impotence that came with being so inspired to join the revolution, but having no ability to do so. That isn?t totally the case now that the internet empowers anyone inclined to help fund the people who are in a position to make a difference from within the affected communities. These days not getting involved is a choice. We are lucky to be living in an era where we can access so much music for free, but there is perhaps something off-key about taking enjoyment from activist music without contributing to the solution. I encourage those who enjoy the above mix or music like it to donate the cost of an album towards an organization working to help realize the social change at the heart of this music.


black voters matter

An important attempt to correct the plainly evil efforts by the Republican party to disenfranchise black voters, which is somehow considered legal and is done in the open. The organization advocates for policies to expand voting rights/access. They also advocate for policies that intersect with race, gender, economic, and other aspects of equity.?


law project

BMLP provides legal support to local communities throughout the country as they demonstrate against police brutality and systemic racism. They believe in a community centered approach – providing holistic legal and technical service with an understanding that mass defense movement legal experience is often missing from the local equation.


racial justice

SURJ?s role as part of a multi-racial movement is to undermine white support for white supremacy and to help build a racially-just society.That work cannot be done in isolation from or disconnected from the powerful leadership of communities of color. It is one part of a multi-racial, cross-class movement centering the leadership of people of color.


health alliance

The Black Health Alliance is a community-led registered charity working to improve the health and well-being of Black communities in Canada. Driven by groundbreaking research, strong partnerships, and people, this movement continues to build innovative solutions to improve Black health and well-being, and mobilize people and financial resources to create lasting change in the lives of Black children, families, and communities.


The link below offers up a selection of mixes that attempt to delineate the history of black music. I would encourage anyone interested in exploring this rich history to support one of the above organizations.

soul music