The Power of Our Songs: Black Music As Resistance

Black artists have created the soundtracks to every social movement aimed at liberating African Americans.

Since Africans arrived on the shores of the Americas, they brought their genius, creativity, and brilliance with them. Although enslaved, their continued existence was an act of resistance. Arguably, no other art form captures the essence of the resistance of Black people quite like music. Every genre that was created by Black people such as the spirituals, blues, country,  jazz, rock & roll, R&B, and gospel, carries within it aspirations of Black liberation. Music has been the soundtrack of our personal experiences and of the freedom movements that have shaped America for the better.

The Shift In Black Music

In popular culture, Black music has been tasked with addressing the social realities of living in a dehumanizing, racist society. While themes of love and romance and catching vibes at parties were central to the music of the 50s and 60s, Black artists also began to push the boundaries of their art form. During this era, Sam Cooke was one of the most prominent artists in music, combining silky smooth gospel vocals with a pop sound. He had several hits songs in his catalog such as “You Send Me”, “Cupid”, and “What a Wonderful World.” In 1964, he penned the classic “A Change Gonna Come” departing from his previous work and building off of the blueprint of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” which shed light on the lynching of Black Americans. Written as a response to the social unrest and his own experience with racism and discrimination, Cooke’s gospel roots came shining through as he pleaded for a “change”--a better future for Black people. Released posthumously after his untimely death, “A Change Gonna Come” became an iconic anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, and Cooke’s signature song.

Nina Simone has ben credited with expressing the notion that an artist's duty is to reflect the times. She used her art to speak to racial inequities that Black folks were encountering. She did so without wavering. Combining her classical training with elements of folk, gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, and pop on "Mississippi Goddam", which was released in 1964, her lyrics referenced the murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young black girls and left another partially blinded. In 1969, she released "To Be Young, Gifted and Black"  a song she co-wrote with Weldon Irvine about the beauty of Blackness. On August 17, 1969, she introduced the song in front of a crowd of 50,000 at the Harlem Cultural Festival, which is seen in the documentary film Summer of Soul.

Following in Cooke and Simone’s footsteps was singer/songwriter Curtis Mayfield who would embody the ethos of Black resistance music. With his group, The Impressions, he would pen inspirational anthems of Black pride that would also act as the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement such as “Keep On Pushing” "We're a Winner”, and “Colors of Choice.” Mayfield serves as an example of1 the growing social consciousness of Black musicians. Mayfield would continue this path as a solo artist in the next decade with social commentary on “Superfly”, “Freddie’s Dead”, and “Pusherman.”

An Anthem of Black Women's Empowerment Resists Sexism

While racism was an enormous social impediment in the late 1960s, patriarchy and sexism were often dismissed by Black men. Thankfully, the “Queen of Soul'' Aretha Franklin taught the Black community and the entire world about the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, and class on “Respect.” Originally composed and released by Otis Redding in 1965, Franklin’s 1967 cover changed the gender of the lyrics, as she collaborated with her sisters Erma and Carolyn. “Respect” went to number the same year.

In an interview with Detroit Free Press,  Franklin was asked about her stance on “Respect” and its being adopted by the feminist and Civil Rights Movement. "I don't think it's bold at all,” Franklin said. “I think it's quite natural that we all want respect—and should get it.” The song became an anthem and assertion of Black womanhood.

Along with redefining and influencing popular music, “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown also used his enormous platform as a superstar to speak truth to power. In 1968, “Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud" was written by Brown and bandleader Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, several months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  The track accelerated the transition from “negro” to unapologetically Black. Brown addressed the racism and economic exploitation that Black Americans experienced. In an interview, Chuck D said, “That song was dangerous, aggressive and political. But I’m 8 years old … All I know [is] it’s funky, I’m saying the word ‘Black,’ and we ain’t ‘colored’ no more.” Brown sang, “We've been 'buked and we've been scorned/ We've been treated bad, talked about as sure as you're born" which borrows from the spiritual “I've Been 'Buked” and showed Brown's connection to the Black music resistance tradition. Brown would record many songs of Black resistance such as "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)” and “Funky President.”

After Black artists laid the groundwork in the '60s, a plethora of artists in the 70s reached their creative peaks with albums framed as artistic statements and songs that personified the essence of Black resistance. There was Mayfield’s Curtis and Super FlyPieces of a Man by Gil Scot-Heron, There’s a Riot Goin’ On by Sly and the Family Stone, Franklin’s Young, Gifted, and Black, and Simone’s Black Gold to name a few. 

One of the landmarks of Black resistance music was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Released on May 21, 1971, Gaye broke from the Motown assembly line of music production and created what is still regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. Inspired by social injustice in America along with his brother Frankie’s three-year term as a soldier in Vietnam, Gaye battled Motown founder Berry Gordy to release a collection of protest songs as a conceptual LP.  One of the songs was the title track that he co-wrote with Al Cleveland and Renaldo "Obie" Benson of the Four Tops. Benson wrote the lyrics to “What’s Going On” after witnessing an incident of police in Berkeley beating protesters at People's Park. The Four Tops turned down the song, Benson gave it to Gaye who revised it. The revised version would inspire social change. Gaye's artistic instincts proved to be right. “What’s Going On” shot to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Gaye was also ahead of time by tackling environmental issues in “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and even the oppressive tax system on “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” In the same vein, Gaye would release Trouble Man the following year, a soundtrack album for the Blaxploitation film of the same name.

Stevie Wonder, another Motown superstar, took cues from Gaye and grew into an artist who wanted to express views about the Black plight in America. During his classic album period from 1972-1976 he released Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale, and Song In the Key of Life that earned him three Grammys for Album of the Year Awards. He would make songs filled with political commentary such as “He's Misstra Know-It-All" and “You Haven't Done Nothin” which critiqued the administration of President Richard Nixon. Also, Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” was instrumental in getting a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King.

Rap Music Become a Voice For the Voiceless

By the 1980s, a growing cultural phenomenon named hip-hop was expanding rapidly. Originally emerging in the Bronx, NY, rap music was the up-and-coming genre at the time. While The Fatback Band’s “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” was the first rap song recorded on label and The Sugarhill Gang landed the first rap hit with “Rapper’s Delight”, the true artistry of rap music resistance was first heard on “The Message” by Grandmaster Five and The Furious Five. 

Released on July 1, 1982, “The Message” was social commentary on Black life in New York City addressing themes of poverty, crime, suicide, and the prison industrial complex. Written by Melle Mel and Duke Bootee, it originally was a response to the New York City transit strike in 1980 as is mentioned in the song. Melle Mel famously captures the existential reality of many Black New Yorkers when he rapped, “Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head/Ah-huh-huh-huh-huh/It's like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”

Public Enemy, one of the most highly regarded and revolutionary acts in rap history, is the touchstone of Black resistance music in hip-hop in the 80s. With their Black nationalism philosophy, Afro-centric imagery, and their politically charged lyrics, Chuck D, Flavor Flav, the S1Ws and the production of The Bomb Squad were uncompromisingly Black. Their songs “Rebel Without a Pause”, “Bring the Noise”, “Night of the Living Baseheads” and “911 Is as a Joke” distinguished them from many of their contemporaries as they boldly challenged white supremacy with each hard-hitting track. The creme de la creme of their Black resistance ethos was “Fight the Power.” Released on July 4, 1989 and taken from an Isley Brothers song, "Fight the Power" it became the group’s signature song and mission statement. Chuck D rapped, “Now that you've realized the pride's arrived / We've got to pump the stuff to make us tough / From the heart / It's a start, a work of art / To revolutionize.”

Black Resistance Music Today

Black Americans are still fighting the realities of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and income inequality. Just like their forebears, Black artists have spoken to our lived experiences. When protests and demonstrations erupted in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, and Michael Brown, Black resistance music spoke to our pain and suffering. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”, H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe”, Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture”, and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” are among the songs that anchored the Black Lives Matters Movement and the pursuit for justice throughout the nation.

As long as we live in what Maya Angelou described as “these yet to be United States of America” there will always be visionary artists who craft music that resonates with our dreams, our aspirations, our pain, and our struggles.

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