Music is a powerful way to express yourself; it can also unify people in a profound way through lyrics and storytelling. Black artists in America have long used music as a medium to express their struggles and experiences as well as their hope for change. While today we look back on these Black ballads and protest anthems with respect, they were often received with backlash and aggression upon release.
The Los Angeles Recording School is sharing its own Black Lives Matter Playlist that includes songs about the struggles Black communities have endured. Our song list includes the historical context of each song, and it also shows how these artists contributed to civil rights advancements with their music. You can find most of these songs on Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube OR on our Black Lives Matter playlist below.
20 Songs to Listen to Now
“Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud”—James Brown
B-Side of A Soulful Christmas and Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud
Several months after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, James Brown’s bandleader, Alfred Ellis, wrote this song for the Black is Beautiful movement in 1968. It quickly took its place at the top of the Billboard charts, where it stayed for six weeks.
James Brown himself was rather controversial in the Black movements of the time, as he often displayed racial self-hatred and supported known racists in politics. But, the song still took hold. For many Blacks at the time, it was the first time they called themselves “black instead of negro.” It was a message of pride and courage that lasted decades. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine included it in the 500 greatest songs of all time.
“American Skin (41 Shots)”—Bruce Springsteen: Live in New York City
In February 1999, Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by four New York City Police Department plain-clothed officers. The officers shot a combined 41 shots, 19 of which hit Diallo outside of his apartment in the Bronx. Bruce Springsteen wrote this song in honor of Diallo, who was innocent of any crime. Springsteen called out his death for what it was—police brutality and murder. The backlash was quick—many boycotted his next show at Madison Square Gardens and officers refused to provide security for Springsteen and his band. Despite this, Springsteen took the stage.
About a decade later, Springsteen performed the song again after the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The lyrics powerfully repeat the caution Black parents are compelled to give their children, warning them that, “You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”
“Birmingham Sunday”—Joan Baez, Joan Baez/5
Birmingham Sunday was in memory of four girls that were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Twenty-two others were injured in the bombing, which was carried out by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham and earned the city the name “Bombingham.” An incredible Black Ballad, Baez’s beautiful soprano voice contrasts with the horrors of that Sunday as “a noise shook the ground/ and people all over the Earth turned around/for no one recalled a more cowardly sound.”
Because of its simple lyrics and borrowed melody—it was to the tune of a traditional British folk song—the song didn’t get much traction in popular music. But its impact was lasting. Several artists have covered the song since, and the story remains a powerful example of innocent lives lost to racism.
“Wake Up Everybody”—Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Wake up Everybody
A call to arms, Wake Up Everybody has become a frequent protest anthem since it was first recorded in 1975. It stayed on top of the Soul charts for weeks, as nearly everyone could relate to the lyrics:
“The world won’t get no better if we just let it be/ The world won’t get no better we gotta change it yeah, just you and me.”
“The Charade”—D’Angelo, Black Messiah
Perhaps the song with the most powerful lyrics, The Charade confronts the idea that Blacks have achieved equality in the United States. Released just five years ago, in 2015, The Charade warns and pleads with Americans to wake up and see that racism didn’t die with the Civil Rights Act.
“Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked revealing at the end of the day, the charade.”
“Baltimore”—Prince ft. Eryn Allen Kane, HITnRUN Phase Two
In May 2015, a young Black man named Freddie Gray died while in police custody in Baltimore. He sustained an unexplained spinal cord injury. This was one of several deaths of Black men in Baltimore, and the city erupted. Protests and riots prompted a declaration of a state of emergency in the city.
Prince responded by writing this poignant song and performing it at his Rally 4 Peace concert in Baltimore that spring. As Prince sang: “Peace is more than the absence of war.”
While a powerful song in its own right, the lyric video to Baltimore is well worth the watch on YouTube.
“State of Arkansas” (My Name is Terry Roberts)—Pete Seeger, Gazette, Vol 1.
Pete Seeger wrote this song about one of the Little Rock Nine, Terry Roberts. The nine Black students were enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957, the first in an all-white school. They were greeted with guns and the Governor of Arkansas, who refused to let them attend. It took the intervention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower before they were allowed in.
The lyrics tell the story of Terry Roberts and his eight friends, written just a year after they first entered the school. It was met with anger and hostility by most in Arkansas and the neighboring states, as desegregation had only just begun. The fight would continue for years, even after the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education which made segregation illegal.
“Black Rage”—Lauryn Hill
Written to the Rodgers and Hammerstein song My Favorite Things, Black Rage is a list of what the Black community experiences at the hand of systematic racism. From police brutality to dead-end, inner-city ghettos, she says, “Black rage is founded on these kinds of things.”
Relatable to many people, Black Rage has become an anthem for Black Lives Matter. She originally dedicated it to Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown, but it has come to represent so much more.
“Cranes in the Sky”—Solange Knowles, A Seat at the Table
Solange Knowles wrote Cranes in the Sky during a time of transition in her life. She had just become a mother, signed a deal as a songwriter, and moved from Idaho to Houston. The song, she says, was written after she went to Miami during a building boom. “Literally everywhere I looked around had a crane in the sky,” she said.
Though not originally about the Black Lives Matter movement, Cranes in the Sky looks at all the ways we try to fix what overwhelms us. But really, it’s confronting what is difficult, sitting with it, and doing what needs to be done to change—the message of Black Lives Matter.
“Sweeter” (feat. Terrace Martin)—Leon Bridges, Sweeter
Leon Bridges’ lyrics are his feelings about being a Black man in America. “Why do I fear with skin dark as night?/ Can’t feel peace with those judging eyes/ I thought we moved on from the darker days/ Did the words of the King disappear in the air/ Like a butterfly?”
Released at the beginning of this year, many in the Black Lives Matter movement have used Bridges’ song to explain how they are feeling and why the protest matters.
“Inner City Blues”—Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On
Recorded and released in 1971, Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues has remained a staple in protest anthems for almost 50 years. Gaye hoped to “describe the injustices he witnessed around him.” It describes the bleak lives of those living in inner-city America and what seems like a hopeless situation.
Cost of living for many was beyond their ability to earn, something that is still part of life in the inner-cities of today; “Money, we make it/ ‘Fore we see it you take it.” For many in the Black community, this is reality today. Systematic racism has made it difficult for many to rise out of poverty, keeping Marvin Gaye’s song as pertinent today as ever.
“Alright”—Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
While Kendrick Lamar’s song Alright is often deemed inappropriate for its language, Billboard has included it on a list that “defined the decade.” “This is a part of history happening,” they say. “It’s bigger than just a song.”
The song has become another anthem sung at protests, especially after a powerful moment in Cleveland following the arrest of a young 14-year-old boy at a meeting for “Movement for Black Lives” in 2015. The crowd broke into song, singing Lamar’s lyrics with their heart and soul, feeling every hopeful “we gon’ be alright.”
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”—Gil Scott-Heron, Pieces of a Man
Perhaps even more relevant today than it was in 1971, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was Gil Scott-Heron’s way to explain that you have to be there to understand. Watching protests, riots, and seeing posters on social media is nothing like being there, connecting with people, and understanding their experience.
So much of what we see on T.V. and on social media is curated and designed to tell a specific story. But, as Scott-Heron says, if we go and participate, learn, listen, and observe in person, we will begin to understand what the revolution really is.
“Fight the Power”—Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Panther
The BBC called it “the most provocative song ever.” Released in 1989, it leaped to the number one Hot Rap Singles and some called it the best single of the year. But it was originally written as an anthem for the film Do the Right Thing, directed by Spike Lee.
Public Enemy was approached by Lee to write the song for the movie because he wanted a song that would “wake people up,” just as he hoped his film would. He wanted it to be “defiant, angry, and rhythmic”—Public Enemy delivered.
“Fight the Power”—The Isley Brothers, The Heat is On
On the outside, The Isley Brothers claimed that Fight the Power is just a general statement of rising above “the power,” many have found that it echoes the Black experience in the United States. But in personal interviews, the singers claimed that “We decided not to be passive, to take a stand. And we met hardly any resistance because that power could be anything.”
Because it is so easily identifiable, Fight the Power has become a protest anthem for many in the Black Lives Matter movement as they seek to end police brutality and rise above the power of systemic racism.
“Water Get No Enemy”—Fela Kuti, Expensive Shit
Fela Kuti’s lyrics for Water Get No Enemy is based on a Yoruba proverb that speaks of the power of nature. Live in harmony with nature, he says, and you will live longer and wiser. The proverb is used to urge the Nigerian political opposition in the 1970s to work with nature and they will achieve victory.
The song is part of an album full of songs displaying Kuti’s “determination to resist the abuse of power by the Nigerian regime,” and many have been used in the Black Lives Matter movement as the fight is so similar.
“A Change Is Gonna Come”—Sam Cooke, Ain’t That Good News
Sam Cooke’s song was released as a B-side to his posthumous hit, Shake, just a few days after his funeral in December 1964. Though bright and hopeful, Cooke’s ballad is often attributed to describing “Bloody Sunday.” But actually, the song was written almost a year before the march in Selma, Alabama.
Many protestors cling to the message of this song, as the urgency for change with hope and confidence are so obvious in his performance: “There have 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 is gonna come, oh yes it will.”
“Mississippi Goddamn”—Nina Simone, Nina Simone in Concert
Nina Simone herself called Mississippi Goddamn her “first civil rights song.” She wrote and composed the song in just under an hour, in response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. Simone introduced the song for the first time at her concert in Carnegie Hall in 1964.
When it was released as a track, it was banned in most of the United States, as it had the word “Goddamn” in the title. Boxes of records of Mississippi Goddamn were burned, and photos of Nina Simone were burned by white supremacy groups.
“Stranger Fruit”—Nina Simone, Pastel Blues
Known as the first great protest song, Stranger Fruit is arguably one of the most powerful songs about racism. Billie Holiday first performed this song in 1939, and Nina Simone brought it back to life during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” Simone sang.
After it was first performed and heard throughout the United States, it was met with disbelief from many who believed that lynching was not so common and anger by others. Billie Holiday performed it in jazz clubs in New York City, making her audiences uncomfortable with such grisly lyrics. Nina Simone herself called it, “The ugliest song I have ever heard. Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done.”
“Changes”—Tupac, Greatest Hits
Changes was actually released posthumously on Tupac’s album, Greatest Hits. The same year, it was nominated for Best Rap Solo Performance at the Grammy Awards, the only posthumous song to be nominated in that category.
Just 20 years old, this song has become a popular protest anthem in 2020. The lyrics speak to the current demands of protestors as it tackles police brutality, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and economic inequality within the United States.