Posted on February 19, 2020 at 6:00 am
I don’t remember when I first fell in love with music. Maybe while being soothed by my mother’s susurrations as she gently rocked me into the world. Or maybe it was the chickadees and blackbirds trilling from the meadow adjacent to our back yard. It could have been the first time the rebellion of a Madonna song reached my ears through my sister’s bedroom door.
While maybe not my first melodic love, I do remember the first social justice anthem I fell in love with. When I first heard John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Imagine,” I fell hard. “Imagine all the people, sharing all the world” sent goosebumps across my skin.
I don’t remember how old I was, but that feeling still resonates. A feeling like I was the Grinch overlooking Whoville, and I could feel my heart expanding inside my ribcage with every note. Like my whole being required physical and mental adjustment to make room for the ideas contained in this simple piano ballad. Suddenly I was awash in the power of music: to nurture, highlight, champion, and create social reform.
At that moment, music was the conduit, and justice was the current that struck my heartstrings.
One thing I can always rely on to get me through tough news cycles is music—particularly music that shines light on social justice issues. The kind of music that is about solidarity and unpacks complicated emotions, all with a beat that won’t stop, or a chorus that soothes a rumpled heart.
The United Nations has designated February 20, 2020, (tomorrow!) World Day of Social Justice! According to the UN, social justice “includes issues of poverty, unemployment, and unfair exclusion that results in economic harm or social ostracism.” While the burgeoning use of the term “social justice” suggests it is a modern concept, it has been evolving for centuries, if not millennia.
In honor of World Day of Social Justice, I’m sharing one of my social justice playlists with you. Here are some songs that have inspired me, supported me, and scraped me up off the floor. Most of all, they validated me.
May these musicians support you in your struggle and inspire you to act, as they did me. All of these music CDs can be found in the Library District’s collection.
Cuz I Love You (2019), by Lizzo
Listen to: “Good as Hell”
Trying to pick just one track from her album Cuz I Love You is a complete exercise in futility. “Good as Hell” was originally released on Lizzo’s debut album Coconut Oil and as part of the soundtrack for the movie Barbershop: The Next Cut. The addition of the song on Cuz I Love You features Ariana Grande. Lizzo has taken full-figure body positivity and self-care to a whole new level. And she proves that hip-hop flute is a thing. Check out her recent Grammy performance for the proof. Her beats are highly addictive and some of the best self-love earworms you will ever encounter.
Power to the People (1971), by John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Listen to: “Imagine”
While written during the Vietnam War, “Imagine” has never lost its relevance, urgency, and imperativeness. This track that John described as an “ad campaign for peace” is still teaching me. Did you know it started as one of Yoko’s poems? Yet, she didn’t receive writing credit on the song until 2017. According to a 1980 interview, John acknowledged Yoko’s contribution, saying “But those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution.” Ono has since released her own version on her album Warzone. Power to the People is loaded with many other social justice anthems including “Give Peace a Chance” and “Happy Christmas.”
I also recommend the album Plastic Ono Band, found on Hoopla and treat yourself to “Working Class Hero.” It is just as germane now as when it was released in 1970.
The Strength of Street Knowledge: The Best of N.W.A. (2006, Deluxe 20th anniversary ed.), by N.W.A.
Listen to: “Express Yourself”
Controversy, profanity, and censorship seemed to be part and parcel of this group’s popularity and notoriety. At the forefront of the “gansta rap” genre, their willingness to tackle topics like police brutality and the War on Drugs head-on led to their music being banned from the radio. Despite this, their legacy lives on. “Express Yourself,” one of few songs without profanity, is surprisingly upbeat and about the struggle for freedom of artistic expression as well as the ability to profit from one’s creative labor.
Aretha’s Best (2001, 1967), by Aretha Franklin
Listen to: “Respect”
“Respect” is a women’s empowerment anthem if ever there was one. When Otis Redding recorded this song originally in 1965, the song enjoyed a reasonable level of success. Aretha transformed the song with a few lyrical alterations, including the unforgettable chorus: R-E-S-P-E-C-T and “sock it to me.” More than that giving it her signature style, Aretha transformed the song’s meaning. In Redding’s version, a pleading man begs his straying woman to come back. Franklin busts out a song about a confident, self-sufficient woman proclaiming her value and power. Her performance of the song as a diner waitress in The Blues Brothers movie is fabulous.
The Capitalist Blues (2019), by Leyla McCalla
Listen to: “The Capitalist Blues”
You may be familiar with McCalla’s work as a member of Carolina Chocolate Drops. Her new solo album The Capitalist Blues is a confessional, revolutionary, and transcendent mix of genres, styles, and languages—all wielded with grace and fluency. The title track’s jazzy New Orleans vibe belies its Marxist tale of financial inequality. The soulful ballad “Heavy as Lead” tells the story of McCalla’s daughter undergoing treatment for lead poisoning. Her roots in Haitian and Louisiana folk music create a lovely sense of balance between lyrics full of profound, social commentary and the lilting rhythms that lift us up into resistance and revolution.
Rage Against the Machine (2012, 20th anniversary ed.), by Rage Against the Machine
Listen to: “Take the Power Back”
It could be argued that every song by Rage Against the Machine is a social justice anthem. “Ghost of Tom Joad” from the album Renegades examines labor rights; “Guerilla Radio” from the album The Battle of Los Angeles breaks down the perils of consumerism, and “Bulls on Parade” from the album Evil Empire challenges the military industrial complex. From the album Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name” is an anthem against police brutality, and “Freedom” tells the story of the Wounded Knee incident at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973. All of these songs are so good. Yet there is something about the simplicity and universality of their early song “Take the Power Back” that makes it my all-time favorite.
Mama’s Gun (2000), by Erykah Badu
Listen to: “Penitentiary Philosophy”
Badu is a powerhouse, with social justice and controversy closely following in her wake. Both of her New Amerykah albums are wonderful and available on Hoopla. The album I want to highlight, however, is Mama’s Gun. “Penitentiary Philosophy” is a rabble rousing, funky call to consciousness about the prison industrial complex from the Neo-Soul queen. Another of my favorite tracks on this album is her beautiful ode to police shooting victim Amadou Diallo—“A.D. 2000” will serenade you to tears.
The Blues Effect – Bessie Smith (2014), by Bessie Smith (available on Hoopla)
Listen to: “Jailhouse Blues”
Bessie was known as the “Empress of the Blues.” She was also a force of nature who ran off the Ku Klux Klan at an outdoor show in North Carolina in 1927 and defied sexual norms by having male and female lovers. She was a victim of racism, dying after a car accident when the nearest hospital wouldn’t admit her due to her race. Her song “Jailhouse Blues” is remarkable—even though it was written in 1923, it feels just as fresh today. I can’t recommend highly enough her covers of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “St. Louis Blues.” If you’d like to learn more about Smith’s story, you can also check out the bio-pic Bessie, in which Queen Latifah is stunning in the title role.
We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service(2016), by A Tribe Called Quest
Listen to: “We the People”
After the violent Paris Attacks in November 2015, A Tribe Called Quest reunited for a performance on Jimmy Fallon and were inspired to make another album. This would be the group’s first album in 18 years. Given such a charged inception, it is no surprise one of the first songs they created for the album is “We the People.” This powerful track, addressing fear mongering and intolerance, brilliantly uses the repeated quote from the Preamble to the United States Constitution to drive home the danger of othering, especially in a democracy. The song is made even more poignant in light of the fact that Phife Dawg passed away before the album was released.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019), by Billie Eilish
Listen to: “all the good girls go to hell”
A song about climate change and the environmental hubris of humanity, set to a surprisingly catchy chorus, make “all the good girls go to hell” a surprising anthem. Climate change isn’t the issue this singer is known for addressing. Her refusal to bow to fashion standards and focus on the hypersexuality forced on female musicians is downright empowering. At only 18, Eilish has shown a large spotlight on mental health awareness through her music—more than most musicians accomplish in their entire careers. Her candor and vulnerability in discussing depression, night terrors, phobias, even her Tourette’s and synesthesia have made her music a rallying point for her generation. Originally Eilish didn’t want the public to know about her Tourette’s. After compilation videos of her tics started circulating the internet, Eilish showed amazing maturity by setting the record straight on Instagram. Even her attitude toward her fans is refreshingly mature and supportive—she shared the following in an interview with Gayle King:
“I just grab [the fans] by the shoulders and I’m like, ‘Please take care of yourself and be good to yourself and be nice to yourself. Don’t take that extra step and hurt yourself further.’”
Fear of a Black Planet (1990), by Public Enemy
Listen to: “Burn Hollywood Burn”
In 1989, Public Enemy became a household name after their song “Fight the Power” was included in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. The film garnered Lee his first Oscar nominations and put Public Enemy on the map. The video is a stunning critique of racist Hollywood stereotypes such as blackface. Look for the cameo by Ice Cube (founding member of N.W.A.), which predates by decades his acceptance of his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
AIM (2016), by M.I.A.
Listen to: “Visa”
M.I.A. is a revolutionary, stereotype-shattering pop star who has relentlessly used her platform to increase visibility for Sri Lankan Tamils and other oppressed peoples, particularly refugees. M.I.A.’s father was a founder of the Tamil resistance movement, forcing M.I.A.’s family to hide from the Sri Lankan army for the first 11 years of her life. Having fled the civil war to England in 1986, she experienced the brutal inequities of refugee life, racism, and forced cultural assimilation firsthand. Her work incorporates social and political issues, using guerilla art techniques and online savvy. She is best known for her Oscar and Grammy-nominated song “Paper Planes,” which was included in the film Slumdog Millionaire. Her work samples music and cultural references from all over the world. With a background in filmmaking, M.I.A. creates videos that are visually breathtaking without ever falling into appropriation. Her first single from AIM, “Borders,” is a graphic depiction of the refugee experience, with a video not to be missed. “Visa” is a more light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek examination of immigration, with an irresistible chorus.
The Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie, Vol. 1 (1951), by Woody Guthrie
Listen to: “This Land Is Your Land”
According to NPR, Guthrie sarcastically referred to this song as “God Bless America for me”, intended as a direct challenge to the unquestioning patriotism of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” As with many songs in the folk tradition, this tune, written in 1940 but not released until 1951, is often performed using ever rotating lyrics to support a variety of sociopolitical issues. Check out Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings soul version on the Up in the Air soundtrack.
We Are the Halluci Nation (2016), by A Tribe Called Red
Listen to: “R.E.D.”
I was lucky enough to see this Canadian electronic duo live last year, and they blew the roof off the place. Their music has been dubbed “Powwow-Step”, a contemporary mix of traditional powwow music set to dance club beats. “R.E.D.” is a brilliant collaboration with Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Canadian-Iraqi MC Narcy, reminding us all of our shared humanity and responsibility to preserve the planet that supports us all. Filmed in South Africa, the video (directed by Narcy) refers to Bey’s recent immigration problems. In the video, Bey and Narcy escape Cape Town and find Halluci Nation territory, a place without borders or barriers.
Binary (2017), by Ani Di Franco
Listen to: “Binary”
More than just a powerful folk singer, Ani Di Franco has helped shape the music industry. She founded the revolutionary record label Righteous Babe Records when she was only 19 and to avoid having her artistic vision corrupted by a major label. Her co-op style business operation and constant activity in the social justice movement have helped forge a path for up-and-coming musicians. “Binary” is a lovingly insightful call to arms, reminding us all of our responsibility with the gentle yet pointed lyric: “Who takes care of each other?”
There Will Be No Intermission (2019), by Amanda Palmer
Listen to: “The Ride”
This whole album is oozing social justice! Even the cover challenges societal ideas about the female body and its presentation. “Drowning in the Sound” addresses the mixed blessing that is social media, the refugee crisis, and climate change. “Voicemail for Jill” is an astonishingly honest song about abortion. The song on this album that keeps appearing in my dreams is “The Ride.” It was inspired by a standup set from the late, great comedian Bill Hicks. In the song, Amanda takes us on a musical roller coaster ride through all of life’s highs and lows—all we fear—somehow leading us through an exploration of isolation and into a place of solace. The line “I want you to think of me sitting and singing beside you” has brought me endless comfort.
These songs are just a start to my social justice playlist. You may ask: Where are Tupac, Pete Seeger, The Roots, and Joan Baez? And you’re right to ask. There are so many brilliant socially conscious musicians out there! Too many to mention all in one blog post. So keep an eye out for part two of my social justice playlist, coming in April.
Until then, if you have suggestions, recommendations, or simply have to address a glaring omission, let me know in the comments! I would love to hear what music consoles and engages you. I always look forward to new recommendations and new artists who enlighten and educate listeners.
Let us all find inspiration, community, and solace in song.