Posted on July 13, 2020 at 6:00 am
Music shapes us. It makes us feel. It rouses us, and soothes us into sleep. It consoles, uplifts, inspires. Music about social justice can inspire listeners to advocate for causes they believe in and can educate people about issues. The best social justice songs tell stories of voices rarely heard and have the potential to invoke the desire to break the world apart and heal it back together.
In my blog Bright shining sounds (Part 1): A social justice playlist, written in honor of the United Nations celebration of the World Day of Social Justice, I shared some of my favorite social justice tunes with you.
There are way too many good songs to fit into just one blog, and lucky for you, I didn’t try. Let’s drop the needle on Part 2.
Pearl (1971), by Janis Joplin
Listen to “Mercedes Benz”
I confess, this is my go to karaoke song. Janis’s intro to this deceptively subtle little anti-consumerism gem says it all: “I’d like to do a song of great social and political import. It goes like this.” This makes me smile every time, especially knowing how much she loved her specialty.
Joplin drove a Porsche with the psychedelic paint job. Often bullied and ostracized during her small town Texas upbringing, Joplin (I imagine) identified with the blues and the genre’s endless odes to the outsider. She was inspired to become a singer by none other than Bessie Smith. Check out “Me and Bobby McGee” while you’re at it. Written by Kris Kristofferson, this song dives into the murky waters of what freedom truly entails.
One Beat (Remastered) (2002), by Sleater-Kinney
Listen to “Step Aside”
Arguably containing all social justice songs, One Beat was conceived as “the voice in the silence” following the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. In the song “Sympathy,” Corin Tucker gives a brutally frank depiction of a mother’s guilt and fear after a premature birth. In the music industry, motherhood tends to be a taboo subject, a death knell to one’s artistic output. Tucker’s depiction deftly undermines this patriarchal stance. As one of the few riot grrl groups who managed to break into the mainstream, Sleater-Kinney is always ready to bust out. Though I love every song on this album, “Step Aside” is the one with the driving beat that always reinvigorates my resistance. Time to “disassemble your discrimination”!
Portrait of a Legend (1964), by Sam Cooke
Listen to “A Change is Gonna Come”
Legend has it that Cooke was inspired to compose this after hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” He wanted to create an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. As a gospel singer turned pop-chart dreamboat, Cooke was in new territory with “A Change is Gonna Come.” While the single performed modestly compared to his other hits, Cooke’s sincere passion is unmistakable. The simple beauty of his voice captures the desperate yearning for a world free of racial injustice. The song was entered into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2007. I can’t help but wonder what masterpieces he could have written if not for his untimely death in 1964 at age 33.
Nina Simone’s Finest Hour (1964), by Nina Simone
Listen to “Mississippi Goddamn”
While Simone’s cover of “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” may be the best known version of that ode to the passing of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Mississippi Goddamn” is the track she called her “first civil rights song” and was composed in under an hour. You can still hear the fire and fury in the lyrics Simone wrote for this passionate protest inspired by the murder of civil rights icon Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. This song was a direct challenge to Jim Crow laws and the idea that civil rights could only be achieved slowly, through patience.
In another noteworthy social justice song, “Four Women,” Simone addresses the intersectionality of racism and sexism perpetrated upon African American women through the lens of four common stereotypes: enslaved, mixed race, prostitute, and angry woman.
4:44 (2018), by Jay-Z
Listen to “The Story of OJ”
Known for his complex word play, Jay-Z is sometimes referred to as the Proust of Rap. Thus it is no surprise his work is littered with impactful songs that examine social justice. Through “The Story of OJ” he examines the enduring legacy of a nation and economy built on slavery, specifically for African Americans. He probes into the challenge of creating generational wealth under the restrictions of racist infrastructure. The sampling of Nina Simone’s song “Four Women,”which also examines stereotypical African American roles, is a brilliant counterpoint.
Lemonade (2016), by Beyoncé
Listen to “Formation”
I find I can’t talk about the song “Formation” without mentioning the video, the pieces being too integral to each other. As with everything she does, Beyoncé very intentionally released the mesmerizing video during Black History Month on Trayvon Martin’s birthday. Her anthem calls ladies to line up so they may rise up, together. Filmed mostly in Louisiana, Beyoncé’s imagery addresses Hurricane Katrina, the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, silencing of queer and trans folk, Black girl magic, the impact of slavery on the U.S., and her own identity as Black female icon. Beyoncé’s visual celebration of Black culture and southern roots comes to a close as she lays atop a police cruiser receding below the waters.
Dirty Computer (2018), by Janelle Monáe
Listen to “Pynk”
This is the album and musician who helped introduce the term “pansexual” to the world at large. And that is just the start of her mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting, delightfully danceable musical take on gender and sexuality. Her song “Pynk” is a femininist, empowerment anthem for all who identify as women, regardless of anatomy. The only rap track on the album, “Django Jane” provides a lovely contrast to the softer feminine energy in “Pynk.” Whereas “Pynk” provides ruffles and pool party vibes, “Django Jane” is all about strong, “highly melanated” female power.
Songs of Our Native Daughters (2019), featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell
Listen to “Polly Ann’s Hammer”
This is a perfect slice of Americana in the age of Black Lives Matter. The stunning harmonies and sheer lushness of these voices is captivating, and the stories are unforgettable. Giddens, Kiah, McCalla, and Russell give uniquely female perspectives on American folk and minstrel music through the lives and narratives of the enslaved who helped develop the musical art forms. The heart wrenching “Mama’s Cryin’ Long” tells the story of how a young enslaved boy is made an accomplice to his mother’s murder. “Barbados” highlights the not so tenuous line between slavery before the Civil War and its modern day incarnation. “Polly Ann’s Hammer” retells the well-known story of John Henry and the lesser known story of his even stronger wife , Polly Ann (sometimes call Julie Ann or Lucy in other tellings). These songs resound with the stories to be remembered and show the resilience needed to create a world where each person is truly free.
They Say I’m Different (1974), by Betty Davis
Listen to “They Say I’m Different”
Pretty much everyone seems to know Hollywood screen legend Bette Davis. But have you heard of Betty Davis (born Betty Mabry), the queen of funk? Many know her only as Mrs. Miles Davis, although their union only lasted two years. Miles’ album Bitches Brew was inspired and named by Betty. Miles Davis claimed the breakup was because Betty was “too young and wild.”
Unfortunately, record labels seemed to feel the same way. Ahead of her time, Betty wrote, arranged, choreographed, and managed her own music. Raw and fearlessly willing to push societal norms, Betty Davis is a funk powerhouse. Known for her “sexually aggressive stage persona” and lyrics, Betty was banned from most U.S. stages. And she moved to Europe. “They Say I’m Different” illustrates how revolutionary her work was and continues to be. Her lackluster music career led Davis to retire and move to Pittsburgh in 1971. Despite her famous reclusiveness, there is still hope of a comeback. In 2019, she wrote, produced and released a new song performed by Danielle Maggio called “A Little Bit Hot Tonight” and was featured in Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus.
Run the Jewels 2 (2014), by Run the Jewels
Listen to “Close Your Eyes” featuring Zach De La Rocha
Run the Jewels produces a complex, powerful rap treatise on how law enforcement functions in the U.S., particularly in Black and Brown communities. This track is worth a spin just for De La Rocha’s verse. Also not to be missed is the provocative video. Set in an alternate L.A., a police officer and a young Black man participate in a seemingly endless fight. Their exhausted yet persistent struggle counter the super-fast beat and relentless lyrics.
Run the Jewels 2 was released in the wake of civilian deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, at the hands of police. In the album, Killer Mike and El-P directly address “the futile and exhausting existence of a purgatory-like law enforcement system” in the U.S. today. The duo provides a powerful example of how music can be used to start and expand very difficult conversations.
DAMN. (2017), by Kendrick Lamar
Listen to “XXX”
This entire album is undeniably revolutionary. It was the first non-jazz or non-classical album to win the Pulitzer (in 2018). The first track “BLOOD” directly takes on the controversy that developed after Fox News commentators, including Geraldo Rivera, made comments about Lamar’s performance of “Alright” at the 2015 BET Awards. The irony of an album with a profane title garnering such a prestigious award is delightfully subversive.
DAMN. is more stripped down and somber in style than his previous album, To Pimp A Butterfly. It is also much more introspective. While the rallying cry from Butterfly was clearly “Alright,” DAMN. gives us “XXX,” an examination of systemic racism, the military-industrial complex, and the prison-for-profit system as they function in the U.S.
A Seat at the Table (2016), by Solange
Listen to “Don’t Touch My Hair”
Solange Knowles started this album in 2008, which may explain the sheer depth of meaning captured in each song. Her gentle soprano deceptively disguises the rage simmering beneath multi-generational oppression. This psychedelic soul album delves into the psyche, examining the cost of racism and misogynoir at the personal and societal level. Many tracks focus on the exhaustion that comes from fighting systems of oppression merely by existing and the necessity of self-care (listen to “Borderline”). “Don’t Touch My Hair” beautifully addresses the symbolism behind that most well-known of microaggressions perpetrated on Black women. Solange powerfully, delicately demands respect and autonomy for her body and beliefs.
Icon. Billie Holiday (1942, 2011), by Billie Holiday
Listen to “God Bless the Child”
When people think of social justice anthems sung by Billie Holiday, they are usually thinking of “Strange Fruit.” It is heart wrenching, undoubted masterpiece on racial inequity and brutality. Yet I would like to highlight a song co-written by Billie herself: “God Bless the Child.” It was inspired by a financial argument Holiday was having with her mother. From this starting point, the song explores the depths of charity in the human heart, and the biblical references suggesting that religious belief doesn’t necessarily lead to kindness toward fellow humans. The ballad and Holiday’s voice could lead one to mistake the song for a lullaby. The lyrics lay brutally bare the harsh existence for those forced to the bottom rungs in a society based on social, racial, and economic inequality.
Medicine Songs (2017), by Buffy Saint-Marie
Listen to “Generation”
Sometimes music leads us on a journey, starting with one artist introducing us to a collaborator’s work and opening a whole new musical rabbit hole to explore. I will always be grateful to Buffy Saint-Marie for introducing me to A Tribe Called Red (see previous blog) through their remix of her song “Working for the Government.” Forever relevant, forever highlighting collaboration, every song she creates seems to be a protest.
The Indigenous Canadian-American musician has never stopped using her work to promote social justice issues. In Medicine Songs, she uses a collection of protest songs, new and old, to tell the story of her activism. She handles topics like environmental degradation, Indigenous rights, and perpetual warfare with grace and wisdom. Saint-Marie creates an empowering sound. “Generation” speaks to the potential of future generations, despite the seeming apathy of those in power.
The White Album (1968), by The Beatles
Listen to “Revolution #1”
This may possibly be the most laid back call for revolution ever… Or is it? This bluesy track is one of several versions The Beatles recorded. I adore the doo-wop like background vocals. The Beatles had previously limited the political statements of their music, a lesson learned after controversy over the “More popular than Jesus” comment Lennon made in a 1966 interview. There is a great deal of ambivalence in this song—a hesitancy to give the impression of supporting any one ideology. Lennon seems to show distrust for any form of establishment, revolutionary or otherwise, choosing instead to point out the pitfall of hypocrisy while trying to find a tenuous hold on unity. After all, “we all want to change the world.”
Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers (1980), by Bob Marley and the Wailers
Listen to “Redemption Song”
I can’t hear this song without remembering it was one of the last Marley composed before his untimely death on May 11, 1981. As he wrote it, he had already been diagnosed with cancer, his mortality looming. Featuring lyrics that quoted a speech by Marcus Garvey, “Redemption Song” seemed to be the message Marley wanted to leave behind.
Slavery was a frequent topic in many of Marley’s earlier songs, yet here he addresses slavery of a different kind—mental slavery. It speaks to how we trap ourselves by believing we are not enough or can’t do enough. Freedom in this song also takes on a different message from his other songs. It is freedom from all things that weigh us down (perhaps even the mortal flesh) echoing through the lyrics. He speaks to a common responsibility to free ourselves and others from suffering and discrimination.
Marley leaves us with a beautiful message of hope, empowerment, and healing. He sings his path to redemption, leading the way for us all.
Thank you for letting me share some of mine with you. I hope I included some of your favorites and perhaps introduced you to a few new revolutionary musicians. After all, music is meant to be shared. May we all play on, dance like nobody’s watching, and find redemption in song.
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