Confronting racism through music

Not to racism imageFor at least half a century artists have used popular music as a way to confront racism, America’s original sin. Emerging in tandem with the civil rights movement in the 60s, serious social commentary became widely popular, taking a cue from the long history of worker protest music. Of course, there were sporadic efforts to tackle racism before then, like the unforgettable “Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol and first recorded by Billie Holliday in 1939. But such efforts were not widespread. Sadly, the need to express the pain of racism through music is just as strong today as it ever was. I’ve listed below some of the most powerful songs about racism, some well-known and some lesser known. If you have suggestions to add to the list, let me know.

Strange Fruit (1939) — This is the iconic musical statement about racism, and it sets a high bar. Written by Abel Meeropol in 1937, Billie Holiday made it famous in a recording two years later. Morgan Freeman introduces the song in this powerful live version by Jill Scott.

Four Women (1966) — With a minimum of words but the right dose of attitude, Nina Simone portrayed the effects of racism on four emblematic black women. I particularly like the Meshell Ndegeocello version. Each character is sung with a subtly different approach, and the song ends with the fourth woman’s name unsaid, as if she represents the countless unnamed. But this live Simone version is also moving.

Everyday People (1968) — Sly and the Family Stone captured the inherent stupidity of racism with the nah-nah-nah playground taunt refrain “There is a yellow one that won’t accept the black one that won’t accept the red one that won’t accept the white one.”

Fear of a Black Planet (1990) — This title track is only one of the songs about racism on Public Enemy’s seminal album. Lines like “But did you know White comes from Black” remind us of the irrationality at the core of racism.

Dead Nigga Blvd. (Pt. 1) (2001/2002) — Meshell Ndegeocello entwines themes of internalized racism, freedom, and greed in this brutally frank song. Riffing off Jesse Jackson’s words, she yearns to take back control, singing, “No longer do I blame others for the way that we be.”

Colonized Mind (2009) — Power and subjugation are the themes in this lesser known song by Prince. “The one in power makes law, under which the colonized fall,” he sings in this Hendrix-esque lament. Belief in a higher power is his antidote, although the history of man’s use of religion to justify racism makes one wonder.

The Charade (2014) — Haunted by too many news stories about the killing of black men, D’Angelo wrote this anthem during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. “All we wanted was a chance to talk, ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk,” he sings.

Middle-Class Circumstance (2015) — Inspired by the “resurgence” of racism during Obama’s presidency, Andre Akinyele asks the question outright, “Why do you hate black people so much?” He know it’s senseless, yet he yearns for an answer that remains elusive. The song conjures images of strange fruit and people on the run that are gut-wrenching.

Noble Nobles (2016) — Esperanza Spalding skewers the hypocrisy of the founding fathers with brutally clever turns of phrase and a melody and arrangement redolent of Joni Mitchell. Playing off the concept of the noble savage, she sings “noble nobles, what a savage myth.” Her blood-curdling cry on the word “savages” marks the song’s emotional climax.

For additional posts about interesting music lists, see About Music and This Site.

“No to racism” image courtesy of ElIndignado653, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Atribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

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