A Black History Month Playlist: 10 Influential Songs

Black history isn't just found in books — it is also honored in music. Learn more about how artists have narrated the Black experience through song.
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Get Up, Stand Up | Strange Fruit | Zombie | What's Going On | The Charade | Mississippi Goddam |
Lift Every Voice and Sing | Freedom| Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud | Glory

Music has always been a vehicle for advocacy and a method of speaking out for artists who campaign for political change. For Black people, musical activism is particularly significant. As the originators of country, rock, jazz, funk, hip-hop, and more, Black people have told their stories — and told them their way — for decades across genres.

The Black history taught in schools is not always accurate, if it is taught at all. Students can turn to these 10 influential songs to learn more about Black history.

"Get Up, Stand Up" - Bob Marley and the Wailers

The anecdotal history of "Get Up, Stand Up," released by singer-songwriter Bob Marley and his band in 1973, is the story of Marley's trip to Haiti. He saw the country's inhabitants in extreme poverty brought on by the Duvalier dynasty, which was characterized by inequity. Marley returned home to write a song about speaking in protest. Referencing odes to Marley's Rastafarian faith and to government corruption, "Get Up, Stand Up" uses its lyrics to incite revolution.

Pointing out the measures taken to oppress a community, Marley declares: "You can fool some people sometimes, but you can't fool all the people all the time."

"Strange Fruit" - Billie Holiday

Initially written as a poem by Jewish teacher Abel Meeropol, "Strange Fruit" reflects Meeropol'sdisgust with the lynching of Black people in the Southern United States. After reading the poem, Holiday decided to perform it — despite the extreme backlash she feared she would (and did) receive. Holiday and her performance of "Strange Fruit" were highly controversial. The song was banned from the radio and Holiday became a target of the FBI. The government attempted to silence Holiday and the Black protest anthem that is "Strange Fruit."

The lyrics describe a lynching in brutal and vivid detail: "Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees."

"Zombie" - Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti was a Nigerian musician, well-known as the father of Afrobeat. Aside from being a musical pioneer, he was a Pan-Africanist and political activist. Kuti used his songs as vehicles for political expression and as platforms for the advocacy of Nigerian people. His song "Zombie," written during the Nigerian Civil War, was a commentary on the Nigerian state's militaristic rule. The song sparked outrage, and, in 1977, soldiers were sent to burn down Kuti's commune, Kalakuta Republic.

The song's lyrics speak to Kuti's feelings about the Nigerian military, characterizing their behaviors as mindless and destructive: "Fall in (zombie), fall out, fall down (zombie), get ready."

"What's Going On" - Marvin Gaye

Released at the tail end of the civil rights movement and at the height of the Vietnam War, "What's Going On" illustrates a chaotic United States. The song outlines multiple experiences, including a soldier's return from Vietnam. "What's Going On" acknowledges and critiques America's failure to support its people.

Gaye's lyrics emphasize the universality of protest against discrimination and the inequity Black people face: "Picket lines and picket signs, don't punish me with brutality … Oh, what's going on?"

"The Charade" - D'Angelo and the Vanguard

After a 14 year hiatus, singer-songwriter D'Angelo returned with the album Black Messiah. The album features "The Charade," a song about politics, protest, and power. In a 2015 interview with the New York Times, D'Angelo and former Black Panther Party member Bobby Seale pointed out the song's relevance to current social justice movements. They argued for the necessity of Black activism and warned against the negative attitudes toward young revolutionaries. "The Charade" acts as both a record of history and an anthem for those who want social change.

The lyrics directly comment on systemic oppression and the necessity of Black protest in America: "Crawling through a systematic maze … Degradation so loud that you can't hear the sound of our cries."

"Mississippi Goddam" - Nina Simone

Written in the wake of activist Medgar Evers' murder, "Mississippi Goddam" encompasses Nina Simone's frustrations with the American South. Within the lyrics, Simone claims the tune as her first civil rights song and recounts images of demonstrations and injustice. Her rage against incidents like the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama, where four young Black girls died, is palpable in the song's intense lyrics.

In "Mississippi Goddam," Simone highlights the tensions of the 1960s: "Oh, but this whole country is full of lies. You're all gonna die and die like flies."

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" - Performed by the Boys Choir of Harlem

Known as the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was written by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson. On Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1900, the piece was translated to music by John Rosamond Johnson and performed by 500 children at the Stanton School in Florida. After the performance, the song traveled through the American South, where it grew in popularity and became a staple of the Black songbook.

The song's connection to the early origins of Black civil rights is apparent in its lyrics: "Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us."

"Freedom" - Beyoncé

Released in 2016, Beyoncé's famed album "Lemonade," which focuses on the strength of Black women, features the song "Freedom." In the song, Beyoncé pulls imagery from American slavery, the Civil Rights Era, and 21st century social justice movements to illustrate themes of anger and redemption. Freedom's video includes a cameo of the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner — all Black men killed due to racist discrimination — as a testament to Black women's power and permanence in social justice movements.

Refusing to let the work toward justice go to waste, Beyoncé claims: "I'ma keep running, 'cause a winner don't quit on themselves."

"Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" - James Brown

Known for his activism through song, James Brown wrote "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" in 1968 during the civil rights movement. The song, a declaration of Black pride, was perceived as angry and militant, leading to the loss of Brown's crossover audience. After its release, "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" was used as the soundtrack to protests for civil rights. To this day, it is celebrated as a Black anthem and a symbol of Black pride.

Brown conveys the spirit of self-preservation in his lyrics, stating: "But we'd rather die on our feet than keep living on our knees."

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"Glory" - Common and John Legend

Written for the historical film "Selma," a depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s march from Selma to Montgomery, "Glory" expresses the emotions and experiences of Black Americans from the civil rights era to today. The song recounts historical injustices and compares them to modern social movements, bridging the past and present with references to Rosa Parks and the 2014 protests for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. "Glory" not only honors those who fought against injustice in the past, but also those who fight against it now.

The lyrics communicate that unity is one of the best methods used to overcome hard times: "Now we right the wrongs in history. No one can win the war individually."