By: Kayla Butler
From songs used to communicate pathways to freedom, to songs of celebration, songs of protest, to the creation of Blues and Jazz, music has played an important role throughout Black American history. In this week’s installation of JCI’s Black History Month series, we turn our attention to the power and legacy of Black musicians and the songs that audibly paint a picture of what it means to be Black in America.
Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt's land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go
Many slaves wrote songs of survival to convey sorrow, hope, and determination. Frederick Douglass explained, “They were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”
Abolitionists also created songs to persuade others to join their movement. “Slavery is a Hard Foe to Battle,” by Judson Hutchinson was an abolitionist song performed by the Hutchinson family, who also performed songs related to women’s suffrage.
Then take off coats and roll up sleeves,
Slavery is a hard foe to battle;
Then take off coats and roll up sleeves,
O, Slavery is a hard foes to battle.
Following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, African Americans served in the Civil War, despite segregated regiments. Black soldiers brought with them musical traditions, including spirituals and dance music. Since much of this music was improvised, it was rarely written down. Songs such as “Hail Mary”, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and “Go Down Moses” emphasized the message of longing for freedom. Similarly, many slaves escaping plantations to join the Union Army sang “Many Thousands Go.”
After the South surrendered in 1865, the United States entered the Reconstruction period which ushered in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which in theory ended slavery, granted all Black Americans equal protection under the law, and voting rights for Black men. And while there was some progress, the work towards equity and inclusion wasn’t over yet.
In 1900 James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson collaborated to create “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which schoolchildren sang on Feb. 12, 1900 to celebrate Abraham Linconln’s birthday.
“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;”
The poem was used in graduations, churches and celebrations and is even sung today as the “Black National Anthem,” which was recently performed at the Super Bowl albeit outside the stadium.
During the Great Depression, African Americans were fired and unemployed at rates much larger than their white counterparts. Racial violence also became more common, especially in the South where the amount of lynchings increased dramatically. In 1937, Jewish high school teacher and civil rights activist Abel Meeropol wrote the poem “Strange Fruit” after he saw an image of two Black men who were lynched in Indiana.
“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”
The eerie poem was popularized by blues singer Billie Holiday. When she first saw the lyrics, it reminded her of the death of her father who had died from a lung disorder after being denied treatment at a hospital because of his race.
During the 1940s, the Great Migration of southern African Americans brought blues music to the rest of the United States. Urban centers such as Chicago and New York became hubs for blues musicians who started churning out hit after hit. Rhythm and blues (R & B) music in the 40s and 50s was often associated with young urban Black men and included groups like the Cardinals, the Swallows, the Five Blue Notes, and the Armstrong Four. Unfortunately, accompanying the Great Migration was the revival of the KKK, Jim Crow Laws, and the U.S. entering World War II.
R&B became the most popular music created by African Americans between the end of World War II and the early 1960s. After the return of many Black soldiers from the front lines of World War II, the Civil Rights movement became the next big cause, especially in the South. With that movement came countless songs that portrayed the issues and inequities that were facing their communities. Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and James Brown’s “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” are two of many examples of songs written about the Black experience during the 60s.
“Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone encapsulates the devastation that occurred in 1963: the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama, and the attacks against non-violent freedom fighters.
Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
While some protestors sang religious hymns and folks songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” to express their feelings about this tumultuous time, Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” is a powerful song that paints a picture of how dangerous and traumatic the fight for Civil Rights actually was. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t all ‘kumbaya’ a la “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times they are a Changin,’ – there was also rampant violence towards anyone who tried to challenge the power structures that uphold white supremacy. Nina Simone painted that picture for us about those on the frontlines of the struggle. This song, among so many others serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of music during the 1960s Civil Rights movement and the role it played as an outlet for those who were involved.
Known as the post-civil rights movement era, the 1970s presented advances in civil rights, but African Americans’ economic conditions did not improve. Issues related to civil rights legislation, job funding, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and inner-city housing were at the forefront during this time. The Black Panther Party along with other Black Power groups came into the limelight throughout the 1970s.
Gil Scott-Heron, who was among the first children integrated into grade school in Tennessee, later became a civil rights activist and writer. He released an album in the early ‘70s called Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. His first track, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” described the uprising of Black Americans protesting against injustice and would be used synonymously with Black Power and protest.
The revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be brought to you
By Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon blowing a bugle
And leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams, and Spiro Agnew
To eat hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary
The revolution will not be televised
The 1980s and 1990s was the birth of rap and hip-hop. Popular songs such as N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” protested against institutionalized racism and police brutality against Black communities. During the 1990s, women’s rights protest songs were also on the rise. The Fugees album The Score was a unique political statement in music because of its mix of melancholic tunes while also discussing violence, racism, and poverty. The Score highlighted refugees who would come to a new country and not just live quietly. The Fugees wanted to describe not “good immigrants” and their work was a beautiful portrayal of this through the use of wit and melody.
I, refugee from Guantanamo Bay
Dance around the border Like I’m Cassius Clay
Ready or not, here I come
You can't hide
Gonna find you
And take it slowly
Hurricane Katrina, Barack Obama’s presidency, and the murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice were just a few major events that took place during the early-mid 2000s. On August 9th, 2014, unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot and killed by a white Ferguson, Missouri police officer. This, along with the countless of other murders of people of color at the hands of police, sparked protests and prompted a miltaristic response by police.
Lauryn Hill dedicated her song “Black Rage” to Ferguson:
Black rage is founded on draining and draining
Threatening your freedom to stop your complaining
Poisoning your water while they say its raining
Then call you mad for complaining, complaining
In 2016, Solange Knowles released her album “A Seat at The Table.” The album juxtaposed funk, neo-soul, and contemporary R&B while telling a story of Black rage, trauma, joy, and reflection. In a 2016 interview with NPR, Solange stated: “We've [People of the African-Diaspora] always had a seat at the table…I think one of the seats at the table is also saying that, you know, I'm inviting you to have a seat at my table. And it's an honor to be able to have a seat at our table and for us to open up in this way and for us to feel safe enough to have these conversations and share them with you.” Knowles dives deep into the celebration of Black culture while also confronting prejudice and violent discrimination.
In the “Interlude: Tina Taught Me,” Tina Lawson celebrated her love for being Black:
“It’s such beauty in black people, and it really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being black” Lawson continues on to say that many of those who oppose that statement say that you are considered anti-white. “No!” Lawson says, “You’re just pro-black” Being pro-black does not mean you are against white culture, it’s just taking pride in being black.”
After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and other Black men and women at the hands of police and racist civilians, Leon Bridges released a song called “Sweeter,” featuring Terrace Martin. The song is written from the perspective of a Black man taking his last breath and feeling his spirit leave his body.
Hoping for a life more sweeter,
Instead I’m just a story repeating.
Why do I fear with skin dark as night?
Can’t feel peace with those judging eyes.
As we continue to reflect on Black History and the impact of music created by Black musicians and artists, there is a large common thread between the different eras and protest music where singers and songwriters were able to tell their stories, express their emotions, and empower generations to demand change.
In our shared pursuit of equity and justice for all, music will continue to serve as a way to preserve and celebrate culture, while also being a powerful medium to communicate that things are not as they should be. Black history is American history. Black culture is American culture. And Black music serves as a reminder that while a change may eventually come, it’s up to us, especially those of us with immense privilege, to continue fighting for it.