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Black History Month playlist: 10 essential songs

Throughout history, musicians have used their art as a form of communicating messages. For minorities, not only can music relay a message, but it can be a form of protest, a call to action, a celebration of cultures and more.

Black artists have used their voices to create an everlasting impact in the music industry through genres such as country, rhythm & blues, hip hop/rap/trap, house, disco, rock and roll, and more . Dating back as early as the 18th century, black musicians have an extensive catalog of songs that have come to be essential to black culture.

It is essential to note the songs that have come to be an essential part of black history. Here is a list of some of the songs that have made that impact.

  • “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson (poem) and John Rosamond Johnson (music) — The song that has been recognized as the “Black National Anthem” deserves its rightful spot on this list. Originally a poem written in 1900 by James Johnson, his brother John Johnson set the song to music five years later. The song combines themes of pain and faith with the hope for continuing progress, specifically in earning equal rights for black people.
  • “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke- Inspired by an event where Cooke and his entourage were turned down at a whites-only hotel. Cooke took a risk by releasing this song amid the Civil Rights Movement. The song encourages the hope that one day, black people will achieve equal rights in America.
  • “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar- This anthem is about the hope that is fundamentally important, as it was released during the Black Lives Matter movement. Lamar details that while black people have been through many hardships over time, we will be alright in the end.
Beyonce performing one of her most iconic songs, “Formation”.
  • “Formation” by Beyoncé- Alongside the accompanying music video, Beyoncé created a musical experience that unapologetically highlighted the beauty of being a black woman in Southern culture. The singer proudly chants about her lineage and success and encourages others to do the same.
  • “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday- A dark song about the lynching of African Americans during the Jim Crow era, the song compares black people to fruit hanging on a tree. The song tells about the harsh but authentic experiences of African Americans in the 20th century.
  • “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye- The opening track on his 1971 album of the same name, was inspired by Obie Benson, one of the writers of the song, witnessing an incident of police brutality. The song title asks an important question, and the song itself is a request for peace in the world.
  • “Four Women” by Nina Simone- This song tells the stories of four black women, each with varying physical traits and experiences that represent different types of black women. The song also details the lasting impact that slavery has had on black people.
  • “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy- In this song, Public Enemy makes many references to African American culture, including civil rights exhortations, James Brown, church services and more. They even call out popular American figures such as Elvis Presley and John Wayne. All in all, the song is a call to African Americans to fight the oppressors that hold them down.
  • “Respect” by Aretha Franklin- While the song itself isn’t about black power, Franklin’s cover of this legendary song can empower any group who feels oppressed. The song was released during many notable changes in society, including the Civil Rights movement, war in Vietnam, and the Black Panthers Movement.
  • “Glory” by Common and John Legend- Written for the soundtrack of the 2014 film “Selma,” the song is inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and Ferguson protests after the shooting for Michael Brown. The singer and rapper duo discuss how one day, the protesting will lead to a victory.

While these are just a few songs, there is a wide range of songs that discuss African American experiences across a variety of topics. Music is an excellent source for getting personal and detailed accounts of what black people have experienced throughout history.

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