Music is a vital part of every culture; but the role it’s played in the lives of African Americans is particularly unique as music was often used to express pain, hope, frustration and love in ways that words alone simply could not. It was a weapon in hostile environments and a inspiration for days to come. Here are just ten of the songs that speak to the black experience and elicit a deep sense of pride and self worth.
Young, Gifted, and Black Nina Simone
There are several versions of this song; but something about the passion and fervor associated with Nina’s performance makes her version my favorite. It seemed like it was absolutely imperative that her audience really get the message. This song is just a reminder that despite the comments of any naysayers, whether black or white, we’re all talented and have gifts to contribute to the world.
This modern day jam boasted a big message. While it acknowledged the less than admirable aspects of black life, it simultaneously conveys worth and uniqueness. Nobody can do what we do, the way we do it. And that really does make us fabulous.
Say it Loud- I’m Black and I’m Proud James Brown
James Brown was a revolutionary in more ways than one. This song was so bold and refreshing for this time period. Released in 1968, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, the song sent a message of pride in a peaceful manner. In his autobiography Brown said he was very conscious about the tone of the song: “But really, if you listen to it, it sounds like a children’s song. That’s why I had children in it, so children who heard it could grow up feeling pride…” Brown also said the song cost him a lot of his crossover audience, but as you can see from the video above, some whites were definitely down.
Black Man Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder could sing the phone book and make it sound poetic. Here he gives us a history lesson through song. While the song is called Black Man and acknowledges the African American role in U.S. history it also shouts out men of a few other colors as well. It’s about inclusion and Stevie keeps it funky.
Symphony of Brotherhood Miri Ben- Ari
Miri Ben- Ari is not black, she’s from Israel; but the power and fervor behind her music supersedes this little thing we call race. If you don’t know her by name, the Hip-Hop violinist, has probably been featured on your favorite rap hits over the years. In this more classical approach, Ben-Ari still delivers the heat. The lacing of MLK’s vocals in the background, sends the song over the edge. Her covering of this song, is the perfect visual and auditory illustration of King’s dream.
Brown Skin Lady Blackstar
This one is for the ladies. It’s nice to know that are some brothers that still appreciate your beauty (not just your booty) enough to write a song about it. Mos Def and Talib Kweli break it down for us with such clarity, you might just have to high five yourself the next time you walk past a mirror. Yes it’s like that.
Brotha Angie Stone
Of course we can’t forget the men. In a world full of stereotypes and demonizing images Angie Stone still asserts that we sisters still have love for ya’ll. Again the song acknowledges the shortcomings (“…to every one of ya’ll behind bars…”) but focuses and celebrates the positives. Whether you’re exploring the racial color wheel or you’re happy to stay in your lane, we can appreciates Angie’s message of love.
Umi Says Mos Def
This song, like so many on the list, draws on the sankofa principle. Drawing inspiration from the past to excel in the future. Umi means mother and it’s from this place that Mos Def finds his motivation to shine and press forward. In this heartfelt track Mos Def expresses his yearning to not only shine as an individual, but for his people to succeed as well.
Black Butterfly Deniece Williams
Don’t let Williams’ delicate voice betray the gravity of the song. Black Butterfly tells the story of black people, from our journey across the water, to our ascent to the skies. The song reasserts our worth and advises us to pass the message along to our children.
Lift Every Voice and Sing James Weldon Johnson
This song was written eons ago. (1900) We’ve all seen the elders get choked all the way up when this song is performed, struggling to get the lyrics out while tears stream down their face. It’s real for them. But don’t judge; because, under the right circumstances you too may have to grab some tissue on the sly. And if there’s a slide show involved, they might have to carry you out.
*Bonus* Someday We’ll All Be Free Donny Hathaway
Few singers can tap into the genuine sincerity that Donny just seemed to have on deck, ready at his beck and call. From the first note there is a physiological response to his voice. Such is the case in Someday We’ll All Be Free. It’s a song of encouragement so powerful and believable we’d swear he wrote the words for us personally. When the track ends, you’d swear you just had a conversation with a great friend.
What’s missing? What songs are on your Black and Proud list?