A Change Is Gonna Come: The Music of the Civil Rights & Black Lives Matter Movement

Autumn Simon

May 25, 2020- As the world remained somber due to the many months in the pandemic, their sadness grew deeper in response to a video that went viral for the wrong reasons. Millions opened their phones to footage of the arrest and subsequent death of 46-year-old African-American male George Floyd. A few months before the incident, the Black community was still reeling over the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Yet, we had to come together once again to watch more devastating news of racism in the modern era.

Sadly, the unjustifiable deaths of African Americans are no longer a taboo topic, and the amount of concern increased widely after the recording was released. Social media platforms were able to further spread the news with users retweeting and reposting the content-warning video. As the virtual audience grew, the physical one began to take the streets with millions protesting all across the United States. In the past few months, we have seen an outpour of support and educational resources for the Black Lives Matter movement from large companies, clothing brands, athletic programs and even networks. Black musicians have also continued shining a light on the movement by using their voices as instruments of change.

The story of the Black American experience is far from new, and music has been an outlet to amplify the moment and help shine a light on Black Liberation. From African-Amerian spirituals to hard-hitting hip-hop anthems, music has and continues to help us transcend a message that we’ve been allocating for nearly a century. As we look to the past Civil Rights Movement against racial injustices and the present Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, we wanted to highlight a timeline of music that addressed oppression.

1900-  John & James Weldon Johnson “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a song towards the celebration of freedom. The hymn was written by brothers James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, who both performed the piece for President Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12, 1900. The inspirational song serves as a call for liberation and serves as the official Black National Anthem.

1901- Various Artists We Shall Overcome”

Originally derived from Reverend Charles Albert Tindley’s hymn, “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” this gospel tune has been adopted by various artists throughout generations. Its most popular version comes from Lucille Simmons and Pete Seeger. The lyrics and title were eventually changed to “We Shall Overcome” and have since become associated with the 1960s civil rights movement.

1939- Billie Holiday “Strange Fruit”

Skipping over to 30+ years later, this era of America saw its first large resistance from African Americans. One of the worst crimes committed against African Americans at the time was lynching, and Jazz singer Billie Holiday protests against this cruel punishment in her 1939 song “Strange Fruit.” Written by Abel Meeropol, this song was both profound and chilling compared to Holiday’s other works. The song was also eventually covered by Nina Simone, which was sampled in Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves.”

1950s- Odetta “Oh Freedom”

Known as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement”, Odetta utilized her soulful voice to create “Oh Freedom.” A part of the “Freedom Trilogy,” this six-minute song consists of three tracks, “Oh Freedom, Come & Go With Me, I’m On My Way.” Odetta was the inspiration of many folk singers including Bob Dylan and was even called the queen of American folk music by Martin Luther King Jr.

1964- Sam Cooke “A Change Is Gonna Come”

Sam Cooke was one of the earlier faces of Black entrepreneurship in the music industry. With a voice that exceeds past Black and White, Cooke used his talent and frustrations of segregation to create, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”After an all-too-familiar experience of being turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana, Cooke created the most culturally relevant song of all time.

1968- James Brown “Say it Loud, I’m Black and Proud”

In the late 60s, Black music was transitioning from jazz to disco-infused funk. With this genre change, came the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, who powerfully proclaimed that he is “Black and Proud.” This song became the chant for the Black Power movement. Released in the same year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, this unapologetic tune was the hopeful anthem that African Americans needed at that time. 

1970- The Last Poets “When the Revolution Comes”

The word revolution has been used heavily to describe wars or injustice or oppression. The Last Poets are a group of poets and musicians who used their talents to speak on Black Nationalism. Political passiveness is one of the leading causes of continued racism and The Last Poets critiqued  this directly in their spoken word track, “When the Revolution Comes.”

1971- Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On”

“What’s Going On?” A question that African Americans have been asking for years still goes unanswered 50-years-later. The Prince of Soul, Marvin Gaye created the hit single under Motown Records in 1971. He was inspired by his brother’s homecoming from Vietnam and placed himself in the returning soldier’s shoes. After days of nonstop violence and nearly sacrificing his life, the soldier returns to a country that not only doesn’t appreciate his service but treats him lower than the average human because of his race. The 70s were a time where the hippie movement allowed non-people of color to open their eyes to how America treated those who were different from them poorly.

1982- Grandmaster Flash “The Message”

As we head into the early 80s, American music would become forever rocked thanks to the introduction of hip-hop. New York birthed a whole urban culture and gave us the founding fathers of this genre, Sugar Hill Records. At the time, hip-hop was fun and invited the audience to dance and groove with the beat. However, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five took it upon themselves to use the platform for social commentary. The group created the song “The Message.” This was one of the first hip-hop political anthems that led the charge against police brutality and racism. 

1988-  N.W.A. “F*** Tha Police”

A song that continues to resonate with all generations is one of N.W.A’s most popular hits, “F*** the Police.” Long before the Rodney King trial and other cases of video police brutality, the “Straight Outta Compton” group went head to head against the boys of the law who use racial profiling to go against Black and Brown communities. The song was so powerful, the FBI targeted the group with threats of censorship and jail time if they continued performing the track.  

1989- Public Enemy “Fight the Power”

When Spike Lee created the cultural comedy-drama “Do the Right Thing,” he needed a song for the film that was loud, unapologetic and not afraid to tackle heavy subjects. He approached Public Enemy members Chuck D and Flavor Flav to create the film’s single, “Fight the Power.” The powerful track resonated heavily with the Black community as it encouraged audiences to fight back against oppression. 

2014-  Common ft. John Legend “Glory”

For a brief moment in time, musical activism transcended across all genres, and hip-hop paused grief to explore the fun side of life. Sadly, during this time the numbers of Black males, females and children losing their lives to police brutality and racial attacks continued to grow. In 2014, Ava DuVernay directed the film “Selma” based on the Selma to Montgomery Marches. Both Common and John Legend invoke social change by detailing how not much has changed since the 1965 marches. 

2015- Kendrick Lamar “Alright”

Rapper Kendrick Lamar has used his platform greatly to display the injustices toward African American males. Today’s Black Lives Matter campaign got its start in the 2010s, and Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly song “Alright” became the movement’s soundtrack. “Alright” is a chant that provokes Black joy, anger, sadness and all the emotions the culture has been feeling since the beginning. This song is today’s “We Shall Overcome!”

2016-  Beyonce ft. Kendrick Lamar “Freedom”

Frustrated by the various shootings of African Americans, one of the grandest voices of the culture decided to step in to shine some light on the movement. Beyonce went her whole career without provoking any further drama that came her way. That was until she decided that it was time to  let her voice be heard of “Freedom.” Accompanied by our previous entry, Kendrick Lamar, both artists roar on this hard-hitting track.

2018- Childish Gambino “This Is America”

Let’s just say Childish Gambino had time one day in 2018 to call out America for all his flaws! When “This is America” was released, the country sat in front of their screens to watch the premiere of the graphic music video. Between the many symbols and images of America’s treatment towards African Americans, the video contains so many elements that are both alarming and saddening. 

2020-  Lil Baby “The Bigger Picture”

Nearly 100 years later, the message couldn’t be said louder and clearer. 2020 changed drastically after the death of George Floyd. Large protests returned, looting was a large issue and the government showed its true colors. To close out our list, we’ve placed Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” as our 2020 activism song of choice. Lil Baby’s track draws on police brutality and his own experience as a young Black male in America.