Music and Social Activism
Music is the universal language. Music existed In every culture and in every civilization. Through music and song our lives have been chronicled. The joy, pain, elation, and despair of our human experience has all been conveyed in music.
This is a tribute to the role that music and song has played in social activism. From Sam Cooke to Public Enemy, from Etta James to Tupac Shakur, from Billie Holiday to Dwele, they all tell a story in their own unique way.
We asked our readers to share with us some of their favorite songs. This is not a definitive study on music and social activism. It's a sharing of that which makes us conscious people. I hope that you bookmark this page and come back often. Please feel free to submit your favorites to us. There's always room for one more song.
Numerous books have been written about the origins of the "Negro" spirituals. There are schools of thought that believe some of the original spirituals were in fact coded messages for runaway slaves as they traveled north on the Underground Railroad. Songs like "Wade In The Water" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" take on special meaning when viewed in this context. (Harriett Tubman is pictured to the left)
The Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam, Kent State (1970), Flower Power. If there was ever a time that this country was on the verge of internal collapse, the sixties was that time. The songs of that decade reflected our disgust and disdain of the status quo and our commitment to persevere until we received the equality and justice we deserved.
Songs such as Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" and The Impressions' "People Get Ready" spoke to the hope for a brighter future. These songs were beacons that kept our eyes on the prize.
Mini skirts, maxi skirts, and Afro hairdos. Soul Train and platform shoes. We came out of the Sixties and we were no longer Negroes. We were Black and we were proud. This was a period of social and cultural awareness. We had our own handshake, we called ourselves Soul Brothers and Soul Sisters, we had our own national anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing". We supported and observed Black Solidarity Day (November 5, 2012 this year). As I think of those times a feeling of nostalgia comes over me. I truly miss those days.
With this new awareness we started looking at the world in a different light. Were we really free? Were we truly equal? This awareness was reflected in our music. Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On", Parliament's "Chocolate City", and many others exposed the challenges that were still ahead of us.
This was the period of urban decay. For a lot of African Americans the American dream was just that, a dream. Neighborhoods were in utter despair and there were no investments being made to shore up the urban infrastructure. Housing projects seemed to be a place to warehouse the disenfranchised. Drugs, crime, gangs, and violence was rampant and out of control.
Out of this came the rawest form of poetry, Rap music. You can say what you want about rap music but just like all of the music that came before, it reflected the sign of the times. Songs such as Grand Master Flash's "The Message" and Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" exposed the country to what "life in the hood" was really about.
The Nineties - Present
The journey continues. Rap music has become mainstream and after a period of self-degradation is returning to it's socially active roots. The poetry and fluidity of the messages are still strong and most importantly artists are still producing good music. One of the major changes during this period is economic empowerment. Many artists now own, produce, and distribute their work. This makes them major players in the industry and provides them the artistic flexibility that they deserve.
Artists like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Dwele, and many more are "doing what they do" to keep the banner high.