Civil Rights Songs (1939–2014)

Race and racial politics occupy an unusual position in our musical heritage. Black musicians account for nearly every major American musical innovation - blues, ragtime, jazz, rock n' roll, funk, soul, disco, and hip-hop - often as a manifestation of the pain and suffering of oppression, political and economic subjugation, and the indignities of inequality. Thousands of songs deserve inclusion on this list, but these were chosen for their pertinence, political value, and poignancy. 

“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday (1939)/ “Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone (1965)/ “Blood On The Leaves”  & "New Slaves" by Kanye West (2013)

 “Strange Fruit” is the only logical starting point for this list, the song that paved the way for explicit discussion of race in music and captured the anguish of injustice and annihilation better than perhaps any other. Abel Meeropol, a poet and Communist activist (jazz bassist Marcus Miller, who has covered the song, once described him as a “white Jewish guy from the Bronx”), wrote it in response to a photograph of the brutal lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, IN, publishing the lyrics in several magazines before setting them to music. Holiday’s is the iconic version and her lyricism is consummate, but I’ve always been taken by the way Simone’s muscular voice evokes the images, with a haunting rawness lacking in Holiday’s more demure rendering. 

In a clear nod to both versions, Kanye West samples extensively from Simone’s rendition in “Blood On The Leaves," but I’ve yet to tease out why he decided to pay her homage on a song otherwise devoid of references to race. As Simone intones about “black bodies hanging from the poplar trees," West sings about the slights and wounds of a seemingly illicit past relationship, one he thinks is perhaps freighted with injustices equal or in some way befitting those of “Strange Fruit.” The song is meticulously crafted, and it’s clear that significant forethought went into his choice to sample “Strange Fruit”. But I’ll be damned to discern whether his reasons constitute anything more than typical Kanye bluster and a bad, hubristic, inside joke.  On “New Slaves”, which he boldly asserted contains the “greatest rap verse of all time,” he rails against materialism, corporatism, and the media, as the modern agents of iniquity and oppression.

“Fables of Faubus” & “Original Faubus Fables” by Charles Mingus (1959)

The Faubus in question is, of course, the infamous Arkansas governor who in 1957 defied a direct Supreme Court order and deployed the National Guard to prevent the integration of the Little Rock Nine. Mingus originally intended the song to have lyrics ridiculing Faubus, but Columbia Records deemed them too inflammatory and forced him to release it as an instrumental on his 1959 album Mingus Ah Um. A year later, Mingus re-recorded the track with lyrics, released by the more forward-thinking Candid Records as “Original Faubus Fables."

Mingus caricatures Faubus with a languid and top-heavy swing figure that can barely muster enough momentum to repeat itself. Mingus’s bass solo (~6:00 on “Fables of Faubus”) is quiet but ever-so smug, and though his treatment may be jocular, the cutting lyrics of “Original Faubus Fables” make it clear that this is no joking matter. Rarely are ignorance and arrogance honored with such sonic blandishment.

“Alabama” by John Coltrane (1963)

“Alabama” was inspired by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham perpetrated by a Ku Klux Klan splinter group that killed four young women and injured more than twenty church members. Though the piece is spartan by Coltrane’s standards, its simple construction and spare arrangement lends it poignancy and accessibility uncharacteristic of his oeuvre. His approach is initially slow and restrained, a eulogy over rhythm section drone that, after a brief and livelier middle section, unravels into discord and doom.

“Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone (1964)

“This is a show tune/But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet,” Simone proclaims, over a campy Broadway riff that couldn’t be more out-of-sync with her excoriating lyrics. The allegory shouldn’t be missed: in ’64, the Civil Rights Act may have been passed, but the show was far from over and, as the urgency of her playing suggests, unfolding far “too slow”. Mingus lampooned the deep south and Coltrane lamented it, but Simone lambasts it with prescience, precision, and wit.  

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” by Bob Dylan (1964)

Outraged by the reprieve of William Zantzinger, a twenty-four-year-old member of Maryland’s tobacco gentry who, in a drunken rampage, assaulted and killed Hattie Carroll, a fifty-one-year-old black barmaid and mother of ten, Dylan penned this protest ballad. Dylan rarely breaches the fourth wall, but this song is unusual in the way it interpolates between his narration of the incident and direct appeals to his audience, who would normally moralize (“philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,”), to toughen up (“take the rag away from your face/ now ain’t the time for your tears”). It’s not a call to action, per se, but a heavy warning against capitulating to emotion until the system has served its ultimate injustice, allowing odious men like Zantzinger to walk free.

“Long Walk To DC” by The Staple Singers (1968)

At a time when the great Motown machine was preoccupied with churning out sappy love songs and tended, perhaps strategically, to ignore matters of race and oppression, The Staple Singers stood out as a group capable of combining socially-conscious lyrics with Motown’s bubblegum sensibilities. Mavis Staples is in fine form on this triumphant gospel-tinged romp commemorating The Great March on Washington of 1963. The chugging drum breaks and steady bass line emulate the act of marching, imparting determination, optimism, and spirit at a time when the civil rights effort had become a wearying slog.

“Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown (1968)

After playing peacemaker by performing a concert in Boston the night after MLK’s assassination, largely seen as the main reason Boston avoided the severe race riots that swept the nation that night, Brown returned more stridently with “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud”. With irrepressible groove and inimitable panache, “His Bad Self” and a cohort of thirty schoolchildren invigorated the nascent black empowerment (and power) movement with its first, and most enduring anthem. Brown’s lyrics match the punch of the funky horn reveilles and phenomenally catchy chorus – not quite acerbic, but oh-so-proud. 

“Concrete Reservation” by Syl Johnson (1970)/ “Pruitt Igoe” by Philip Glass (1982)

By 1970, the civil rights era, as we’ve formally come to think of it, had ended. While the embers of the past decade cooled, the overt racism of fire hoses and attack dogs burrowed and reemerged in more insidious, institutionalized forms, ostensibly practicing tolerance, while promoting subjugation, poverty, and disenfranchisement. By 1970, the median income of residents of public housing had dropped to thirty-seven percent of the national median, while the number of minority residents ballooned to over sixty percent. Daily life in Johnson’s “Concrete Reservation” was, as he puts it, “a bad situation,” arduous, destitute, crime-ridden, and ultimately unsustainable.

In his 1982 art film Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio filmed the demolition of the Pruitt Igoe, a derelict housing project in St. Louis, MO that had come to symbolize the government’s failure to provide an equitable way-of-life for urban minorities. Philip Glass’s quasi-apocalyptic score, with its menacing brass, burbling synthesizers, and eerie choirs, underscores the profligate collapse of the Pruitt Igoe and its consequent destruction. 

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron (1971)/ “Fear Of A Black Planet” by Public Enemy (1990)

Gil Scott-Heron’s blistering proto-rap laid the groundwork for incisive wordplay of N.W.A, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Public Enemy, and other politically-charged early 90’s rap groups. These are radical opinions, no doubt, but I think they deserve dispensation for their vituperative wit and energy. If anything, listen to Scott-Heron sustain the central metaphor of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” for more than three minutes, a marvel of poetic engineering. 

“Pusherman” by Curtis Mayfield (1972)/ “Move That Dope” by Future (2014)

 “Pusherman” originally appeared on Mayfield’s soundtrack for Superfly, a 1972 blaxploitation film about the travails of a young cocaine dealer (a “pusherman”). A self-styled “ghetto prince” who’s “super cool, super mean,” and “brings the baddest bitches to bed,” the Pusherman also subscribes to a higher calling: to provide his clients an escape, albeit a chemically-induced one, from bleak demands and burdens of the ghetto.

The dealer in Future’s “Move That Dope” is a modern incarnation of the Pusherman. He sports the same princely swagger and still scores the baddest bitches, but his methods have become more nefarious, his intentions more sinister. Future is a rising star in the world of “trap-rap,” an increasingly prominent sub-genre of Southern gangsta rap, characterized by its dark, often violent, lyrics that describe life in the “trap,” the aspects of ghetto life that pertain to drugs and the drug trade. 

Trap takes on many of the traditional gangsta rap tropes – a deep obsession with money and a deftly narrated stream of conspicuous consumption, gratuitous depictions of sex, a vigorous enthusiasm for drugs, inflated egos that border on cults of personality, and most importantly, a fixation with using violence as a means to attain more power, money, drugs, women, etc. -  but the rhetoric is more fantastical and exaggerated, often to the point that it is hard to discern the real life “traps” upon which it is based. It is premised on brutality, but its potency derives from its sensationalized, often gilded portrayals of trap celebrity. The ever-present hyperbole serves neither to deconstruct, parody, nor critique life in the trap, but as a reminder that the only way to conquer its excesses is to exceed it oneself. Trap’s peculiar blend of fact and fiction has gained it thousands of aspirants in at-risk, urban communities, where its allure particularly resonates. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a Pusherman?

“Batterram” by Toddy Tee (1985)/ “Ghetto Bird” by Ice Cube (1993)

In the aftermath of riots that erupted in Ferguson this summer, many have been clamoring about the militarization of local police departments. If these songs are any indication, the police have been accruing sophistocated paramilitary technology for quite some time. In the mid-80s, the LA police deployed a fleet of “batterrams”, six-ton tanks outfitted with fourteen-foot steel battering rams, designed to demolish supposed crack dens and distribution outlets. In “Batterram”, Toddy Tee alleges that the LAPD got a bit lax with their behemoths, using them to smash the homes of the ordinary, MCs included. Ice Cube’s harrowing “Ghetto Bird”, if the whirring sounds weren’t enough of an indication, refers to the helicopter used to track and terrorize the citizens of the ghetto. Although recorded more than twenty years ago, these songs sadly still resonate.