10 songs that capture the spirit of Juneteenth: from Beyonce to James Brown

The date, which marks the end of slavery in the US, is observed annually on June 19

James Brown, Beyonce, Will Smith. Getty Images, AFP
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With America in the midst of a racial reckoning, each Juneteenth comes with extra resonance. Observed annually on June 19, the occasion marks the end of slavery in the US.

It was the day in 1865 when Texas, the final confederate state involved in the American Civil War, freed all of its slaves, thus putting into effect the Emancipation Proclamation and closing a dark chapter in the country's history.

Also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation Day, Juneteenth only became a public holiday in certain states 41 years ago, and some are still to recognise it.

Texas was the first to declare it in 1980, with the latest being Oregon this year.

Despite the lack of official nationwide recognition, the importance of Juneteenth is firmly set in the US public consciousness, thanks to popular songs by generations of African-American artists.

While they may not have sung or composed the works specifically for the occasion, their messages of independence, self-empowerment and black excellence have gone on to form soundtracks to many Juneteenth celebrations.

In no particular order, here are 10 songs, spanning 50 years, channelling the values Juneteenth embodies.

1. 'Freedom’ by Beyonce (2016)

Featuring a sample of an old song sung by African-American prisoners, Beyonce's self-empowerment anthem is about breaking those chains within us.

Powered by forceful percussion and hazy organs, Bey reflects on her own setbacks and how she had to claw her way back to “freedom”.

This means owning your mistakes and being patient enough “to wade through the waters” of doubt and despair until you reach the other side.

“A winner don’t quit on themselves,” she sings.

2. 'Doo-Wop (That Thing)' by Lauryn Hill (1998)

While it's hard to pick a standout track from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, that masterpiece of an album is home to this profound single tackling the faulty values afflicting African-American communities.

Hill describes the crisis as "the struggle" with women "trying to be a hard rock when they really are a gem”, and men who become lost through misplaced priorities.

The way to overcome the struggle, Hill says, is to “look out, watch out” for those with ill intentions.

3. ‘Golden’ by Jill Scott (2004)

Freedom is an ongoing state of mind, Scott sings in her most popular track.

To maintain it, the soul music artist says you need to practice its virtues in everything you do: “I'm taking my own freedom, putting it in my stroll/ I'll be high stepping y'all, letting the joy unfold.”

4. ‘Alright’ by Kendrick Lamar (2015)

Beginning with the "All my life, I had to fight," from Alice Walker's novel The Colour Purple, Lamar crafts a life-affirming hip-hop anthem that doesn't sugar-coat the travails of the moment.

His vivid lyrics explore the psychological struggle to find meaning in a life spent in hardship. The chorus counsels that, ultimately, through resilience, we will overcome any difficulties.

Such was its impact, Alright went on to become one of the anthems of the Black Lives Matter movement.

5. ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’ by James Brown (1968)

An under-appreciated aspect of James Brown's career was his strong body of songs celebrating black empowerment.

The best remains this strident track, addressing the social and economic prejudices faced by black Americans.

“Some people say we've got a lot of malice, some say it's a lot of nerve,” the song opens.

“But I say we won't quit moving until we get what we deserve.”

The call and response of the chorus – “Say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud” – is made more poignant given that it’s sung by 30 children from disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles.

6. ‘Brown Skin’ by India Arie (2000)

A tender ode to black romance, soul singer Indie Arie’s swooning soul track remains beloved for its self-empowerment references and body-positive message.

7. ‘Summertime’ by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith (1991)

With Juneteenth falling in the advent of summer, many families celebrate the occasion with a barbecue.

DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith summon that communal vibe affectingly in this tale of a get-together in their native Philadelphia.

“The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia,” Smith raps.

“While the DJ's spinning a tune as the old folks dance at your family reunion.”

8. ‘Optimistic’ by August Green, featuring Brandy (2018)

Hip-hop jazz trio August Greene enlisted guest singer Brandy for a track to inspire African-American youth. It was released as part of Black History Month in the US, in February, 2018.

“You'll always do your best, if you learn to never say never,” she sings.

"You may be down, but you're not out. And that's where I will lift you up."

Rapper Common also underlines that message with evocative wordplay: “Living in ambition on a mission impossible/ Envision optimism through a prism that's optical/ To see through obstacles and be remarkable.”

9. ‘Made it’ Teyana Taylor (2020)

For last year's Juneteenth celebrations, RnB singer and rapper Teyana Taylor gave a special shout-out to graduating high-school students.

The message was delivered with Taylor's typical swagger.

"Head up and my heels high, that's what life supposed to feel like," she sings. "Self-love is the best love. You made it."

10. ‘Family Reunion’ by The O’Jays (1975)

You will be hard-pressed to find a song capturing the love and intimacy of a family gathering quite like this one.

This classic by soul group The O'Jays paints a loving picture of a get-together where food and wisdom are shared.

With Covid-19 taking our loved ones and keeping families apart, the song's message to cherish those memories are deeply poignant.

“It's been a long, long time since we had a chance to get together,” croons The O’Jays front man Edward Levert.

“Nobody knows the next time we see each other. Maybe years and years from now.”