'A Change is Gonna Come': 10 songs underscoring the US civil rights movement over the years
From Sam Cooke to Lauryn Hill, African-American artists have often provided tracks that best capture moments of racial division
Rather than just news reports, it is sometimes music that best captures the anguish, horror and hope of the times.
From the historical flash points of the 1960s to the recent Black Lives Matter movement, the protests, walks and riots that call for an end to racism have come with a soundtrack fit for the occasion.
So, from Ella Fitzgerald to Kendrick Lamar, here are 10 songs that underscore the ongoing African-American struggle for equality.
1. 'Strange Fruit' by Ella Fitzgerald (1938)
Viewed as one of the first protest songs ever recorded, its many covers have failed to capture the unflinching intensity Fitzgerald gives to this haunting number. Strange Fruit is a lament at the harrowing spate of African-American lynchings prevalent during the time of its release in the 1930s.
Key lyrics: "Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."
2. 'Only a Pawn in Their Game' by Bob Dylan (1964)
It was Dylan who was at the forefront of folk music's contribution to the civil rights debate. While Blowin' in the Wind and The Times They Are a Changin' are some of his best songs of that era, it was Only a Pawn in Their Game that dealt with the nitty gritty of the societal power struggle at play. Released six months after the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Dylan’s lyrics remain eerily familiar today as he illustrates how populist politicians whip up grievances to incite violence.
Key lyrics: "He's taught in his school / From the start by the rule / That the laws are with him / To protect his white skin / To keep up his hate / So he never thinks straight."
3. 'A Change Is Gonna Come' by Sam Cooke (1964)
Written from a place of pain, Cooke composed this anthem after he and his entourage were turned away from a white-only motel in Louisiana. Inspired by Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind, Cooke's lyrics featured personal reflections and the adamant belief that racial discrimination will one day be consigned to the past. While the song was only a modest success when first released, over time its significance grew and it’s now hailed as a milestone of both the civil rights movement and soul music.
Key lyrics: "It's been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change's gonna come."
4. 'The Motor City is Burning' by John Lee Hooker (1967)
What makes this piece of growling blues so scintillating is the sheer detachment of Hooker's voice. One gets the impression he is sitting on his porch as he surveys the carnage of the 1967 Detroit riots – one of the deadliest race riots in modern American history that left 16 people dead and large swathes of the city damaged.
Key lyrics: "Don't ya know the big D is burnin'? / Ain't no thing in the world that Johnny can do / My home town burnin' down to the ground / Worse than Vietnam."
5. 'To be Young, Gifted and Black' by Nina Simone (1969)
Simone has written a slew of songs protesting racial injustice, but this track captivates due to its enduring ability to inspire. The track remains a civil rights and black pride anthem with its message of empowerment and bravery against the odds.
Key lyrics: "When you feel really low / Yeah, there's a great truth you should know / When you're young, gifted and black / Your soul's intact."
6. 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' by Gil Scott-Heron (1971)
Scott-Heron's tune shows one of the earliest examples of how African spoken word poetry segued into the earliest incarnations of hip-hop music. The lyrics are caustic spin-offs of popular slogans and sign-offs found in television and radio programmes of the day. Scott-Heron rattles through them all with the intensity of a journalist reporting from the frontline. The track went on to be adopted by the Black Power movements (which preached self-determination of African-Americans) during the 1970s.
Key lyrics: "The revolution will not go better with Coke / The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath / The revolution will put you in the driver's seat."
7. 'Fight the Power' by Public Enemy (1988)
Public Enemy's Fight the Power is a key track that formed one of the most politically incendiary albums and films of the 1980s. As well as appearing in the band's masterpiece Fear of a Black Planet, the song's mix of potent African-American references and civil rights quotes is best heard as the running soundtrack throughout Spike Lee's powerful drama Do the Right Thing.
Key lyrics: "'Cause I'm black and I'm proud / I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped / Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps."
8. 'Black Rage' by Lauryn Hill (2014)
Written in response to racial violence in Ferguson, Missouri, Hill unexpectedly dropped this pensive folk number. A reworking of My Favourite Things from the musical The Sound of Music, Hill strips the innocence of the original with lyrics examining the effects of a generations-long practice of racial dehumanisation.
Key lyrics: "Black rage is founded on two-thirds a person / Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens / Black human packages tied up with strings / Black rage can come from all these kinds of things."
9. 'Glory' by John Legend and Common
Glory is the Oscar-winning song written for the Civil Rights-era film Selma. Soul singer Legend and rapper Common fuse gospel, hip-hop and spoken word together for this stirring history lesson connecting us from the trailblazing activist Rosa Parks to the protests in Ferguson.
Key lyrics: "Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany / Now we right the wrongs in history / No one can win the war individually / It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people's energy."
10. 'Alright' by Kendrick Lamar (2015)
The track that elevated Lamar from a talented hip-hop artist to one of the voices of his generation. While the introspective lyrics mainly focused on Lamar’s struggles to find his place in the world, the forceful refrain of the chorus "we're going to be alright" was adopted as a cry of the previous wave of US protests against police brutality in 2015. Alright remains heard in the latest street marches with critics viewing the track as this generation's version A Change is Gonna Come.
Key lyrics: "I'm at the preacher's door / My knees getting weak and my gun might blow / But we goin' be alright."
Published: June 16, 2020 07:12 AM