Top 10 Songs of Black History Month
By: Princess Dominiko
Black History Month, while one of the most pivotal holidays in our nation’s calendar, as it celebrates a group of individuals that have suffered a continuous history of trauma, is one of the shortest months and is eclipsed by a number of other holidays, including Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day, and last, but certainly not least, Groundhog’s Day.
While this holiday continues to be disregarded by our country, we, at BlackTop10s, choose to make it a focal point and celebrate it, by engaging in music that communicates pivotal ideas of what it means to be black:
10. “Stand By Me” Ben E. King
Ben E. King’s poignant song “Stand By Me” is a song that we have all heard at one point or another in our lives, whether on the radio, during road trips or in passing at a friend’s house. It was a song we couldn’t help but nod along to for its soft beat and inspiring lyrics speaking on the individuals who stick with you through the thick and thin, “When the night has come/And the land is dark/And the moon is the only light we’ll see//No, I won’t be afraid/Oh, I won’t be afraid/Just as long as you stand, stand by me.”
While King portrait of a scene of nature that’s engulfed in the darkness with bits of light also translates to real life, wherein a person is experiencing a dark time in their life, but there is very little ‘light’ or hope around them.
The song’s themes of hope during times of darkness proved to be something that many in social justice movements could identify with, particularly with the black, American Duchess, Meghan Markle.The Duchess used the positive song in her wedding to symbolize how she and her soon-to-be husband, Prince Harry, would to stick by each other, in spite of the hatred they received for their interracial, royal marriage.
9. “In My Country” by Kida Cruz – Songs of Black History Month
There can’t be a list of the top songs of black history month without including a song from the motherland. Kida Cruz’s 2020 Afro Beat, “In My Country” while sometimes incomprehensible for English speakers, with its mix of English and Yoruba language is one that proves that police brutality can be universal.
In his home country of Nigeria, the police, or what Nigerians call SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) were notorious for their criminal behavior and their impunity from their crimes, “Oga police, wetin be this?/Na which kind yawa be this oh?/I just be small pikin oh/Why you come dey do me like this oh?/I can’t even step out and dress in style/’Cause police go stress my life.” In this verse, the Nigerian singer speaks on how SARS would take from him when he was rich and dressing well, as well as when he was poor and had “small pikin.”
While, in another verse, he speaks on how they would brutalize him, even when he was speaking correctly, “I can’t even use grammar to save my life/’Cause police go slap my eye.”
Nevertheless, his lyric “Soro Soke” meaning “Speak up, mad person” showed his determination to fight the unjust system through his music. The term also accounts for the generation of West African individuals speaking out against SARS and speaking up for their rights. Thanks to Cruz and the campaigns of Soro Soke, SARS was disbanded in 2020.
8. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” By Gill Scott-Heron – Songs of Black History Month
Herein lies a song that truly made a mark on history and throughout popular culture. 19 year old college student Gill Scott-Heron initially wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” while in the midst of organizing protests at Lincoln University to demand better healthcare for students. And his poem was meant to spell out the true nature of revolution: how it develops in the individual as they change their mind, rather than it being something that’s, “captur[ed] on film.”
However, unbeknownst to him, the song would inspire those like him fifty years later; it would also be used as a rallying cry during protests of causes like racism and police brutality.
7. “People Get Ready” by The Impressions
While a soft-sounding song, The Impressions `People Get Ready” was one that seemed to reach people through its promise of deliverance, “People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’/You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board/ All you need is faith to hear the diesels Ahummin/” Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the lord.” The Impressions depict an easy afterlife that anyone–even those who are struggling–can access as long as they remain faithful to the lord.
And yet, despite the religious themes within the piece, Mayfield also wrote the song with the Civil Rights Movement in mind. He stated that he wrote it “in a deep mood, a spiritual state of mind,” only moments before Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s march on the Impressions’ hometown of Chicago. Many people listening to it also recognized it as being emblematic of the movement, with notable Civil Rights activist, Gordon Sellers calling it “warrior.”
6. “Say It Out Loud-I’m Black And I’m Proud” by James Brown – Songs of Black History Month
In his quick, frenetic voice, James Brown brought the house down with this touchstone of a song. During the late 60’s, the respectable term for black people was negro, while the word ‘black’ was considered to be an insult, like some of those heard in his song, “Some say we got a lot of malice, some say it’s a lot of nerve.”
Despite, the negative connotation associated with the word, he reclaimed ‘black’ and imbued it with positive meaning, including ideas of rebellion, “But I say we won’t quit moving until we get what we deserve/” and self-love “Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud/Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud/ Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.“
The song continues to be relevant to this day with many black youth using the song’s powerful lyrics on the social media platform Tiktok and other singers like Jessie B and Erekle Getsadze using it to uplift themselves.
5. “The Story of OJ” Jay-Z
The story of OJ is not readily comprehensible, with its cartoonish, black and white imagery and quick shots of notable and… not so notable figures, including Black Panther party founder Huey P. Newton sitting on his throne, animated depictions of the picaninny freeze watermelon advertisement (an ad notorious for its racist imagery of black children with wide eyes and big mouths to accommodate large pieces of watermelon), and the Klu Klux Klan in their notorious, white robes.
However, though the song has multiple moving parts, it offers an in-depth glimpse of black history and exemplifies how the world has failed to change the way it treats black people, no matter if they’re a “Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga/Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga” cause they’re “Still nigga.” These last two lines also offer an interesting double entendre. It is both saying that no matter what kind of black person you are, whether rich or light-skinned, you’re still black and will still be treated that way, and with that maltreatment, you’ll be a “still nigga” or dead.
4. “Redemption Song” by Robert “Bob” Nesta Marley OM – Songs of Black History Month
The soothing sound of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” is a balm on the wounds of all black people for the pain that we’ve faced for simply being black. Marley begins the song by speaking on the circumstances faced by Africans that were sold into slavery, “Old pirates, yes/ they rob I Sold/I to the merchant ships/Minutes after they took I/From the bottomless pit.” However, though speaking on the trying times experienced by Africans, Marley repeatedly returns to the idea of redemption.
While this ‘redemption’ is not quite clear, it is evident that Marley is drawing towards two ideas of freedom: the freedom that our ancestors could at least experience mentally, once they escaped the prison’s of their minds, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our mind,” as well as the idea that our ancestors could also, at the very least, experience freedom in the afterlife “All I ever had/Redemption songs/These songs of freedom/Songs of freedom.”
Overall, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” pays tribute to all of us, black people, experiencing prejudice or challenging times; it teaches us that we can always find redemption, no matter our circumstances.
3. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” Nina Simone
Like Marley’s “Redemption Song,” Nina Simone’s song “Young, Gifted, and Black” speaks on the redeeming qualities that exist in black youth. After the death of her friend, writer of “A Raisin in The Sun” Lorraine Hansberry, Simone wanted to pay tribute to the talents her friend had as a gifted, young black writer.
And we can faithfully say that Simone would have made her friend proud, since the song exudes feelings of optimism for one’s place in the world, “When you feelin’ really low/Yeah, there’s a great truth that you should know/When you’re young, gifted and black.” It also reminds all black children that no matter how bad their situations are, they can overcome it and accomplish anything, because they’re young, talented, and black.
2. “Glory” by Common and John Legend
You can’t have a list of songs expressing the truth of what it means to be black, without including a song sung in a film for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Selma (2014)). “Glory” by Common and John Legend is an ode to the beloved leader’s time as a minister, as their rendition possesses the soothing, choral tones of a Sunday’s gospel. While, it’s also an ode to Dr. King’s last words, ‘glory.’
On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., flew into Memphis, Tennessee to support African American sanitation workers in the midst of a bitter strike. The same night that he flew in, he gave an emotional address, known today as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. He concluded: “I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” While Dr. King is speaking of heavenly glory, in their song, Common and John Legend speak of glory in terms of the influence the civil rights leader had on people throughout history, as his actions exposed the system of injustice in America and challenged it.
“Black Rage” Lauren Hill
Since 1976, every American president has promoted a specific theme for Black History Month. The theme for this year’s holiday is “Black Health and Wellness,” and in light of this subject, Lauren Hill’s song “Black Rage” takes the 1st spot for the ways in which it exposes the country’s complicity in stripping us, black people, of everything we have and then threatening our tenuous freedom when we fight against this injustice.
The song came out in 2012, during a time in which outrage was growing against the increasing incidents of police brutality, especially following the slaying of Michael Brown, whom Ms. Hill dedicated the song to.
The singer also incorporates the melody of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music as a means to expose the farce of our nation, as she eerily sings along to lyrics that rejoice in the traumatic imagery of police brutality, “When the dogs bite/When the beatings/When I’m feeling sad/I simply remember all these kinds of things/and then I don’t fear so bad!”
Though Black History month is unfairly unacknowledged by larger society, it is still a time for us to meditate on our history–our struggles and our triumphs– and rejoice for the lives we live today that are soundtracked by a rich assortment of music.