Music is more than a form of artistic expression. It’s also an important way to share ideas about issues of social conflict. Marginalized groups in America, in particular, have a long history of using music to resist oppression and open dialogue about the issues facing a community. This practice is rooted in history. Enslaved Africans, for example, used traditional music to communicate ideas about escaping and resisting with one another.
Today, many artists use music to bring light to the inequities their communities faces such as police brutality. Below is a playlist of thought-provoking tracks, paired with articles that provide context for the issues they address.
1. Land of the Free by Joey Bada$$
Brooklyn born rapper, Joey Bada$$, released his album “All-Amerikkkan Bada$$” in 2017 following the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The theme of the album is centered around the racism that plagues America. A standout track, “Land of the Free,” examines the hypocrisy of that American motto. Although our stated values and our constitution assert that freedom is an inalienable right, that right does not extend to all populations of Americans in the same ways. The songs most notable line, “Three K’s, Two A’s in AmeriKKKa” and the imagery of a large burning cross in the music video explicitly speaks to America’s history of white supremacy and its influence on our society. The song instantly attracted me because of its straightforward criticism of the lack of freedom that exists for many Americans.
Think Piece for further analysis: Not Just a Rapper: An Analysis of “Land of the Free” by Joey Bada$$
2. Formation by Beyonce
Beyonce dropped her political track, Formation, at the 2016 Super Bowl and immediately caused a commotion. The track was the cause of a lot of controversy due to the direct correlation her Super Bowl performance had to the Black Panther movement as well as the imagery surrounding police brutality that appeared in the music video for the song. The song and music video, in particular, are a celebration of Beyonce’s southern roots, blackness, black feminism and a critique of the current oppression that many black and brown Americans face at the hands of police. A scene in the music video shows police officers lined up in front of a young black boy who is wearing a hoodie, a direct reference to Trayvon Martin followed by a shot over a wall that reads “Stop killing us.” I love the fact that there is so much to dissect in this song and music video and the intentional ways in which Beyonce unapologetically made this track for her community to enjoy and relate to.
Think piece for further analysis: Beyonce’s “Formation” is a celebration of unapologetic blackness
3. This is America by Childish Gambino
Arguably one of the most political and most talked about songs of the year thus far has been “This is America” by Childish Gambino which is a critique of gun violence and racial injustice in America. The music video for the song contains many stark and hard-to-digest images such as a scene where-in a Black choir, singing along to the track, gets gunned down by Childish. This scene is a reference to the Charleston church shooting where nine black churchgoers were assassinated at the hands of a white supremacist. The song is set to a very lively beat which, to me, speaks to the fact that, as a society we are easily distracted and desensitized from the injustice, inequity and gun violence that occurs in this country on a daily basis. This song is definitely one of my favorites from the artist and will certainly leave you with a lot to chew on in terms of content.
Think piece for further analysis: Unpacking all the references in Childish Gambino’s phenomenal new video
4. Black Rage by Ms. Lauryn Hill
Following the shooting of Mike Brown and the protests in Ferguson as a result of his death, Lauryn Hill dedicated this song to the movement. The song, which is set to the melody of the classic “Favorite Things” from Sound of Music, is a representation of the anger that many Black Americans, rightfully so, feel about the injustice that they’re subject to. My favorite lines in the song read: “Black rage is founded on denial of self! Black human packages tied in subsistence having to justify very existence.” They stand out to me because of the candid reference to the inhuman bondage that this country held people under and the need for justification to live in a country that invalidates black and brown bodies daily. The sad truths that the track articulates is chilling.
5. Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone
As song marked by resistance in an era of lynching, Nina Simone was courageous in her performance of this song fueled by anger surrounding the violence that was pressing the black community during this time in the 1960s. In the song, Simone references the events such as the murders of four young black girls in an Alabama church, the sit- ins in Tennessee and the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, which inspired the song. The song quickly became an anthem for the civil rights movement as it exemplified a lot of what the black community felt during the time. I love this song because of the grit and conviction with which it is sung and the admiration I have for Simone as an artist who stood up for what she believed in regardless of her majority white audience believed. Beyond that, its relevance to the Black Lives Matter Movement is a wake-up call. The fact that a song like this one is still relevant 50 years later tells us that we still have a lot of work ahead of us and that the fight for equity and justice is far from over.
Think piece for further analysis: Memoir in a Melody: The Outrage in Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’
Although many of the messages in these songs are hard to digest, it’s important to consider their significance. Personally, it’s important for me to value this art and the artists for their ability and willingness to translate so much struggle and anger into a message for the masses. This list is certainly missing many other great songs which deliver similar messages through different lens’. I challenge readers to explore outside of this playlist and listen to other contemporary and classic songs that call us to think critically about our political climate.