For years, black artists have paved the way for massive cultural and societal change. From Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry birthing the early days of Rock n Roll, to the revolutionary sound of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, artists of colour have pushed the boundaries of what is considered popular music. But more than just introduce new sounds and genres, black artists have become the catalysts for tremendous growth, providing the soundtrack for anti-racism movements and progressive social change.
The last week has highlighted, more than ever, the importance of cultural equity. Over 50 years since Sam Cooke sang A Change is Gonna Come, several communities are still waiting. With the death of George Floyd prompting a major global movement, protest songs and tales of growth continue to be relevant. To show our support, we’ve put together this list of 25 black anthems, written, created and performed by groundbreaking artists and studios. Of course, there are hundreds more out there, but with emotions still raw, this playlist is less empowerment, more essential listening.
1. A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke’s iconic 1965 release A Change is Gonna Come has become the quintessential Black Lives Matter song. Inspired by true events in Cooke’s life, where he and his entourage were turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana, the hit details Cooke’s optimism for a stronger, more united world. The release marked a significant turn in Cooke’s career, taking him from a classy crooner to an outspoken civil rights activist. Unfortunately, Cooke never got to see the impact A Change is Gonna Come would have on the world, passing away before its release. Still, in his memory and those brave pioneers like him, the message lives on.
Artist: Sam Cooke
Recorded: January 30, 1964
Songwriter: Sam Cooke
2. Fight the Power – Public Enemy
When American hip-hop group Public Enemy burst on to the scene, their arrival caused headlines. The outspoken act was not afraid to have their voices heard, disrupting the status quo in the process. Fight the Power was recorded in 1989 at the request of filmmaker Spike Lee as the lead song for his iconic racially-charged movie Do the Right Thing. Tackling issues of racism and oppression, Fight the Power became a theme for a new generation of equality advocates. The song makes use of a number of samples, including civil rights exhortations, black church services and the music of James Brown.
Artist: Public Enemy
Released: July 4, 1989
Songwriter: Carlton Ridenhour, Eric Sadler, Hank Boxley, Keith Boxley
3. F*ck tha Police – N.W.A.
Like Public Enemy, rap group N.W.A. took things to a new level. The aggressive approach signalled a change in ideals. Black men and women were fed up with police brutality and profiling and were willing to stand up for their beliefs. The release was so provocative, the FBI wrote to N.W.A.’s record company expressing disapproval with the song’s lyrics, suggesting it misrepresented police. As the issue of police brutality again rears its head, the N.W.A. release is once again relevant.
Released: August 9, 1989
Songwriter: Ice Cube, MC Ren, The D.O.C.
4. Freedom – Beyonce ft Kendrick Lamar
The most poignant release from pop superstar Beyonce, Freedom blurs the lines between rap and pop. The powerful song speaks of truth, injustice and the plight of African-American rights. Beyonce performed Freedom as the opening number at the 2016 BET Awards, beginning with a voice-over of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a Dream speech.
Released: September 9, 2016
Genre: Pop, Gospel, Hip-hop
Label: Parkwood, Columbia
Songwriter: Jonny Coffer, Beyonce, Carla Marie Williams, Dean McIntosh, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Tirado, Alan Lomax, John Lomax Sr.
5. Hell You Talmbout – Janelle Monae and Wondaland Records
Released in 2015, Janelle Monae’s protest song Hell You Talmbout is one of the more overt black anthems on this list. The song lists the names of various African-American people who died as a result of encounters with law enforcement and racial violence. Monae, along with Wondaland Records has since released an instrumental of the song, so that listeners can create their own versions.
Artist: Janelle Monae
Released: August 13, 2015
Label: Wondaland Records
Songwriter: Janelle Robinson, Nate Wonder, Charles Joseph II, Jidenna Mobisson, Roman GianArthur, Alexe Belle, Isis Valentino, George 2.0
6. Baltimore – Prince ft. Eryn Allen Kane
After finding himself deeply affected by the death of Freddie Gray, Prince penned this powerful black protest song. The piece explains who systemic violence and racism has become a plight on the African-American culture, finishing with a direct quote from Price himself. “The system is broken. It’s going to take the young people to fix it this time. We need new ideas, new life…”
7. Took the Children Away – Archie Roach
Australia’s most powerful and influential Indigenous songwriter, Archie Roach’s Took the Children Away is a sad reminder of our fractured past. The song details the impact of the Stolen Generation on the Aboriginal community, an act that defied logic and destroyed lives. Roach’s ode is heartbreaking and raw.
Artist: Archie Roach
Label: Aurora, Mushroom Records
Songwriter: Archie Roach
8. This is America – Childish Gambino
Donald Glover’s powerful message to the world shocked the American public when it was first released, however, years later, it remains relevant. The music video opens with a lengthy tracking shot, set to traditional, African-inspired music. However, the sudden gunshots shatter the illusion, launching the powerful message of police brutality and violence.
Artist: Childish Gambino
Songwriter: Donald Glover
9. Black Man – Stevie Wonder
Written about Wonder’s desire for worldwide interracial harmony, Black Man is a message for equality and peace. The lyrics refer to the Crispus Attucks, widely regarded as the first martyr of the American Revolution. According to legend, Wonder deliberately chose this theme as the US Bicentennial was underway at the time.
Artist: Stevie Wonder
Songwriter: Stevie Wonder, Garry Byrd
10. Mississippi Goddam – Nina Simone
Revealed by Simone herself as her first “civil rights song”, Mississippi Goddam is a black anthem in every sense of the word. The song captures Simone’s response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, along with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2019, Mississippi Goddam was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Artist: Nina Simone
Label: Philips Records
Songwriter: Nina Simone
11. Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
Widely regarded as the greatest protest song ever written, Billie Holiday’s 1939 release Strange Fruit tackles racism and lynching in the US. Originally penned by Abel Meeropol in 1937, the confronting song uses metaphors that link a tree’s fruit to lynching victims. It has been called “a declaration of war” and “the beginning of the civil rights movement”
Artist: Billie Holiday
Genre: Blues, Jazz
Songwriter: Abel Meeropol
12. Treaty – Yothu Yindi
Written by Paul Kelly and Yothu Yindi, Treaty was the first song by a predominantly Aboriginal band to chart in Australia, and the first song in any Aboriginal language to receive extensive recognition. The song is written and performed in Gumatj, one of the Yolngu Matha dialects; a language of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land. The song was originally released to highlight the lack of progress on the treaty between Indigenous Australians and the Federal Government.
Artist: Yothu Yindi
Released: June 1991
Genre: Pop, Indigenous
Label: Mushroom, Razor
Songwriter: Paul Kelly, Mandawuy Yunupingu, Stuart Kellaway, Cal Williams, Gurrumul Yunupingo, Milkayngu Mununggurr, Banula Marika, Peter Garrett
13. The Story of O.J. – Jay-Z
Released in 2017, The Story of O.J. touches on African-American culture, detailing the traditional and stereotypical roles within the black community. Most notably, the release explains how the black community is affected by money. The lead line “I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” references the idea that wealth and fame can transcend race. The song also features samples from Nina Simone’s hit Four Women.
Released: June 30, 2017
Label: Roc Nation, Universal
Songwriter: Shawn Carter, Dion Wilson, Nina Simone, Gene Redd, Jimmy Crosby
14. Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud – James Brown
The true theme for black empowerment at the height of the 1960s movement, James Brown’s Say it Loud is a song that remains as relevant today as it was when it was first released. The lyrics address the continuous prejudices faced by black people across America, advocating for black empowerment. The song’s call-and-response chorus has become a significant and iconic phrase in racial equality marches.
Artist: James Brown
Released: August 1968
Recorded: August 7, 1968
Songwriter: James Brown, Alfred Ellis
15. Changes – 2Pac
The 1998 song Changes from rap icon Tupac Shakur is an immersive tale of inner-city crime and racism. The lyrics reference the war on drugs, the treatment of black people by the police and the perpetuation of poverty among the urban African-American culture. Changes was released posthumously on his Greatest Hits album, continuing Tupac’s long-history of bringing urban issues to light in modern music.
Released: October 13, 1998
Label: Amaru, Death Row, Interscope
Songwriter: Tupac Shakur, Deon Evans, Bruce Hornsby
16. No Lives Matter – Body Count
Political activists and actor Ice-T’s racially-motivated hardcore band Body Count had been dormant for some time, however, when racists starting clapping back to the Black Lives Matter movement with “All Lives Matter”, the group make a comeback. No Lives Matter is a brutal and violent message that is so loud, it simply cannot be ignored. The song begins with a monologue from Ice-T that explains why the All Lives Matter movement is a racist and insensitive response to a major global issue.
Artist: Body Count
Released: March, 2017
Label: Century Media
17. We Shall Not Be Moved – Mavis Staples
The message is simple, straight to the point and more relevant here in 2020 than it should be.
Artist: Mavis Staples
Album: We’ll Never Turn Back
18. Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) – Marvin Gaye
Released as the third and final single on Marvin Gaye’s 1971 landmark album What’s Going On, Inner City Blues is a tale of tragedy, inequality and systemic poverty. The song depicts the ghettos and bleak economic situations of inner-city America, charting how difficult these challenges can be. The song has since become an anthem for equality and revolution in urban African-American areas.
Artist: Marvin Gaye
Released: September 16, 1971
Recorded: March, 1971
Songwriter: Marvin Gaye, James Nyx Jr.
19. Marching on Ferguson – Tom Morello
Better known as the guitarist in Rage Against the Machine, Tom Morello has launched a highly successful career as a politically-charged folk singer, under the name The Nightwatchman. Marching on Ferguson was released in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown, and the event’s impact on the city of Ferguson, Missouri. The 18-year-old was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, after an altercation. The shooting reportedly came after Brown had already raised his hands in surrender, sparking outrage in the community. Morello released the track as a free download at Ferguson October, a collaborative effort that saw hundreds of organisations join together in an attempt to put an end to police violence.
Artist: The Nightwatchman
Songwriter: Tom Morello
20. Don’t Shoot – The Game
Tom Morello wasn’t the only black artist to address the death of Michael Brown through song. Rapper The Game called on Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Diddy, Fabolous, Wale, DJ Khaled, Swizz Beatz, Yo Gotti, Curren$y, Problem, King Pharoah and TGT for a tribute to the slain 18-year-old. Don’t Shoot is a powerful and brutal message of resistance and remembrance, making mention of other black men Emmett Till, Ezell Ford, Trayvon Martin and Sean Bull, who were all killed under similar circumstances.
Artist: The Game
Released: August 27, 2014
21. Glory – Common ft John Legend
Rapper Common collaborated with crooner John Legend for Glory, the theme for the 2014 film Selma. The movie depicts the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches that became synonymous with Martin Luther King Jr’.’s quest for equality.
Released: December 11, 2014
Label: ARTium, Def Jam, Columbia
Songwriter: John Stephens, Lonnie Lynn, Che Smith
22. Wiyathul – Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu
Written in his mother languages, Galpu, Djambarrpuynu and Gumatj, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s first album Gurrumul was an incredibly raw depiction of Indigenous art in modern culture. Wiyathul is an ode to country and a sublime and angelic release from the blind, Indigenous artist.
Artist: Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu
Released: April 2008
Label: Skinnyfish Music
Songwriter: Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu
23. How Many – Miguel
R&B artist Miguel’s song How Many was released in the aftermath of the police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile outside the Twin Cities, Minnesota. The Black Lives Matter anthem asks the questions, how many more black lives does it take before change comes?
Released: July 2016
24. Alright – Kendrick Lamar
Taken from his third studio album, Alright is Kendrick Lamar’s lyrically optimistic take on the current state of affairs. It begins with the infamous lines “Alls my life, I had to fight” from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. After it was released, the song became associated with the Black Lives Matter movement after several youth-led protests were observed chanting the chorus. In 2019, Pitchfork named it the best song of the 2010s.
Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Released: June 30, 2015
Label: Top Dawg, Aftermath, Interscope
Songwriter: Kendrick Duckworth, Pharrell Williams, Mark Spears
25. Black Rage – Lauryn Hill
Following the race riots in Missouri back in 2014, singer Lauryn Hill dedicated the song Black Rage to the town of Ferguson. Hill uploaded the song to her website, noting “An old sketch of Black Rage, done in my living room. Strange, the course of things. Peace for MO.” Set to the tune of My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music, Black Rage juxtaposes the familiar sound with a lyrically dark depiction of racism, inequality and plight of the African-American community.
Artist: Lauryn Hill
Who wrote A Change is Gonna Come?
Sam Cooke wrote the song A Change is Gonna Come back in 1964, however, he passed away before the song was officially released.
Why are black protest songs important?
Black protest songs shine a light on the systemic violence and inequality that has for years plagued people of colour. It is critical that these songs continue to penetrate the global vernacular.
What is the most famous black protest song?
The most famous black protest songs are Sam Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come, James Brown's Say It Loud and Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit. The songs are iconic in the portrayal of black culture in an era when segregation was still rampant in the United States.