As we come up on the 50th anniversary of the MFDP (Mississippit Freedom Democratic Party) and the Freedom Summer, we find ourselves in the midst of the Ferguson debacle, a situation that has disarmed the pundits claiming we live in a post-racial country. This musical highlight of the Black Experience from the middle of the last century until now illustrates that though things have changed, much progress is still in order before we're all free. Calibrate your moral compass and throw up a fist as we take you through our list of the 10 Best Black Empowerment Songs.
“Another N.I.G.G.A.” – Big K.R.I.T.
Big K.R.I.T. taught us that people of all races can be N.I.G.G.A.s on this song. Continuing his trend of speaking on the Black experience based on an upbringing in Mississippi, one of the most brutal sites of the Civil Rights Movement, K.R.I.T. satirizes the ones often referred to as “niggas” in neighborhoods used to violence that is often glorified. Preachers and community leaders that leave their people “bamboozled” are spared as proponents of the detrimental activity perpetuating the lack of morality, ambition, and knowledge disproportionately affecting Black people in slums.
“Get Up, Stand Up “- Bob Marley
With the chance that being fruitful while on Earth will lead one to the promiseland to join the man upstairs for martinis on the beach for eternity, Bob preached the need to pursue freedom as a composition of matter and molecules. To those oppressed individuals willing to smoke doobies and wait for their time to expire to experience true freedom, the major wailer would argue against one of those choices advising you to “look for yours on Earth.”
“Changes” – Tupac
Is life worth living? Tupac would contemplate many times throughout his short-lived career but perhaps best on this song that pessimistically chronicles the everyday lives of the most criminalized people Earth. While abrasive, the 16 year-old song, especially the line about a Black president, is perhaps more of a testimonial than it was after his untimely death almost 18 years ago.
“Dream Song” – Common and Will.I.Am
The title simply reminds one of the image of nation conveyed through one of the most revered orations of our time. Common and Will.I.Am, to some extent, are able to further expound on the situation Black people find themselves in these days. “In between lean and the fiends, hustles and the schemes. I put together pieces of a dream,” Common raps summing up a lesson that can drive thoughts of hopelessness out making room for some all-powerful optimism.
“Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)” – James Brown
Though not recognized as the most cerebral artist of our time, this song proves that the tension of the sixties evoked commentary from anyone willing to shout -literally in James Brown's case. As the call for “Black Power” gained momentum, this track, full of triumphant horns and supporting instrumentation that still paled next to JB's authoritative vocals, went right in hand with the surging self-love that Blacks often denied themselves.
“Strange Fruit” – Billie Holliday
Gruesome and inhumane are just two words to describe the commonplace savagery at the expense of thousands of Black lives from the '20s up until the 1960s. Written by Abel Meeropol and then popularized by the legendary Billie Holliday, the song, detailed to a point of disgust, became a living artifact of the 1930s and the literary boom that had taken place in Harlem and elsewhere throughout the United States.
“Black Boy Fly” – Kendrick
A dream is witnessed then realized by Kendrick Lamar, who felt the futility in living a life without promise excepting the infinitesimal chances at being a basketball star or the country's biggest rapper. Instead of acquiescing to the unproductive jealousy and intoxication that further placates a large portion of the Black community, Kendrick teaches us all to flap our way through the unthinkable and fly…
“I Can” – Nas
A kiss with a fist sums up just what Nas gave us when he dropped “I Can.” An inspirational song that cannot be relegated to speaking to one race, the song had a message for every alacritous child in the world. Elementary instrumentation and child-sung hook targeted the youth while the lyrics directed an assault at the poison afloat in America's most oppressed areas dating back to the pre-colonial dates. While just another of Nas' street-conscious rhapsody's, “I Can” was only one of two tracks to crack the Top 40. Let's hope the message stuck.
“I'm On My Way to Freedomland” – Freedom Singers
As opposed to the barbaric title early Europeans explorers gave the continent we know as Africa (Negroland), this song's destination is much more desirable and brought blacks closer to a place of solace while enduring the beatings and varying atrocities of the Civil Rights Movement. Sung by several vocalists and nonviolent activists of days' past, this song only truly belongs to those fighting for better days.
“Living For the City” – Stevie Wonder
Whether it was a glimmer of hope or a testament of the struggle, often muzzled Black voices were reverberated back into their houses when the 1973 hit embodiment of soul released. Having just enough for the city was all one might ever need to be happy. The harmonica plays a heart-wrenching tune that is based in strife but grows into something beautiful that way a would-be bleak life had for Stevie and the people in “hard time Mississippi.”
“We Shall Overcome” – Civil Rights Activists
Rooted deep in all we know of the Civil Rights Movement, this song was more than a commentary on the movement that reached its pinnacle during the 1960s. Sung in jails by protestors who refused bail and on streets as Blacks and Whites alike walked with their hands bound together, the determination, bare and formidable, like the a cappella renditions of this ballad, sustained this movement from as the first steps were taken to reconstruct this nation for a second time until it dwindled after thousands of bodies were sacrificed on the route to challenging American to stand for the principles so bragged about in our founding documents.
I listen to music. I write about it. I like hot sauce on my chicken.