Artistic activist (artivism) can be used to change the world. Many art forms use the power of words and imagery to fight for a greater cause through illustration, street art, poetry and music. Music as activism can be wildly successful because it can reach people through non-traditional channels of activism and use the beauty of words and melodies to draw people into a cause.
This article reviews examples of musical art activism for racial justice and includes these song titles: I Can’t Breathe, Say it Loud, Glory, Alright, Stand Up, Fight the Power, We Shall Overcome, and Lift Every Voice and Sing. These songs encourage listeners to unite for justice, and they help bring awareness to racial and social issues.
Musical artivism is embraced by fans of well-known artists, up-and-coming artists and new artists as well. It can be appreciated by anyone who simply wants their voices to be heard! If you’re looking for music to help cope with the weight of current racial injustices or simply a playlist of songs to help unify and motivate at a social justice event, the examples in this article offer some of the most influential and historical musical artivism to date.
Music as a Form of Activism
Artists using music as activism ranges across all genres; John Lennon singing for criminal justice reform, Michael Jackson & Lionel Richie writing a group song to fight famine in Africa, Willie Nelson singing for Farm Aid, Marvin Gaye bringing awareness to the social ills of war and poverty, and Bono performing for AIDS research and Apartheid. It’s nothing new for musicians to create songs and perform concerts to support the things they are most passionate about, and that includes injustices and problems that affect society as a whole.
As an art form, music can be spread more widely and reach more audiences than other forms of art such as paintings, sculptures, and theater. This makes it a highly effective method for educating people and spreading messages throughout the world.
Today, music continues to serve as a source of healing and a way to be heard as Americans struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic, high unemployment, increased poverty, nationwide political strife, police brutality and racial divide. And particularly within the backdrop of protests, demonstrations and rallies for racial justice, music is playing an important and powerful role as artivism that will last throughout history and be a marker to help explain the times.
Year Released: 2020
Gabriella Wilson is professionally known as H.E.R. She is an R&B singer and songwriter who released the song “I Can’t Breathe” in June 2020, just a couple of weeks after George Floyd’s murder. H.E.R was only 22 years old when she wrote and released this song which epitomizes how music can be used as a powerful medium to impact and influence anyone one of any age and any demographic.
The words “I can’t breathe” were the last words spoken by police brutality victims, Eric Gardner and George Floyd and is reported to be the final words of dozens of other victims of excessive police force as well. The New York Times did a story revealing 70 other cases, that didn’t get mainstream news attention, of police involved deaths with victims declaring “I can’t breathe” as their dying words.
The phrase “I Can’t Breathe” is often worn on t-shirts, written on protest signs and chanted at rallies. It has become a mantra for the Black Lives Matter movement, a demand for police accountability and a plea for America to stop using law enforcement as a form of oppression against black people. In H.E.R.’s song, the phrase is a metaphor for how black people experience America.
In the song, “I Can’t Breathe,” H.E.R sings:
If we all agree that we’re equal as people
Then why can’t we see what is evil?
I can’t breathe
You’re taking my life from me
I can’t breathe
Will anyone fight for me?
H.E.R ends the song speaking poetically over decreased instrumentals and rhythmic beats:
Do not say you do not see color
When you see us, see us
We can’t breathe
This song is a great example of musical artivism that resonates with those who know and feel the pain that underlies its message. And at the same time the song also serves as a message of reflection and call-to-action to those who may not think they are directly affected by the issues she describes. It’s a powerful message for everyone.
Artist: James Brown
Year Released: 1968
During the Civil Rights Movement and just months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, James Brown, legendary singer and songwriter released the song, “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Although the song is not played as much today, it’s impact and influence is still felt by many.
At the time it was released, this song was considered controversial by white people who thought it was a militant song. It caused Brown to lose his crossover audience and his concerts were mainly attended by black people after the release of this song. Ironically, before that Brown had been boycotted by black people for his political views and lack of support for the civil rights movement. (Source: Wikipedia)
Despite the controversy surrounding this song and Brown as an artist, Brown stated in his autobiography that this song was “necessary to teach pride.” And it definitely accomplished that goal. The music in this song makes it a feel-good, motivating track. But most importantly, the lyrics, “I’m black and I’m proud” are a declaration of self-acceptance, self-love and self-worth.
We’ve been buked and we’ve been scorned
We’ve been treated bad, talked about as sure as you’re born
But just as sure as it take two eyes to make a pair, huh!
Brother we can’t quit until we get our share
Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud
Artist Chuck D, from the rap group Public Enemy, remarked how this song helped him realize that “being black is a great thing instead of something you have to apologize for.” (Source: Wikipedia) It’s a message of self-acceptance and recognition. It’s understandable why this song has become an affirmation heard far and wide in protests and demonstrations demanding justice. And it’s been acknowledged for the impact it’s had on history, black empowerment and music in general. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. And Rolling Stone Magazine named it one of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
Year Released: 2014
This song was written for the soundtrack of the movie Selma. Selma is a movie about the voting rights marches in 1965 lead by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that lead to the passing of the Voting Rights Act. Musical artists John Legend and Common collaborated on this song. Legend created the song’s chorus and Common created the poetic rap verses.
This song not only compliments the story being told in the movie, it also deliberately reflects current events. It bridges events of the Black Lives Matter movement with those of the Civil Rights movement. The following lyrics show an example of this:
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down”, and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up
While the gap between the two movements is nearly 50 years apart, the fight for racial justice has unfortunately continued to be still relevant today. But this song aims to give hope. As Common explained:
“You can look at what’s going on in Ferguson, and it’s not a far comparison to what happened to Jimmy Lee Jackson during the time of the civil rights movement that is shown in the film. So I really was thinking about encouraging people that we’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got some fighting to do, and we are capable. We’ve got to carry this torch and take it to the next level.”
Lyrics full of hope and encouragement coupled with soothing gospel inspired instrumentals make this song a great fit for uplifting souls and encouraging activism.
Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Year Released: 2015
Lyrics (Explicit lyrics)
Music Video (Explicit lyrics)
This song was a popular musical choice at Black Lives Matter protests led by younger activists in response to police brutality in 2015. It was released by Kendrick Lamar with verses reflecting hard times in his life and his personal struggles. It then interjects hope and faith with a catchy chorus that chants:
We gon’ be alright
Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright
This song and its music video, received numerous accolades. Several music publications placed it in their top rankings of Best Songs of the Year, including Rolling Stone who ranked it #13 in their “100 Greatest Songs of the Century So Far.” Also, Billboard Magazine ranked Lamar’s performance of this song the #1 best performance of the 58th Grammy Awards Show, and said “It was easily one of the best live TV performances in history.”
At advocacy events and protests, people find comfort in the simplicity and hopefulness of the songs most repeated phrase, “We gon’ be alright.” It became so popular that some people consider it the modern day replacement for the phrase “We Shall Overcome,” the well-known protest song title from the Civil Rights movement.
According to Lamar, he wanted to create something that was “uplifting – but aggressive. Not playing the victim, but still having that ‘we’re strong‘” feeling. His comments about his creative goals for this song help us see why it has become a staple both in hip hop and in protests for justice.
Artist: Cynthia Erivo
Year Released: 2019
It’s not surprising that an uplifting song for activism would be found in a movie about one of the most famous activists in history, Harriet Tubman. Tubman escaped slavery and helped about 70 other enslaved people gain their freedom through the Underground Railroad. In 2019, a movie was made, entitled “Harriet”, depicting the story of her life and work as an abolitionist. The lead song in the movie is called, “Stand Up,” which has been described as a “rousing Civil Rights anthem.”
Cynthia Erivo plays the lead role of Harriet Tubman in the movie, and she also co-wrote and sang this song for the movie’s soundtrack. The lyrics reflect the passion and determination Tubman had in her pursuit of freedom for herself and others.
I’m gonna stand up
Take my people with me
Together we are going to a brand new home
Far across the river
I hear freedom calling?
Calling me to answer
Gonna keep on keepin’ on
I can feel it in my bones
I go to prepare a place for you
A special touch is the fact that the song’s last words, “I go to prepare a place for you” are the last words Tubman said before she died.
Artist: Public Enemy
Year Released: 1989
This song was written for Do The Right Thing, a film about racial tension in a New York City neighborhood. Film Director Spike Lee asked the rap group, Public Enemy, to create a song for the movie. Lee wanted the song to feel like an anthem for young black America. Public Enemy came through creating “Fight the Power,” which met that need not only for Lee’s movie, but for black people trying to fight the injustices of racism for decades to come.
The rhythmic song reflects anger and black pride. And it promotes knowledge as a way to stand up against oppression.
To revolutionize make a change nothing’s strange
People, people we are the same
No we’re not the same
‘Cause we don’t know the game
What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless
You say what is this?
My beloved lets get down to business
Mental self defensive fitness
The chorus of the song which consists of the repeated chant “fight the power” was as compelling and energizing in the 1980’s and 1990’s as it is today. However, many people have misinterpreted the songs lyrics and perceive the song as challenging authority or anti-police. But Public Enemy’s bass player, Brian Hardgroove, dispelled that myth about the song’s message when he said,
“Law enforcement is necessary. As a species we haven’t evolved past needing that. Fight the Power is not about fighting authority—it’s not that at all. It’s about fighting abuse of power.” (Source: Complex)
Public Enemy pioneered a new style of rap, which many refer to as “political hip-hop” or “conscious hip hop.” They are most known for using music to give a voice to and bring attention to the inequities and issues faced by the black community. Fight the Power is one of their many songs and albums containing lyrical messages of black empowerment. They’ve been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and are considered one of the most popular, controversial and influential groups of their time.
Year Released: A popular theory is that variations of the song originated from slavery spiritual songs, a gospel hymn from 1900, and folk music adaptations in the 1940’s. (Source: Discipleship Ministries) However, in January 2020, Louise Shropshire was credited with creating the hymn whose lyrics became the basis for “We Shall Overcome.” She published that hymn in 1942. (Source: WSBTV-Atlanta)
The song, We Shall Overcome, is “one of the oldest surviving songs of black America.” This song was first used politically in 1945 during a worker strike against a tobacco company for higher wages. The song gained more popularity during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s when it was embraced and referenced frequently by folk singers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists who taught activism through nonviolent civil disobedience and Christian beliefs.
Congressman John Lewis explained the important role this song played in his lifelong efforts to fight for justice. He worked alongside Dr. King, was jailed for advocating for civil rights, and his skull was fractured while marching for voting rights. In his memoir, Lewis says this song gave him faith and strength to push on without fear. It helped prepare him “to march into hell’s fire.”
We are not afraid, we are not afraid,
We are not afraid today;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We are not afraid today.
Some people view this song as too passive to represent today’s battle against racism. They assert that black people have been singing some version of “we shall overcome someday” since slavery and in present times still hoping to “overcome.” However, National Public Radio host Noah Adams reminds us that “We Shall Overcome” was not meant to be a marching song or defiant. Rather, it is a promise and affirmation of what we believe in our hearts as laid out literally in the song’s chorus:
We shall overcome someday.
Deep in my heart, I do believe.
Filmmaker Genie Deez explains in his video history about this song, one of the most powerful things about hearing it is how it invokes “the memory and traditions of some of America’s greatest fighters.” It’s no wonder this song has survived through numerous variations, across multiple genres, and withstood years of history. The song is somber but holds a powerful legacy and promise, making it a meaningful addition in events and efforts to advance racial justice.
Year Released: 1900
This song has been known as the Black National Anthem (formerly “Negro National Anthem) since 1919 when the NAACP proclaimed it. The lyrics were written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson, a man of many talents. Johnson was a writer, lawyer, professor, diplomat, and civil rights activist. His brother, J Rosamond Johnson was a composer who set the lyrics to music.
This song has three verses. The first verse is about rejoicing, the second reflects the struggles of oppression. And the third verse reads like a prayer to God for continued guidance and faith, as you can read here:
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.
Through the years, many musical artists have performed this song. One of the most notable renditions was a collaboration done in 1990 that featured several R&B and gospel artists including: Melba Moore, Anita Baker, The Clark Sisters, BeBe & CeCe Winans and Stevie Wonder, among others.
More recently, this song was performed by Alicia Keys at the Superbowl Halftime Show in February 2021. It brought renewed criticism from people who believe having an anthem separate from America’s “Star Spangled Banner” is divisive. Historian Tim Askew, agrees “it’s the label of this song as a ‘black national anthem’ that creates a lot of confusion and tension,” promotes racial separatism and restricts acceptance of this song. Those who embrace the label say it’s important to consider history. First, that this song was created during separatism over 100 years ago, with the hope of unity. Second, that the Star Spangled Banner’s lyrics and author have a controversial history that many interpret as anti-black and not inclusive. Thus, the anthem label is an ongoing debate that should be addressed, but doesn’t diminish the value or meaning of Lift Every Voice as a song. Askew describes the song as beautiful and an “anthem of universal uplift.” (Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, CNN and Smithsonian Magazine)
Beyoncé sang this song at Coachella in 2018. When talking about it during her interview with Vogue magazine, she said she knew the young performers on stage and the predominately white audience likely didn’t know the history of the Black National Anthem. “But they understood the feeling it gave them.” Here’s how she described this performance:
“It was a celebration of all the people who sacrificed more than we could ever imagine, who moved the world forward so that it could welcome a woman of color to headline such a festival.” (Source: Vogue)
Notably the song’s title literally says “lift every voice.” It is a rejoiceful song of unity that doesn’t explicitly refer to race, and instead “speaks to the universal human condition.” This, no doubt, has allowed it to be embraced by many religions, ethnicities and citizens around the world for over a century.
Songs to Play at a Racial Justice Event
In the fight for racial justice, musical art has become increasingly popular as it offers a way to unify and motivate people, whether at small engagements or large rallies. All the songs mentioned in this article offer perspectives people can relate to, a sense of hope and change people can aspire to, or a feeling of rejoice people can celebrate to:
- I Can’t Breathe
- Say it Loud
- Stand Up
- Fight the Power
- We Shall Overcome
- Lift Every Voice and Sing
If you’re looking for a larger selection of songs and racial justice music artivism, NPR created a list of 160 songs inspired by the Civil Rights Movement.
Or, if hip hop and more upbeat tempo music is your preference, check out this list of political hip hop artists compiled by Wikipedia.
Tapping into music as an activism tool is a powerful and effective way to promote fairness, justice, equality, and unity. And, the issues the musicians address with music have long-lasting impact and influence on listeners. Songs, melodies and lyrics have emotional and timelessness qualities that are often engrained in our memories for years.