Skip to content

Kendrick Lamar g—-m! A history of the Black protest song


Photo: A.R. Shaw

Last night the crowd at the Grammys got a taste of what Black Lives Matter protesters have been feeling all year. Kendrick Lamar performed a transcendent rendition of “Alright,” which has become this generation’s protest anthem.

From the days of blues and prohibition, Black musicians have been relaying our moods through song and melody. This tradition peaked during the Civil Rights Movement, but as of late, it is making a comeback.

“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday (1939)

“Strange Fruit” was originally a poem written in 1937 by a teacher Abel Meeropol. Two years later, Billie Holiday would immortalize these lyrics regarding American racism, particularly the lynching of black Americans.

“We Shall Overcome” – Zilphia Horton and Collaborators (1948)

We Shall Overcome became a key anthem of the Civil Rights Movement was published it in the September 1948 issue of People’s Songs Bulletin. Zilphia Horton, wrote that she’d learned the song from members of the CIO Food and Tobacco Workers Union. The title and structure are believed to have been inspired by the gospel song, “I’ll Overcome Someday”, by African-American composer Charles Albert Tindley (1851–1933).

John Coltrane – “Alabama” (1963)

The great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane penned “Alabama” in response to the bombing that killed four black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The attack, which had been planned by local Ku Klux Klan members, led to widespread support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 2007 Coltrane would win a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for the composition.

“Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) – Harry Belafonte (1956)

Jamaican-American singer, Harry Belafonte, recorded the traditional Jamaican folk song at the beginning of the Civil Rights Era. The lyrics feature a worker getting what’s due him after a long night on the graveyard shift.

“Respect” Otis Redding (1965)

“A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke (1964) Protest music often emphasizes the words over the music.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” was written by Sam Cooke after his group was turned away from a whites only motel in Louisiana. The song symbolized the struggles African Americans had to endure routinely.

“Mississippi G—am” – Nina Simone (1964)

Singer Nina Simone electrified a crowd of 40,000 Selma and Montgomery protesters when she performed “Mississippi Goddam.” Always politically vocal, she wrote the song in response to the assasinations of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and four little Black girls in Birmingham, Alabama. Simone also wrote the notables “To Be Young, Gifted & Black” and “Four Women.”

Aretha Franklin (1967)

Though their lyrics and arrangements of “Respect” are similar,   Otis Redding offered a plea for respect (in love or society) while Aretha Franklin demanded it.

“Long Walk to D.C.” The Staple Singers – (1968)

The Staples Singers, a Chicago-bred gospel and R&B group,  recorded “Long Walk to D.C.” following the death of Martin Luther King. It was a tribute to the galvanizing 1963 March on Washington, which King had organized.

“Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” – James Brown (1968)

Say It Loud is a funk son of protest and triumph that addressed prejudice towards black people, as well as the need for black empowerment. The song was recorded in Los Angeles’ Watts and Compton neighborhoods using local youth for the song’s call-and-response chorus: “Say it loud” with “I’m black and I’m proud!”

War –  Edwin Starr, Norman Whitfield, and Barrett Strong (1969)

“War” is a counterculture era soul song released by the Motown label as a blatant anti-Vietnam War protest.

Zombie – Fela Kuti and Afrika 70 (1976)

Fela, who was known for being a “rule-breaker and magnet for dissidents,” went too far with the recording of this satire of the Nigerian army. Government authorities raided Fela’s compound and burned it to the ground.

(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go–Curtis Mayfield (1970)

“(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” is afunk/soul song with warning regarding race relations and troubles in America’s inner cities. The song opens with a woman proclaiming the virtues of the Bible‘s “Book of Revelation.” Mayfield then shouts “Sisters! Niggers! Whities! Jews!Crackers! Don’t worry, If there’s a Hell below, we’re all gonna go!”

What’s Going On–Marvin Gaye (1971)

This single, like the album of the same name, is song through the eyes of a man returning from Vietnam War veteran, who is disheartened by the hatred, suffering, and injustice inflicted on his people by the country he served.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised–Gil Scott-Heron (1970)

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is a poem and song by Gil Scott-Heron. The song’s title harkens to the Black Power slogan. Popular television series, entertainers, news stories, and advertising slogans are mentioned or alluded to throughout to demonstrate what “the revolution will not” be or do.

Get Up Stand Up– Bob Marley and The Wailers (1973)

“Get Up, Stand Up” is a reggae song written by Bob Marley with Peter Tosh. It is said that the song was inspired by the poverty and and struggle Marley witnessed while touring Haiti.

“Fight The Power” – The Isley Brothers (1975)

“Fight The Power” – Public Enemy (1989)

“Fight the Power” was first recorded by the Isley Brothers to reflect reflected their negative opinion of authority figures. A hip hop version by Public Enemy became the theme song in film director Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Both versions sample civil rights exhortations, church call-and-response, and soul music.

F— The Police – N.W.A. (1988)

The gangsta rap group N.W.A recorded this song to protest police brutality and racial profiling. It was widely criticized by authorities who objected to its lyrics which seemed to encourage violence against police.