Music and activism have a long history together. Songs tell stories, inspire hope, and empower change. Folk and gospel music played important roles during the American Civil Rights movement while the activism of modern bands like Pussy Riot is more famous than their music. Racism is a common topic for musicians. Through music, these artists raise awareness of racism, share their personal experiences and feelings, and advocate for change. Here are 15 powerful songs calling for an end to racism:
#1. “Strange Fruit”
Written by: Abel Meeropol | Performed by: Billie Holiday
First recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939, this haunting song was inspired by a photograph of a 1930 lynching where bodies hung like fruit from trees. The lynchings of Black people were common at that time. Horrified by these murders, Jewish-American writer, teacher, and songwriter Abel Meeropol (under his pseudonym Lewis Allan) wrote the lyrics as a poem and later added music. Without ever mentioning the word “lynching,” Meeropol’s song is still painfully clear and moving. The song has been covered by many artists, including Nina Simone in 1965 during the Civil Rights movement.
#2. “Redemption Song”
Written and performed by: Bob Marley
Arguably Bob Marley’s most famous song, “Redemption Song” is an anthem that addresses slavery and freedom. One of its most famous lines “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery” was taken from a 1937 speech by Marcus Garvey, a philosopher, activist, and Black nationalist born in Jamaica. Adding to its poignancy is the fact that Bob Marley was ill with cancer when he recorded the song. The singer is reflecting on his own death and legacy. Many versions and covers have been recorded, but Bob Marley’s acoustic track remains among the most enduring.
#3. “Beds Are Burning”
Written by: Rob Hirst/Jim Moginie/Peter Garrett | Performed by: Midnight Oil
This catchy song, which was the band’s only commercial worldwide hit, deals with land theft from the Indigenous people of Australia. Midnight Oil had a history of social justice music and after touring in remote Aboriginal communities, they wrote an album focused on land rights and what white Australians had done to Indigenous communities. “Burning Are Burning” became a global sensation.
Written and performed by: Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman is best known for her song “Fast Car,” but she’s continued writing and recording over the years. Her song “America,” which was released in 2005, is a striking indictment of the colonizers who arrived on American shores and the legacy that continues. “The ghost of Columbus haunts this world,” Chapman sings, “Cause you’re still conquering America.”
#5. “None of Us Are Free”
Written by: Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil/Brenda Russell | Performed by: Solomon Burke
Written in 1993 and first performed by Ray Charles, Solomon Burke’s version of “None Of Us Are Free” in 2002 received more attention. Solomon Burke, who is considered a major figure in soul and R&B music, performed the song often toward the end of his life. Its lyrics call for a collective understanding of humanity and that while there are still people oppressed and in pain, none of us are truly free.
Written by: Mark Bryan/Darius Rucker/Jim Sonefeld | Performed by: Hootie & The Blowfish
“Drowning” was the last single from Hootie & The Blowfish’s debut album. In contrast to the band’s upbeat singles, “Drowning” is more serious and addresses racism, specifically the Confederate flags that flew at the South Carolina State House. The band is from South Carolina, so this song is very personal to its members. Despite protests regarding the Confederate flag’s prominent place, it would be another 20 years before it officially came down. One of the most famous protests took place in June 2015, when Bree Newsome scaled the flag pole and took down the flag. Not long after, the flag was officially removed.
#7. “The Killing Season”
Written and performed by: Lizzie No
Folk singer Lizzie No released this song in 2017 in response to police brutality. In an interview about the song, the artist says Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” and its descriptions of survival and everyday violence inspired her. With a backdrop of acoustic guitar, No compares the normality of police brutality to seasons, which come and go in a routine. “The Killing Season” captures No’s grief at this cruel reality.
#8. “White Man’s World”
Written and performed by: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
In this song from 2017, singer-songwriter Jason Isbell faces his privilege head on. He takes a hard look at the world, seeing how being white and male gives him more privileges and opportunities than women and people of color. He describes struggling with hopelessness, but still having faith when he looks at “the fire in my little girl’s eyes.” Many songs about racism come from those who are enduring it, but Isbell confronts white, male privilege and encourages others like him to do the same.
#9. “Stop the Hatred”
Written by: Uncle Reece/Wyclef Jean/MC Jin | Performed by: MC Jin feat. Wyclef Jean
In 2020 and 2021, anti-Asian hate crimes increased. New York City became an especially dangerous place for harassment and violence. During a protest, rapper MC Jin’s son shouted “Stop the hatred!” This became the name of MC Jin’s 2021 song, which features Wyclef Jean. MC Jin describes being afraid when his parents leave the house, as well as relief that his grandmother has already passed and won’t have to deal with violence. “Stop the hatred,” MC Jin cries. “Rain love on me.”
Written and performed by: Raye Zaragoza
One of music’s most exciting rising artists, Raye Zaragoza has written many songs dealing with social justice issues. “Red” is one of the most moving and challenging. It draws attention to the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women. According to studies, 4 out of 5 Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetimes. “They’ve been finding your sisters in the red river,” Zaragoza sings, “In the red river.”
#11. “Blue Lights”
Written by: Ben Joyce/Dylan Mills/Guy Bonnet/Jorja Smith/Nicholas Detnon/Roland Romanelli | Performed by: Jorja Smith
Jorja Smith, a young singer-songwriter from Great Britain, explores discrimination and police brutality in this 2016 song. The music video features men and boys – including her own father – from Smith’s home of Birmingham and Walsall. Smith intended to show that stereotypes are “misleading and, ultimately, harmful.” Smith sings, “If you’ve done nothing wrong, blue lights should just pass you by,” but because of racism, police target Black men and boys for simply doing the normal activities shown in the music video.
#12. “Your Racist Friend”
Written by: John Flansburgh/John Linnel | Performed by: They Might Be Giants
While currently famous for their children’s music, They Might Be Giants has deep roots in modern alternative rock. Released back in 1990, “Your Racist Friend” challenges racists and the people who stand there quietly tolerating it. “This is where the party ends,” the band says, “I’ll just sit here wondering how you can stand by your racist friend.” This is a great addition to the catalog of anti-racist songs as it deals with the kind of “harmless,” everyday racism people encounter all the time. Instead of letting it slide, They Might Be Giants encourages people to “end the party.”
#13. “Black Like Me”
Written by: Emma Davidson Dillon/Fraser Churchill/Mickey Guyton/Nathan Chapman | Performed by: Mickey Guyton
American country artist Mickey Guyton has been in the business for years, but her breakthrough came in 2020 when she released “Black Like Me.” The song describes her experiences growing up as a young Black girl and realizing that America wasn’t equal. “If you think we live in the land of the free,” she sings, “Then you should try to be Black like me.” The song earned Guyton her first nomination at the Grammy Awards. She was also the first Black woman nominated in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
#14. “Black Lives Matter”
Written by: Daniel Dwosu Jr. | Performed by: Dax
Dax’s 2020 song “Black Lives Matter” packs a punch with its sharp, powerful lyrics and mournful refrain “I can’t breathe.” Written for victims of police brutality like Sandra Bland and George Floyd, as well as for the families impacted by police brutality, Dax calls on everyone to stand up and demand change. Silence fuels the problem, so Dax’s song is a call to action.
#15. “A Change Is Gonna Come”
Written and performed by: Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke was a successful musician, but after hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he wanted to write something more meaningful. “A Change is Gonna Come” expresses Cooke’s sorrow about segregation and hope for a different world. “It’s been a long, a long time coming,” he sings, “But I know a change is gonna come.” The song was released in 1964, two weeks after Sam Cooke was killed at just 33 years old. In his short life, Sam Cooke was an active member of the Civil Rights Movement and his song feels just as important today.
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