Celebrate Black History Month With These 20 Songs
One of the greatest artistic products to derive from the African American culture is its music. And of that music, no category is as distinct as hip-hop, with its ability to raise awareness by telling stories of social injustice and oppression, but also of heritage and pride.
Rap music today sits at the forefront of mainstream and pop culture, but first began as something that was “for the people, by the people.” So in honor of Black History Month, here are 20 songs that speak to hip-hop’s ability to encourage thought, conversation and action.—Marjua Estevez
“Freedom Rap” — Queen Latifah, Yo-Yo, Left Eye, MC Lyte, Patra, Nefertiti, Da 5 Footaz, Salt N Pepa And Meshell Ndegeocello
"My spiritual awareness leads me to believe / That you doubt in the sisters / That come with the peace we've been together / Since God created all of Thee/ African daughters celebration is in order / Pop the cork and give the champagne to the stork / That brought the Lyte to my momma in New York"
A hidden gem, “Freedom Rap” will forever be a treasure song belonging to the 1995 Panther film soundtrack. The song, which pays tribute to women of the past who played monumental roles in the empowerment of black women, features an all-star bevy of female MCs and singers.
“All Black Everything” — Lupe Fiasco
"Uh, and we ain’t get exploited / White man ain’t feared it so he did not destroy it / We ain’t work for free, see they had to employ it / Built it up together so we equally appointed / First 400 years, see we actually enjoyed it / Constitution written by W.E.B. DuBois / Were no reconstructions, civil war got avoided"
Lupe Fiasco, who is infamous for his lyrical aptitude in the subjects of politics and social injustice, explores what may have happened if Black people were never enslaved and if racism never existed. “All Black Everything” lives on Lupe’s third studio album, Lasers.
“Sucka Ni**a” — A Tribe Called Quest
"See, nigga was first used back in the Deep South / Falling out between the dome of the white man’s mouth/ It means that we will never grow / you know the word dummy / Upper niggas in the community thinks it’s crummy / But I don’t, neither does the youth ‘cause we em / Brace adversity, it goes right with the race"
Off of Tribe’s third studio album, Midnight Marauders, “Sucka Nigga” reflects the paradigms on the usage of the N-word.
“I’m Black” — Styles P featuring Marsha Ambrosius Of Floetry
"(I’m black) And I’mma hold my right fist real high / Might see my man and we might get real high / (I’m black) And I know it, and I ain’t afraid to show it / (I’m black) And I’m a genius and a muthafuckin’ poet / You know it"
Before Kanye ever had the audacity to call himself a genius, Styles P was brazen enough to dub himself as on in “I’m Black.” The song is straightforward and catchy, with smooth couplets wedged between the recurring motif.
“My President” — Young Jeezy featuring Nas
"Obama for mankind / We ready for some damn change so y’all let the man shine / Stuntin’ on Martin Luther, feeling just like a King / Guess this is what he meant when he said that he 'had a dream'"
A pro-Obama anthem, if only for a brief moment. “My President” was recorded circa the day Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination for presidency.
“You Must Learn” — Boogie Down Productions
"No one told you about Benjamin Banneker / a brilliant black man that invented the almanac / Eli Whitney, Haile Selassie / Granville Woods made the walkie-talkie / Lewis Latimer improved on Edison / Charles Drew did a lot for medicine"
KRS-One tries to instill in his listeners a sense of pride by going over a bit of African American history, and criticizes the American school system in the process.
“Murder to Excellence” — Kanye West And Jay Z
I stink of success, the new black elite / They say my Black Card bears the mark of the beast / I repeat: my religion is the beat / My verse is like church, my Jesus piece / Now please, domino, domino / Only spot a few blacks the higher I go/ What’s up to Will, shout out to O / That ain’t enough.. we gonna need a million more" - Jay Z
A two-in-one track, which talks about both black-on-black crime and the need for a greater black presence in the upper echelons of society. The first half explores the pockets of America that are heavily concentrated with gang crime, particularly Kanye’s hometown of Chicago. The second half speaks of “black excellence,” as Jay Z articulates the details of a certain caliber of success attained by the likes of Oprah, expressing the need for more people like her (and himself for that matter).
“F**k Da Police” — N.W.A.
"F**k the police coming straight from the underground / A young nigga got it bad ‘cause I’m brown / And not the other color so police think / They have the authority to kill a minority / Fuck that shit, ‘cause I ain’t the one / For a punk muthaf**ka with a badge and a gun"
Released in 1988 by Compton’s staple gangsta rap group, “F**k Da Police” went down in history as a protest song that highlights the many tensions between the Black urban youth and the police. It also caught the attention of the FBI, which provoked them to caution N.W.A’.s record company about their lyrics.
“I Can” — Nas
"Be, be, 'fore we came to this country / We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys/ There was empires in Africa called Kush / Timbuktu, where every race came to get books/ To learn from black teachers who taught Greeks and Romans/ Asian Arabs and gave them gold when/ Gold was converted into money it all changed"
Here, Nasir Jones motivates the youth to follow their dreams and touches on the royalty and elite from which Africans originate.
“Keep Ya Head Up” — 2Pac
"Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice / I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots / I give a holla to my sisters on welfare / 2Pac cares if nobody else care / And I know they like to beat you down a lot / when you come around the block, brothas clown a lot / but please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up / Forgive but don’t forget, girl, keep ya head up"
Tupac Shakur may have been notorious for being a gangsta, but the West Coast MC was a poet who had feelings too. “Keep Ya Head Up” is an ode to the single, black mother (including his own, Afeni Shakur, who was also a Black Panther).
“A Dream” — Common featuring will.i.am
"Flip the page, now my race became freedom / Write dreams in the dark, they far but I can see ‘em / I believe in heaven more than hell, lessons more than jail / In the ghetto, let love prevail with a story to tell / My eyes see the glory, and well / The world waiting for me to yell, 'I Have A Dream'"
Common samples Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in the single off the soundtrack to Freedom Writers. It demonstrates both the changes and what has remained the same in course of time since the speech was delivered.
“Black Girl Pain” — Talib Kweli featuring Jean Grae
"My pretty black princess, smell sweet like that incense / That you buy at the bookstore, supporting black business / Teach her what black is, the fact that her parents are thorough / She four reading Cornrows by Camille Yarborough"
Another great ode to the black woman, “Black Girl Pain” speaks volumes on the experiences that a black woman might endure and describes her with inspirational imagery.
“Proud To Be Black” — Run-DMC
"DMC the man that’s causin’ the beef / I got a message for the world so listen up, it’s brief / Like Malcolm X said I won’t turn the right cheek / Got the strength to go the length, if you wanna start beef / Start beef!"
In the golden age of hip-hop, Run-DMC made you feel hella proud to be Black with their 1986 single, which also spotlights the likes of Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman and Muhammad Ali.
“Changes” — 2Pac
"And although it seems heaven-sent / We ain’t ready to see a black president / It ain’t a secret, don’t conceal the fact / The penitentiary is packed and it’s filled with blacks / But some things will never change / Try to show another way but you staying in the dope game / Now tell me, what’s a mother to do? / Being real don’t appeal to the brotha in you"
A very prolific 2Pac contemplates the injustice, class division and political upheaval that plagues people of color, even to this day. “Changes” sampled an emotional melody from “That’s The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range.
“Erase Racism” — Kool G Rap & DJ Polo featuring Biz Markie & Big Daddy Kane
"So let’s fulfill and get real, and try to build / A united nation, eliminate segregation / I know there’s different strokes for different folks / But I’ve also acknowledged what hatred provokes / So don’t hate me or try to underrate me/ Cause I collect ends, drive a Benz and live greatly"
Kool G collaborates with Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane in a song that calls people of all nationalities to unite and put an end to racism.
“Fight The Power” — Public Enemy
"What counts is that the rhymes / designed to fill your mind / now that you’ve realized the pride’s arrived / We got to pump the stuff to make us tough / From the heart / It’s a start, a work of art / To revolutionize, make a change"
A tour-de-force anthem from the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s classic 1989 film, Do The Right Thing, “Fight the Power” is arguably the group’s best known song and encourages the minority population to rise up against “the powers that be.”
“Rock N Roll” — Mos Def
"I said Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul / Chuck Berry is rock n roll / You may dig on the Rolling Stones / But they ain’t come up with that style on they own / Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul / Little Richard is rock n roll / You may dig on the Rolling Stones / But they ain’t come up with that shit on they own"
A criticism of White appropriation of Black music, “Rock N Roll” talks about the role that Black people have played in creating popular music, without ever receiving the proper recognition or credit.
“Black Boy Fly” — Kendrick Lamar
"Compton made you believe success wasn’t real / Be honest, none of knew of a record deal / So as I peel through these lottery tickets / I see a Harley Davidson truck visit the same plaza we shopped / A tall nigga hopped out with Jordans and a white tank top / He was top of the rap game, we was the top of the block / So watch that black boy fly"
The second bonus track off his major-label debut album, Good Kid, m.A.A.d city, “Black Boy Fly” focuses on Kendrick witnessing people from his neighborhood in Compton, Calif. rise above and accomplish greatness (i.e. Game).
“Never Let Me Down” — Kanye West featuring Jay Z And J. Ivy
"I get down for my grandfather who took my momma / Made her sit in that seat where white folks ain't want us to eat / At the tender age of 6 she was arrested for the sit in / With that in my blood I was born to be different / Now niggas can't make it to ballots to choose leadership / But we can make it to Jacob and to the dealership"
A combo track where Jay Z swaggers about his success and J. Ivy inspires with spiritual and religious elements, Kanye is socially aware when he comments on black people today and their obsession with material wealth.
“Africa Must Wake Up” — Nas And Damian Marley featuring K’Naan
"So who are we today? / We are the morning after, the makeshift youth / The slaveship captured, our diaspora is the final chapter / The ancestral lineage built pyramids / America's first immigrants, the kings and daughters from Nile waters / The first architect, the first philosophers / Astronomers, the first prophets and the doctors were us"
Much like its parent album Distant Relatives, “Africa Must Wake Up” fuses hip-hop and reggae elements to connect to genres that are more alike than different. Nas, once again, helps bring awareness to the troubles facing Africa today and touches on a history that more than often goes untaught.