Five Freedom Songs for Your MLK Day Playlist

Music is integral to the movement. Take a listen.

Music, as TV One highlights in its new special, Unsung Presents: Music & The Movement, has been a huge part of the fight for justice and equality. Just as love songs, party anthems and classic cuts can accentuate our moods, the same songs can also help bond us together as a collective as we fight to be heard, seen and, most importantly, respected. These five songs are prime examples of how music has done just that. Add them to your freedom playlist for MLK Day and beyond.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, STEVIE WONDER, 1980

Today it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday. And Stevie Wonder is a huge reason why. When he created “Happy Birthday,” which appeared on his Hotter Than July album, released in 1980, the fight to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday had been going since his assassination in 1968. Congressman John Conyers from Michigan introduced the concept just four days after his assassination, but it went nowhere for years. Even with the full backing of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), it stalled for at least 15 years. Conyers would reintroduce the bill every year to no avail.

In the early 1980s, however, the tide began to change as the CBC collected SIX million signatures supporting the holiday. But Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” tribute to Dr. King, which includes the lyrics “I never understood/How a man who died for good/Could not have a day that would/Be set aside for his recognition,” added a heightened enthusiasm to the campaign. And in 1983, on the heels of the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dr. King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech and, sadly, the 15th anniversary of his assassination, the bill came to vote again. Only this time when Republican senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina tried to introduce material from the FBI’s witch hunt against Dr. King, it backfired. And, on October 19, 1983, the bill passed the Senate, with Ronald Reagan signing it into law on November 2, 1983.

The first federal holiday celebrating Dr. King didn’t take place until 1986, with some states, like Arizona, refusing to celebrate it at all. Many Southern states opted to observe the date in honor of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. By 2000, however, every state officially observed the King National Holiday, even those like Alabama and Mississippi, who came kicking and screaming. Today, the King Day, which is a day of service for many, is celebrated every third Monday of January, sometimes even falling on his actual birthday of January 15.

STRANGE FRUIT, BILLIE HOLIDAY, 1939

Although the Jewish American Abel Meeropol originally wrote “Strange Fruit” as a poem under the more American pseudonym of Lewis Allan in 1937, jazz icon Billie Holiday brought the song to prominence. Meeropol wrote the poem in response to a graphic photo of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two young Black men accused of killing a White man and raping his White girlfriend, who were pulled from jail by a White mob in Marion, Indiana. The image was taken by local photographer Lawrence Beitler. Originally published in The New York Teacher in 1937 as “Bitter Fruit,” it would later be set to music with Meeropol, his wife Anne, and Black American vocalist Laura Duncan reportedly performing it in various places in New York City, including Madison Square Garden.

It wasn’t until Billie Holiday performed the song at Café Society, New York City’s first integrated nightclub, in 1939 that it really began to be noticed. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” Holiday sang in a haunting voice that made it impossible for most who heard it not to be outraged by lynching. When Holiday recorded the anti-lynching song that same year, she didn’t receive widespread acclaim for her bold social protest. The federal government, specifically Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for over 30 years, serving under presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, ordered Holiday to stop singing “Strange Fruit.” But Holiday, as detailed in Oscar nominee Lee Daniels’ latest film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, paid dearly for her refusal to back down. She was stripped of her cabaret license, making it nearly impossible for her to perform in New York City.

Additionally, Anslinger, the original architect of the “war on drugs,” as detailed by Johann Hari in his 2015 book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, used his position to imprison Holiday, who struggled with drug addiction. He even hired Black federal agents, most notably Jimmy Fletcher, with whom she had an affair, as well as others to entrap her by documenting her own drug use or planting drugs on her to incriminate her. No matter what he did, Holiday would not stop singing “Strange Fruit,” and she, as many have noted, paid with her life to raise awareness and action against lynching. Today, “Strange Fruit,” is revered as one of the greatest social protest songs of all time.

WE SHALL OVERCOME, UNCERTAIN, CIVIL RIGHTS ANTHEM OF THE 1950s, 1960s

The origins of this iconic civil rights anthem are not exactly known. Most, however, accept that it is derived from Black Methodist preacher and composer Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley’s early 1900s hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday.” The version most familiar today is derived from the song Black activist Lucille Simmons sang leading striking tobacco workers in Charleston in the 1940s. That is how the folk singer and activist Zilphia Horton, who worked with the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, first heard it. She taught it to white folk singer Peter Seeger, to whom the song is often credited. In 1948, Seeger and Horton published it to his newsletter People’s Songs, changing the main refrain from “we will overcome” to “we shall overcome.” In 1960, Seeger and fellow white folk singers Guy Carawan and Frank Hamilton copyrighted the song. Throughout the 1960s, “We Shall Overcome,” with its promise that “Deep in my heart/I do believe/We shall overcome, some day” became ubiquitous with the movement. Dr. King even titled a sermon after it. Even today, it is sung during civil and human rights gatherings.

SAY IT LOUD — I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD, JAMES BROWN, 1968

Released in August 1968, just months after Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis, “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” came at a pivotal time in the nation’s history, especially as the Black Power Movement, typically associated with the Black Panther Party out of Oakland, began to supplant the Civil Rights Movement. Prior to this song’s release, the word “Negro” had been the acceptable term for Black Americans. Masterminded by James Brown, who famously went from a processed hairstyle to an afro, “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” with about 30 Black kids hailing from Watts and Compton in L.A. singing the chorus, became an anthem, igniting and affirming a new sense of pride among Black Americans throughout the nation.

FIGHT THE POWER (2020 REMIX), PUBLIC ENEMY WITH NAS, RAPSODY, BLACK THOUGHT, JAHI, YG AND QUESTLOVE, 2020

On the heels of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arberry and so many others, the 2020 BET AWARDS, presented virtually due to Covid-19, surprised so many by kicking off strongly with an updated version of Public Enemy’s 1989 classic, Fight the Power.” “Fight the Power” came about when Spike Lee approached the pioneering rap group, on the heels of their platinum-selling 1988 album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, about creating an anthem for his now classic film Do the Right Thing. Public Enemy’s Chuck D more than delivered. Just as Public Enemy took cues from The Isley Brothers’ impactful 1975 original hit of the same name and updated it, the 2020 version continued the spirit of the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality by incorporating the deaths of—most notably—George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and including younger rappers. Incorporating Nas, relative newcomer Rapsody, The Roots emcee Black Thought, Oakland rapper Jahi and the Roots drummer Questlove not only breathed fresh breath into the original but also highlighted timelessness of “we’ve got to fight the powers that be” as long as injustice persists.

STAR SPANGLED BANNER, MARVIN GAYE

Up until the NBA All-Star game in 1983, the nation had only heard the National Anthem sung one way — the traditional way — at a national sporting event. And then Marvin Gaye stepped on to the court. And the beat dropped.

As the nation, and all-time basketball greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Magic, Dr. J looked on, Gaye sang a jazzy, R&B-styled version of the anthem that instilled national pride while also raising eyebrows. The anthem was transformed into something so strong and beautiful and Black that it scared many (reports state that CBS was angry and some of the audience booed) but today is considered one of the greatest renditions of the anthem of all time.

As Abdul-Jabbar told the Undefeated: “Marvin Gaye was absolutely on the forefront of [artists tackling societal issues]. He was an important guy, artistically, at that time. He talked about issues that resonated in the Black community in a very meaningful way.”

By making the anthem distinctly Black, Gaye protested in plain sight, adding millions of overlooked Americans to the mosaic.

ATL-based Ronda Racha Penrice is a writer/cultural critic specializing in film/TV, lifestyle, and more. She is the author of Black American History For Dummies.

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