Revolutionary Concepts in African American Music
“Music has always been integral to the African American struggle for Freedom.”Bernice Johnson ReagonSinger & Civil Rights Activist
Since slavery, African Americans have infused their musical expression with revolutionary messages indicative of their unique and troubled journey in the New World. Through music they have demonstrated resilience to consecutive waves of white supremacist oppression, manifested in the harsh and inhumane treatment during slavery, the brutal segregation of the Jim Crow era, the vicious resistance to civil rights, and the enduring unequal treatment that continues within social and economic realms of existence. Indeed, Black people in the United States, like others around the world, have devised different ways of responding to white supremacist notions of humanity—actions such as slavery, colonialism, and their enduring aftermath.
African Americans creatively have resisted each of these morphed manifestations of white supremacy by organizing revolutionary movements focused on social and economic equality, voting rights, political power, complete citizenship, and access on every level and in every arena. The music of African Americans has served as the inspirational soundtrack of these movements, evolving from one era to another, and reflecting their revolutionary response to each new challenge for justice, progress, and equality. The character of these responses has been etched into various songs across genre and generation, to such an extent that one has only to listen to the music of African Americans to understand how they have endured severe conditions since the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on the continent.
When millions of enslaved people were transported to the Americas during the trans-Atlantic slave trade between the 17th and 19th centuries, these Africans brought nothing with them except their approaches to spirituality and worship and their cultural production, including music-making. Stripped of their names and identities but loaded with indelible intellectual and cultural property, they retained the will to create functional art and music throughout their unending struggles and storied triumphs.
In the study of African American music, literature, and art, artists and scholars have identified movements from which concepts emerge that represent the essence of revolutionary art and music. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1910s–1930s, for example, Alain Locke referred to “the New Negro Movement” as a “spiritual coming of age” for advancing Black intellectual thought and artistic and literary expressions. Thirty years later, during the vibrant era of the Black Arts Movement, poet Larry Neal explained that revolutionary Black art must draw on the oral tradition, must be about Black people, must be functional, collective, and accessible.
He insisted that Black revolutionary theater, as an example, must “reflect Black life and its history and legacy of resistance and struggle.” These two artistic movements serve as a basis for understanding how Black music has provided the musical backdrop to the revolutionary essence of African American creativity. Collectively, these movements have produced five concepts that undergird the approach of African Americans across generations to agitating and organizing for freedom and translating these movements into revolutionary soundtracks.
First, revolutionary Black music must resist the oppressive system built by white supremacy that brought Africans to the Americas as dehumanized chattel and that kept them bound and far from the center of the so-called “freedom” enshrined in the founding documents of the United States. In essence, the music must be anti-Western—that is, defined by a distinctly Black experience shaped by an institutionalized Western system of oppression. African Americans have always created music that directly pushes back against oppressive forces. This notion of directly confronting white oppressive superstructures has been carried out by African American art forms from spirituals to hip-hop. Folk spirituals like “Wade in the Water,” rhythm-and-blues songs like Curtis Mayfield’s “This is My Country” (1968), Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” (1973), and R&B/Neo-soul tracks like Donnie’s “Welcome to the Colored Section” (2002) have all musically captured the very existence of African Americans as enslaved and oppressed people surviving and agitating for their rights in a white supremacist world.
Secondly, the subject of revolutionary Black music must be centered on the varied and rich narratives of Black life, bringing attention to the need for freedom and first-class citizenship. Songs evolving from such narratives include Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” (1941), Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” (1970), and Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (1970).
The third concept that undergirds Black revolutionary music is an expression of urgency for change. In other words, the music must be emotional rather than cerebral. This concept is woven throughout the lyrics and the performance aesthetic in much of Black music created in the Americas. Arguably, all Black music has the power to stir emotions. Some songs, however, convey a sense of urgency that shifts emotions to a yearning for liberation. The vocal expression and lyrical content in Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” (1964), Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” (1982), Tupac’s “Changes” (1998), and Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage” (2014), for instance, mine the deep emotions that are inevitably connected to the enduring struggle of Black existence in the United States.
The fourth concept central in revolutionary music is its function as an agent for advocating for social and political change through didactic messaging, a carryover from African descended cultures. The power of music to inspire people toward sociopolitical action has always embodied a form of teaching and preaching. The Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” (1972), Boogie Down Production’s “Stop the Violence” (1988), and Nas’ “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master) (explicit)” (2008), for example, all communicate a message of empowerment and liberation using a didactic approach.
Finally, the fifth concept is longevity. Black revolutionary music has a lasting impact on society. Like any other aspect of revolution, it has the power to transcend time and era, to remind generations to come of the moments in American history when artists and activists have pushed back against the terror of white supremacy. All the music cited throughout the rest of this essay presents examples taken from 100 years of African American music, beginning in the 1920s to the dawn of the 2020s. This music illustrates the revolutionary concepts discussed above and has survived the waves of societal change, remaining relevant in the 21st century.
Generations of Revolutionary Music
In the 1920s, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith served up early examples of music that unapologetically framed Black life. With the deep, rich timbre of her voice in the song “Booze and Blues” in 1925, so-called “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, tells a story in the first person, of a Black woman yearning for her man. Only a few decades from the end of slavery, this song reveals the difficult circumstances for Black people living under Prohibition and the threat of incarceration.
Similarly, the “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith, presents another vignette of a Black woman’s story in “St. Louis Blues,” which she recorded with Louis Armstrong in 1925. In this song, Smith’s sultry voice trades off with Armstrong’s sharp trumpet responses, as she tells a story of losing her Black man in the type of urban space where so many African Americans migrated around World War I. The narrator of the song laments the loss of a lover to women who wears store-bought hair. These references to make-up and hair are familiar to African Americans. Although there are no words in Duke Ellington’s 1927 recording of “Black and Tan Fantasy,” the band captures the sound of a train chugging along railroad tracks, which echoes a sense of the journey of African Americans from the deep South to Midwestern and Northern cities like St. Louis and Harlem. Each solo tells a different story of what happened to the men and women who made that journey.
Although jazz performer Louis Armstrong did not publicly engage with anti-racist rhetoric until 1957 when he reacted to the struggle to desegregate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, he dealt directly with white supremacy as early as 1929. In his song “Black and Blue” he paints a desolate and painful picture of what life is like for African Americans in a white world. “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case…My only sin is in my skin/What did I do to be so Black and blue?” The lyrics repeat the question “What did I do?” as a way of exploring what African Americans could have done to deserve the treatment that continued to be meted out against them in the United States. The song also touches on the complexity of the concept of double consciousness that W. E. B. Du Bois had written about in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Conveyed in the lyrics, with his unique rich voice and his mournful trumpet, is the experience of being Black, living, as Du Bois explained, “behind the veil” and far from the center of opportunity and upward mobility.
As Du Bois predicted, the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line. The effects of the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s affected Black folks more sharply because of the realities of the color line. In “The Bourgeois Blues” (1937), Lead Belly continues to tell another chapter in this uniquely African American story of revolution and redemption. Lead Belly wrote the song because he had an encounter with a racist landlord in Washington, DC. Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax explains how this song was composed:
“[Lead Belly] came to stay with me in Washington. Washington, at that time, was a Jim Crow town, and Blacks weren’t supposed to enter white hotels or houses. Well, I lived in a little apartment across from the Library of Congress, and Lead Belly and his wife, Martha, came up to spend the night with us. The landlady objected, and Lead Belly and Martha, at the head of the stairs, heard the argument that I had with the lady—she said she was going to call the police and have us all put out. So we finally had to get in a car and find a hotel. But Lead Belly made a song about this called “Bourgeois Blues”: “Me and Martha was standing up there/We heard the white lady say she didn’t want no Black folks up there/She’s a bourgeois lady living in a bourgeois town.” He’d heard us talking about bourgeois, and he put that word into a song so that nobody can ever forget its deleterious meaning.”Alan Lomax
That Lead Belly put into song what so many African Americans experienced at that time was a revolutionary act. His trademark 12-string guitar and what Lomax called his trumpet-like voice delivers the potency of the experience and Lead Belly’s indignant response to it.
Perhaps no song exemplifies emotional urgency better than Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” written by Jewish teacher Abel Meeropol in 1937 and recorded by Holiday in 1939. Her voice plunges to haunting depths as it communicates the terror of African American life and violent death. The song paints a horrific picture of lynched bodies of African Americans, a reality captured by writers like Ida B. Wells. David Margolick’s book on the biography of the song explains the impact the rendering of this song had to move people to action: “whether they protested in Selma or took part in the March on Washington or spent their lives as social activists, many say that it was hearing ‘Strange Fruit’ that triggered the process.” The power of “Strange Fruit” to move, to shed light on the situation that called for change is almost unmatched.
By the 1960s, Black artists, galvanized by the Black Power movement, were no longer content only with conveying emotions. They wanted action and began asserting their rights and calls for true citizenship in their music. Max Roach’s “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace” (1960) conveys this urgent mood. The centerpiece of his seminal jazz album We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, this track takes listeners on an emotional roller coaster journey through the very core of Black life. Vocalist Abbey Lincoln hums, moans, sighs, screams, and yells through the daily feelings of supplication, frustration, anger, and hopelessness that accompany the trauma of being Black in America. Each movement comes with a shift of emotion, from the meditative reverence of necessary prayer, to the anguish and desperation of fighting back against the constant waves of oppression, to the spent exhausted state of a tenuous peace at the end.
The tone, story, and delivery of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” (1964) exemplifies this urgency of the 1960s. Simone presents this “show tune” dripping with irony and frustration directed at the set of circumstances that resulted in a continual avalanche of lynchings, church bombings, murders, fire hoses, and police brutality. Dissatisfied with the idea of achieving change in slow increments, Simone angrily demands swift and complete justice. This song embodies the notion of revolution at its very core.
Another example of revolutionary Black music with a sharp, unrepentant focus on Black life is John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (1965). A jazz standard that speaks volumes with no words, only the sound of Coltrane’s tenor saxophone that shifts from meditative yearnings to exuberant praise, this track bursts forth from the fount that has always buoyed African Americans to continue striving for freedom—spirituality and religion. Coltrane himself had emerged from his struggles with drugs and depression, and A Love Supreme was a jazz suite that is deeply personal, but one that captures the collective spirit of African American people. As Coltrane explains in the liner notes to the album, “As time and events moved on, I entered into a phase which is contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path. But thankfully now, through the merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been fully reinformed of his omnipotence. It is truly a love supreme.”
“As a political weapon, it [music] has helped me for thirty years defend the rights of American Blacks and third world people...to defend them with protest songs. [I sing] to move the audience, to make them conscious of what has been done to my people around the world.”Nina SimoneSinger & Civil Rights Activist
Nina Simone’s “Four Women” (1966) is a poignant example of another form of Black revolutionary music that is so focused on telling the story of Black women’s lives. In this unprecedented narrative, Simone carefully lays out the detailed and intricate stories of four different African American women, with varied backgrounds and circumstances that reveal complex and complicated realities that bring nuance to Black life, particularly to Black women. This song, which offers subplots of quintessential American relationships forced by circumstance—on plantations, in brothels, in the hood, in interracial coupling—brings rich context to our understandings of Blackness and whiteness in the United States, all spilling from the cruel beginnings of slavery.
James Brown’s 1968 offering “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” pushes the revolutionary message even further in the 1960s. This anthem, effectively recorded with a children’s chorus, reminded the global Black community of the power of culturally assertive lyricism in the quest to insert notions of Black beauty into a landscape that was unreservedly Eurocentric. According to Guthrie Ramsey, Brown “stood at the crossroad between the Civil Rights and Black Power movements” (151). This position gave Brown a unique panoramic view of the pathological damages caused by the depletion of Black pride by mainstream white society and culture.
Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “This is My Country” (1968) offers an unvarnished history lesson on the role and reality of Black folks building the United States and affirming their right to stay and make the claim that “this is my country.” When Mayfield went solo two years later, at the dawn of the 1970s, he continued to teach, recording songs like “Move On Up” (1970), in which, after a heavily bruising and hard-fought battle for Black power and civil rights, he instructs the next generation how to keep moving forward. The song carries with it a clear roadmap to the future, where “second best is not an option.” This period of the 1970s was marked by the elusive so-called triumphs of desegregation. Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, and the Civil Rights Act passed 10 years later, but life for Black Americans continued to be marred by the long-term effects of institutional racism. Black revolutionary music was still critical for keeping Black folks aware of and inspired to continue to fight against the enduring systemic oppressions and daily indignities. The notion of respect became a significant part of the message from pulpits and podiums in the Black community. Two different didactic perspectives on this notion were offered by Aretha Franklin’s rendition of Otis Redding’s “Respect” in 1967 and The Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” in 1971. The former sends a message externally to the mainstream society, while the latter turns the bullhorn within, to the Black community. Taken together, these songs insist on the need for actions that support dignity.
The Last Poets’ “When the Revolution Comes” (1970) and Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970) represent another type of revolutionary message at the beginning of the 1970s. Set against the distinctive percussion of West African drums and gong (in the former) and referencing well-known television shows and news items from popular culture, these artists wove a message of radical change with notes on when and how it could and should happen and what the impact might be. Another set of immediate steps for life lessons are laid out in Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (1971). Included in the musical manifesto are a set of questions that accompany the protests against racial equality and the country’s involvement in an unwinnable war. Together with The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” released in the same year, Motown was attempting to infuse some message music into their catalog, which had, up to this point, largely stayed away from didactics and function beyond entertainment.
In 1974, jazz innovator Sun Ra took the response to another realm with Space is the Place. If the white supremacist space was uncomfortable for African Americans, they could find freedom in space. According to literary scholar Paul Youngquist, Sun Ra’s “activism drew its inspiration not from a moral or political imperative but, more simply and beautifully, from sound: music to change the planet, space music heralding other, happier worlds.” Space is the Place painted a world in direct opposition to the earthly world where Black folks were oppressed. George Clinton’s (Parliment-Funkadelic) “Mothership Connection” (1975), “Aqua Boogie” (1978), and “One Nation Under a Groove” (1978), a P-Funk standard, thump out the rhythm of Black life in the 1970s and 1980s, while promoting the P-Funk philosophy. Like Sun Ra, the songs of Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic are steeped in afro-futuristic philosophy. They take Black people to outerspace and under water to reclaim their “Blackness,” then bring them “back to earth” and “back to land” as culturally and mentally empowered and reinvigorated Black people. Clinton “took party funk to another level,” according to Portia Maultsby, “when he combined party themes with those of Black nationalism advanced by the Black Power Movement … [the] lyrics expressed the view that the movement toward an ‘integrated’ society had resulted in the erosion of Black cultural values and the fragmentation of Black communities” (305). Despite desegregation, the struggles remained real (“so wide, you can’t get around it/so high you can’t get over it”). Indeed, “One Nation” is a song for and about Black people and their movement away from this decimated, fractured reality to arrive at a better space.
By the late 1970s and 1980s, hip-hop artists had adopted revolution as a major motif. Following the afro-futuristic generative spaces created by Sun Ra and George Clinton, Eric B. and Rakim offered “Follow the Leader” in 1988, in which they created an eerie soundscape of scratching and eclectic jazz samples to convey an important reminder that the revolutionary struggle was “a lifetime mission/I came to overcome,” and above all that, “from the cradle to the grave/But remember you’re not a slave.” Other rappers remained unwavering in their tendency to sow messages of revolutionary change in their music. NWA’s “F*** da Police” (explicit) (1988) is an essential instance of this as it contains the frustrations of young African American men living in an urban space like Compton, Los Angeles. To a mainstream society unaware of the harsh environment resulting from 1980s economic policies of President Ronald Reagan (known as “Reaganomics”), NWA’s song seemed indulgently confrontational. The Reagan administration instituted policies that affected everything from the economy to law enforcement, resulting in an unfettered climate of oppression that disproportionately disadvantaged the poor. Knowledge of this context undergirds the impulse of these young men to react to the societal hostility and systemic injustice.
By 1990, hip-hop artists had shifted the response to white supremacy from activities in space and underwater back to earth, or more appropriately, back to the street, exemplified by Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (1990), which appeared on their album Fear of a Black Planet. These intensely layered tracks provide a forceful response to the varied flavors of white supremacy that street artist and graphic designer Shepard Fairey contends “has become the protest song for the ages. Public Enemy proved that it was possible to reach the bourgeoisie and rock the boulevard…to make you shake your rump and pump your fist.” Other hip-hop artists who composed lyrics centering on the notion of revolution include Nas, Black Star, Dead Prez, Wu Tang Clan, De La Soul, and The Roots.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, musicians released songs with an unfiltered focus on Black life. The collaborative song recorded by KRS-One and several rappers, “Self Destruction” (1988), exemplifies the concept of pivoting from an external gaze at mainstream society to focusing within on potential landmines against the progress of the Black community. Other examples include Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” (1993), and Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (1998). The former track signals the tenuous state of relationships in the Black community. Queen Latifah explores the ways in which disrespect is served on Black women by Black men, and she exhorts the community to find unity. Hill’s “Doo Wop That Thing” similarly urges a rethinking of the actions taken by young Black folks in relationships.
The struggle for freedom and racial equality continued into the 21st century and became associated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Formed on July 13, 2013, as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012, this movement gave rise to a new generation of social and political Black activists. The #BlackLivesMatter movement inspired musicians to create music that captured the urgency and intensity of the anger and frustration expressed by African American communities. Taking on the role as messengers and historians for the movement, they addressed issues of white supremacy, its negative impact on Black lives, and ways to confront it. It should come as no surprise in the era of public murders and the exoneration of murderers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, among others, that the generation of artists coming of age at this time would return to a revolutionary music. A collective of rappers led by The Game, who typically did not engage in this style, recorded “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” (2014) in response to Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson. Painting a dire picture of the trauma caused by such murders, the agency conveyed in each verse progressively becomes more urgent as these young Black men call for a revolution.
The urgency for change that characterizes J. Cole’s “Be Free,” performed live on The Late Show in 2014 as a direct response to the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is an eerie retelling of the contextual underpinnings of the murder. It includes chilling footage from media interviews with people who knew Brown or were at the scene. Instead of rapping, which is his usual format, J. Cole sings this song in a voice that hovers on the verge of breaking. The chorus, repeated over and over again, is moving: “All we want to do is take the chains off/All we want to do is be free.”
The anthem that moved millions of young Black people and their allies in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement was Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” (2015). On college campuses across America, students marched against institutional insensitivity and incompetence in dealing with racial injustice. “Alright” served to galvanize them into social and political activism, as earlier civil rights songs like “We Shall Overcome” had inspired previous generations of activists. Lamar collaborated with Beyoncé the following year on her anthem “Freedom” (2016). Together, the two superstars drive a message about freedom. The song is an urgent call to both the oppressed and the oppressors that the 21st century is no place for the same types of atrocities meted out and experienced by Americans of different ethnicities in earlier centuries.
In 2010, John Legend, Melanie Fiona, and The Roots remade the title track for their album Wake Up. It was a cover of the 1973 song “Wake Up Everybody” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. The original song had a clear message. The song targeted the Black community— “everybody,” including children, teachers, doctors, and builders. It also offers specific action steps such as working together, being aware, teaching and learning with urgency, and lifting the next generation. Almost 40 years later, the message still rang true as an exhortation for the same challenges in a new era.
All the tracks mentioned above are but a drop in the rich bucket of African American music that has driven and framed revolution for the past 100 years. These themes and concepts of revolution were sown into the music of the enslaved before emancipation and will no doubt continue into the next century. However, it is important to mention that for Black music to have an enduring impact to drive change, it should be accessible to a wide audience. Arguably, that audience should include Black folks and other folks. This sets it in opposition to music that is supposedly too serious, elitist, too cerebral, too limited, disengaged from the realities of most people, and too exclusive. As W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1903 referencing the spirituals of the enslaved as “sorrow songs,” he noted: “I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world.”
Yet, it is only when the world truly listens, commits to the work of change, that sustainable resolution is possible. Until then, African Americans will continue to create and participate in revolutionary music.
- Chuck D. Chuck D. Presents This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History. Black Dog and Leventhal, 2017.
- Guthrie, Ramsey. Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop. University of California Press, 2004.
- Maultsby, Portia. “Funk” in African American Music: An Introduction. Ed. Mellonee Burnim and Portia Maultsby. New York: Routledge, 2015, 2006. 301-319
- Neal, Larry. Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings. Ed. Michael Schwartz. New York: Thunders Mouth Press, 1989. ix-x.
- Margolick, David. Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song. Harper Collins, 2001.
- Reagon, Bernice Johnson. "Music as An Agent of Social Change” in Issues in African American Music: An Introduction. Ed. Portia Maultsby and Mellonee Burnim. New York: Routledge, 2017.
- Youngquist, Paul. A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism, 2016.