10 Classic Songs About Racism and Civil Rights

Iconic Civil Rights Anthems That Shine a Light on Racial Inequality

Billie Holiday
Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Racism has been a recurring theme in music ever since the blues was born. Used as a means to express anguish and outrage, musicians crafted powerful ballads about the real devastation experienced as a byproduct of racism in 20th century America, creating a musical catalog chronicling the ugly truths some prefer not to admit to or to acknowledge in a cultural history interwoven the evils of slavery and racial oppression.

The R&B and pop songs about racism that follow actually went a long way to further the cause of integration by spreading their message to an ever-expanding white audience, while educating the masses about the long, sweeping history of the struggle African-Americans faced in an effort not only to assimilate but also to thrive in the land of opportunity.

01
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"Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" began as a poem written (and later set to music) by Jewish teacher Abel Meeropol, who was horrified by photos he'd seen of lynchings in the American South.

The original was used during protests in New York City in the early 1930s. Holiday released her version to great critical acclaim in 1939. So moving that listeners often broke down in tears after hearing it, Holiday was forced to leave her record label to get it produced. It went on to become her show-closer, and ultimately, her signature song.

The metaphor, while powerful, did not filter the ugliness of the images it conjured. With vivid descriptions of "blood on the leaves and blood at the root" and "black bodies swinging in the southern breeze" in the lyrics, it was as unforgiving as it was accurate for African-Americans in post-Civil War America. 

02
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"Living for the City" by Stevie Wonder

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Stevie Wonder is known for his positivity, but his epic 1973 soul single "Living For The City" — featuring at least four different documentary-sized slices of black urban life spliced together by Wonder's narration and a gospel chorus — sounded like the revolution was poised at the nation's doorstep.

This track was acclaimed as one of the first soul numbers to specifically cover systemic racism in its lyrics. Interestingly, it is also one of the first to use ambient sounds of the street such as car horns, sirens, and voices chattering as part of the backing tracks.

03
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"A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke

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Much has been made about the fact that this was Cooke's last single before his very untimely and equally suspicious death in 1964 at the age of 33. Ironically, the song was recorded as the B-side to "Shake," which couldn't have offended anyone not already put off by rock and roll.

After hearing Bob Dylan's anti-war protest song, "Blowin' In The Wind," Cooke decided a civil-rights version was needed. The result was this soaring secular spiritual, which many say contains his best non-gospel vocal performance.

Long before the "Black Lives Matter" movement, Cooke shed light on the implied, insidious threat faced every day by men of color in America: "I go to the movies, and I go downtown / Somebody keep telling me, 'Don't hang around.'"

04
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"We're a Winner" by The Impressions

Perhaps the ultimate black self-determination anthem (which is not quite the same thing as a "black power" anthem), this 1967 R&B smash, "We're A Winner," features legendary vocalist Curtis Mayfield calling out for the unification of his people. 

This song—studio crowd noises and all—makes upward mobility sound like the ultimate party. The lyrics are hopeful, yet pointed. When Curtis exhorts his people to "Keep on pushing like your leaders tell you to," he isn't talking about Nixon. The odd but equally pointed syntax of the title also suggests that African-Americans can and should move as one.

05
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"Is it Because I'm Black" by Syl Johnson

Encompassing the perfect mix of street cred, urban blues, crawling funk, damaged optimism, and racial awareness, it's no wonder this rare-groove classic has been sampled by countless hip-hop artists. More of an extended ad-lib than a traditional song, "Is it Because I'm Black" still resonates as one long, anguished cry from the heart of an oppressed people.

"I wanna be somebody so bad," Johnson wails repeatedly over the nearly eight-minute track. He also testifies, "If you're half-white, light, brown-skinned, or high-yellow, you're still black, so we all got to stick together," marking yet another call to unity for everyone living under the thumb of the lone race at the top—namely, the white people.

06
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"Black Pearl" by Sonny Charles and The Checkmates, Ltd.

Written by two white people and produced by a third, this was nevertheless a pivotal anthem for the times and marked the very last burst of soul brilliance from Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" before it wandered off to wait on Beatles hand and foot.

Almost holy in its reverence for the black female, "Black Pearl" is still a product of its time. While Charles yearned to "put you up where you belong," it may not have been exactly what the feminists had in mind. Still, couched in the dynamics of a romantic relationship, Charles made a bold statement about racial inequality: "You'll never win a beauty pageant, no they won't pick you. But you're my Miss America," he sings. No matter how beautiful or deserving, a black woman did not take home that title until Vanessa Williams won it in 1983.

07
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"Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" by James Brown

By 1968, The Godfather of Soul James Brown was as influential a fixture in black American culture as Dr. King or Malcolm X had ever been. When Brown talked (or sang, or wailed), people listened.

Backed by a call-and-response chorus of children, Butane James made sure to fan the flames of self-respect with this slab of funk demanding "a chance to do things for ourself."

As always with Brown, there weren't many words, but he made the most of every single one, declaring, "We'd rather die on our feet than be livin' on our knees." 

08
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"Message From a Black Man" by The Temptations

Perhaps in line with their poppy, non-political image, Motown records originally relegated this direct hit to the public conscience to an album track (rather than a single). Nevertheless, urban radio stations played "Message From a Black Man" by The Temptations regularly after its 1969 release on "Puzzle People". 

In counterpoint to a funky backbeat, the lyrics "the laws of society were made for both you and me" and "because of my color I struggle to be free," gave a nod to James Brown's "I'm black and I'm proud" released the previous year, while at the same time directly addressing the racial inequality in America.

"No matter how hard you try you can't stop me now," repeated multiple times over the course of the song, served as an anthem for protests mounting in the country at the time. 

09
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"Chocolate City" by Parliament

You expect the deep, fat funk from George Clinton, and the occasional social commentary—he was, after all, born of psychedelia and Sixties awareness—but you don't necessarily expect prophecy, and yet, that's exactly what you got with Parliament's "Chocolate City." 

The opening lyric "They still call it the White House, but that's a temporary condition, too," is actually in reference to African-Americans becoming the majority population in Washington, D.C., after white residents had made an exodus to the quieter, more expensive suburbs. Still, it could be interpreted today as a premonition for Barack Obama's inauguration 35 years later. 

A roll call of cities becoming increasingly black, this extended jam also imagines a whole cabinet of black heroes, and concludes, "You don't need the bullet when you got the ballot." Apparently not.

10
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"Don't Call Me N*****, Whitey" by Sly and the Family Stone

This one-verse song "Don't Call Me N*****, Whitey" spoke to the stalemate in racial relations at the time it was recorded. By structuring the main repeated titular refrain of the song as a call and response and only including one verse, the track serves as a representative slice of Sly's masterful, forward-thinking psychedelic funk. But when you have a title and a chorus like that, you're gonna get your point across pretty quickly.

This lengthy hypnotic workout is a sad commentary lamenting the racial standoff rather than stumping for any sort of solution and is punctuated by horns that serve as long shocked exclamation points. Considering the positive, intelligent, multiracial, and pansexual message that Sly and the Family Stone always evinced and led by example, that makes perfect sense.