As a music lover, I've always been in awe of how enslaved people in American history used coded songs to communicate, especially as it pertained to escaping via the Underground Railroad. Different words or phrases would represent going north and dangers that may be encountered along the way. What might sound like a melody to help pass the time for harsh and repetitive work was infinitely more significant.
From then until now, music has always played an important role in Black life. It tells our stories and history. It discusses the current political landscape. It uplifts and inspires. It speaks to our spirituality. It calls us to act. It asks us to hope. It narrates the miraculous and mundane. It provides a soundtrack for occasions and events. And just like the songs of the enslaved people, it liberates and frees.
Considering the above, I created a "Celebrate Black History Month 2015" playlist with songs that have served those purposes for me. Some songs have been performed by various artists, but I chose versions that are my favorites. They ebb and flow among generations, genres, and themes, and are joyful and solemn, not unlike life. Below you'll find a list of the playlist songs, lyric snippets, a personal note on one song, and a few honorable mentions that didn't make the final cut, but are gems in Black music nonetheless. Enjoy!
Lift Every Voice and Sing – BeBe Winans
♪ Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty, Let our rejoicing rise, high as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
♪ Southern trees bear 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
Come, Ye Disconsolate - Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack
♪ Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish, Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal
Take My Hand, Precious Lord – Mahalia Jackson / Ledisi
♪ Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, let me stand, I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone, Through the storm, Through the night, Lead me on to the light, Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
♪ There been times when I thought I couldn't last for long, But now I think I’m able to carry on, It’s been a long time coming, But I know a change is gonna come
Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) – James Brown
♪ Some people say we got a lot of malice, Some say it’s a lot of nerve, I say we won’t quit moving, Til we get what we deserve
What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
♪ Picket lines and picket signs, Don’t punish me with brutality, Talk to me, so you can see, Oh, What’s going on
Wake Up Everybody – Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
♪ Wake up everybody, no more sleeping in bed, No more backward thinkin’ Time for thinkin’ ahead, The world has changed so very much, From what it used to be, There is so much hatred, War and poverty
Heaven Help Us All - Stevie Wonder
♪ Heaven help the boy who won't reach twenty-one, Heaven help the man who gave that boy a gun. Heaven help the people with their backs against the wall, Lord, Heaven help us all
Someday We’ll All Be Free – Donny Hathaway
♪ Keep on walking tall, Hold your head up high, Lay your dreams right up to the sky, Sing your greatest song, And you’ll keep going, going on, Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free
The Colored Section – Donnie
♪ Welcome to the colored section, Welcome to the Negro league, Sign your name on the black list and know this, It’s American history
Young, Gifted and Black – Donny Hathaway
♪ Oh but my joy of today, Is that we can all be proud to say, To be young, gifted and black, Is where
Tomorrow – Tevin Campbell / John Legend
♪ I hope tomorrow will bring a better you, a better me, I know that we’ll show this world we got more we could be, So you should never give up on your hopes and your dreams, You gotta get up, get out, get into it, get it on to be strong
*No shade to John, but where was Tevin when Quincy Jones decided to do a remake of Tomorrow? I remember owning this cassette single and singing along with Tevin's pre-pubescent vocals. It was a joyful song, and I always wanted to be apart of that children's choir so badly. To know that a remake of the song was made and neither Tevin nor I were invited is egregious. Yo John, Imma let you finish, but Tevin had the best version of Tomorrow of all time, (it just wasn't on Spotify).
Black Butterfly – Deniece Williams
♪ Black Butterfly, sail across the waters, tell your sons and daughters what the struggle brings, Black Butterfly, set the skies on fire, rise up even higher, so the ageless winds of time can catch your wings
I Am Not My Hair – India.Arie
♪ I am not my hair, I am not this skin, I am not your expectations, no, I am not my hair, I am not this skin, I am the soul that lives within
Cloud 9 – Donnie
♪ Yes I wear the lamb’s wool, the feet of burned brass, And the wool defies gravity like the nature of a gas, And I’m fine under cloud 9
Keep Ya Head Up – Tupac
♪ Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice, I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots, I give a holler to my sisters on welfare, Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care
Get By – Talib Kweli
♪ Even when the condition is critical, when the living is miserable, Your position is pivotal, I ain’t bulshittin’ you
Lift Every Voice and Sing – Melba Moore, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, The Clark Sisters, Freddie Jackson, Anita Baker, Bobby Brown, Howard Hewett, Take 6, Stephanie Mills, Bebe & Cece Winans and Jeffrey Osborne.
♪ Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won
* Black History Month Playlist Honorable Mentions *
A Song For Mama - Boyz II Men
Acceptable secular song played in Black churches across the United States for Mother's Day programs and all around appreciation song for Black people in regard to their mothers. May or may not accompany a slide show.
Sadie - The Spinners
See above explanation
I'll Always Love My Mama - The Intruders
See above explanation
Color Him Father - The Winstons
See above explanation with regard to Fathers
Cooling Water - The Williams Brothers
Because we all love a Men's Sunday standard and the "Cooling Water" refrain is addictive.
Before I Let Go - Frankie Beverly & Maze
A classic that will inevitably be played at barbecues, all white parties, miscellaneous cruises, all black parties, electric slide occurrences, family reunions, house parties, live music clubs, and other various planned gatherings.