While we celebrate the American Revolution, let’s not forget that an American revolution is still happening and has been happening since 1619. Unlike the patriotic songs that accompany fireworks displays, the songs of this revolution carry the weight of centuries of fighting for equality. They have served to cope with pain, to tell a story, to inspire others to fight for their freedom, to express those freedoms, to paint a picture of a world free of oppression. This music has influenced music worldwide, but is often exploited in a way that leaves little recognition for its contribution.
To celebrate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in this complicated time, we wanted to share some songs that are truly a part of an American story and the American Revolution.
Go Down Moses – Slave Spiritual [Unknown Date and Song Writer]
This is one of many songs referred to as “slave spirituals.” It was common for the enslaved people in this country to co-opt spirituals to tell their own stories of oppression. Spirituals offered an opportunity to sing out about the pain and suffering endured, under the cloak of Christian parables. Frederick Douglass wrote about his time as an enslaved person “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.” Spirituals would also often act as a form of communication where certain language would have been forbidden by enslavers. While we don’t have recordings that date back to this time, many of these songs have been kept alive by a diverse group of musicians, throughout the years.
No More, My Lawd – “Negro Prison Blues and Songs” Recorded by Alan Lomax
Following the abolishment of slavery, whites in the Jim Crow south found a loophole in the 13th Amendment that they could exploit. Slavery was outlawed “…except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” In essence, all the ruling class needed to do was enforce laws that ultimately made blackness illegal, such as curfews, outlawing certain gatherings and often times arresting people for crimes they did not commit. They could then exploit this prison labor the same as they exploited slave labor. Basically, slavery was made legal again, just under the guise of law and order; a tactic that is used to this day. These prison holiers, recorded by Alan Lomax in the early 20th century, played a similar role to the spirituals sung in the time of chattel slavery, often taking a religious message and applying it to the tribulations of the wrongfully imprisoned blacks.
Freedom Day – Abbey Lincoln/Max Roach 
Living in the early to mid 1900s segregated America, Jazz served as a musical expression of freedom that everyday life didn’t allow. The mostly instrumental art form allowed black musicians to express themselves as loud as they wanted through their instruments. It was a new, wholly American art form that encouraged growth, progress and innovation. And black musicians were the dominant force. There are a wealth of songs that tackle topics of freedom, police brutality, racism and even the birth of Afro-futurism through artist like Sun Ra. “Freedom Day” was a bold piece for its time, adding lyrical content that spoke to the changing tide of the Civil Rights Movement. Even in those lyrics, nearly 100 years after the passing of the 13th Amendment, the lyrics call for the end of slavery and the removal of shackles.
Mississippi Goddamn – Nina Simone 
Nina Simone famously shared some antagonistic words with Martin Luther King Jr. upon a reluctant meeting. As she stuck her hand out to shake Dr. King’s hand, she said “I’m not non-violent.” King replied “Not to worry, sister,” likely understanding the anger that she carried with her. Nina Simone was uncompromising in her passion for equality. So, it’s no wonder that she would create a song so unflinchingly real and visceral as a response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the killing of 4 black children in a Birmingham church. She would go on to live a life speaking her mind about the treatment of black men and women and often being punished for doing so.
Chocolate City – Parliament 
Due to “redlining” and the denial of fair housing for many black folks, they were forced out of the suburbs and into the inner cities. By the 70s, these communities were grossly underserved and over policed. The song “Chocolate City” pays tribute to these communities and paints a flipped narrative of a black run United States, where the “Chocolate City” is actually referring to Washington D.C. with an all black run White House. Early in the song, Clinton references the “40 acres and a Mule” that were owed to freed enslaved people but never delivered. He states “We didn’t get our 40 acres and a Mule but we did get you C.C. (Chocolate City). This kind of narrative was empowered by revolutionary groups like the Black Panther Party, who took control of their own communities, with Free Breakfast for Children programs and free health clinics, while they kept their own check on police brutality. Much like the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, Oklahoma, black citizens were beginning to make a place for themselves, in a world that made it abundantly clear that they weren’t welcome. But, like Tulsa, this self-reliance was met with brutal anger and violence and eventually torn apart. This sort of destruction of “Chocolate Cities” dates back to the Great Migration, after the abolishment of slavery. Nicodemus Kansas was one of the first African American settled communities, built on the route of a planned railroad line, where goods and wealth could be brought into the community, until the railroad company rerouted the line to intentionally go around this town. The town still exist. Its population is around 50 people and each year, a festival is thrown by and for the descendants of Nicodemus.
Fight the Power – Public Enemy 
The rap of the late 70s and early 80s offered a very democratic art form for people living in low income neighborhoods. Where music had become an art form for those who had access to instruments and maybe music education, now anyone with a voice could express themselves musically. The “band” was as simple as repeating the hook or “break” of your favorite record. This inclusiveness gave a voice to the seemingly powerless citizens living in the poorest neighborhoods. Early on, songs from artists like Grandmaster Flash told the story of these neighborhoods and the everyday struggles. Like the afro-futuristic narratives of Parliament, this would often manifest itself as hopeful songs of wealth and prosperity. It didn’t take long for the art form to gravitate towards songs of revolution. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” speaks to blackness in a white run world. It disregards all the usual “white heroes” and tells a story of another world, not seen by mass media, with black heroes and black art and black voices.
Police State – Dead Prez 
As we move further from the days of chattel slavery, the complexities of oppression become clearer and clearer. They also become more complex and hard to identify. Police State attempts to encapsulate the frustration of being black in this country. From the abusive over policing of black males to the disrespect of black females, there’s a lot packed into the 3 minutes and 40 seconds of this song. The art form of rap has been given time to evolve and take on more complexities. College courses on the genre are now taught in top schools. It has become a direct line to the stories of inequality. It is a number one seller in the music industry. Yet, somehow the message seems to be lost on many listeners. Similar to how the soul/funk of the 60s and 70s is often just seen as “Motown party” music, giving the credit for “revolution music” to the predominantly white, rock artists of the time. Rap is heard in the clubs and at parties, but the artists are often chastised for speaking their mind about the mistreatment of black bodies. The messages are there, but only if you listen.
Blk Girl Soldier – Jamila Woods 
As we move into the new millennium full of social media and heightened self awareness, our revolution music becomes more existential and complex. Jamila Woods tackles issues of identity and self love. Her experiences as a black woman are beautifully expressed in these painful songs that are as empowering as they are heart breaking. In the age of the Black Lives Matter movement, the songs seem to be taking on a supportive and inspirational tone. Perhaps real change is in the air and there is a need for the tools and fortitude for the challenges that lie ahead. The charge is no longer lead by the fife and drum, with a rank and file battalion. We are all looking inward to find our own strengths and our own tools to fight oppression and abuse in our own homes and neighborhoods. We are also educating ourselves to better understand the pain that has been inflicted on our own citizens. Blk Girl Soldier goes back through time, naming the hundreds of years of heroes of this movement, illustrating how long this has been going on. Black music has played a part in the fight for freedom since the first enslaved person was forced from their homes and into a strange and hostile land. Perhaps we are all way past due to actually listen to what the music is saying and learn to move with it and not against it.