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Hallowed Sound

Black music moved the movement: Here are the top 25 protest songs of all time

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As the National Museum of African American Music opens its doors, journalists from the USA TODAY Network explore the stories, places and people who helped make music what it is today in our expansive series, Hallowed Sound.

From the days of slavery through the Civil Rights Era to the BLM movement, Black music has emboldened American protests with songs so intertwined with events that they've become part of the country's history themselves. 

Songs that raised fists in solidarity in the 1960s found a rebirth during the racial uprisings of the last decade. Every generation brings new anthems about strife and injustice.

So we asked ourselves, how can we make a list of the most influential African-American artists and songs of the movement when it spans more than a century?

The endless number of spirituals, iconic ballads, and power songs from the civil rights era to the modern-day left us with quite a challenge. Here, in chronological order, is our list of the greatest protest and civil rights songs in history.

Play on Spotify: Click here to listen to these songs 

‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’

‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’

Wallace Willis (mid-1800s) 

Perhaps the most widely known spiritual of its kind, “Swing Low” was inspired by the Biblical story of the Prophet Elijah being delivered to heaven in a chariot of fire. As with countless other spirituals, it was only natural for those who heard it to draw parallels to the experiences of slaves, and a resolute hope that a better life was on the horizon.

The song is credited to Wallace Willis, a slave who worked in the cotton fields of Oklahoma in the mid-1800s, and its global journey truly began when it was performed and first recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’

‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’

James Weldon Johnson (1900)

Often called the “Black National Anthem,” this 121-year-old hymn remains as vital as ever in the 21st century. It was first written as a poem by Johnson in 1900, and five years later, his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, set its painstaking words to a stirring melody. “Lift” is a message of resilience, reverence and courage, calling for voices to join together in the “harmonies of liberty,” and to “march on till victory is won.”

‘We Shall Overcome’

‘We Shall Overcome’

Rev. Charles Tindley (1901)

First published in 1901, the gospel music composition by the Reverend Charles Albert Tindley of Philadelphia crossed over from the church to protests, becoming a key anthem of the civil rights movement. "We Shall Overcome" was sung by over 50,000 attendees at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. It has been performed and re-written by numerous artists and remains a staple for political movements. 

‘Strange Fruit’

‘Strange Fruit’

Billie Holiday (1939)

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
AP

“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

The lynching of Black Americans remained horrifyingly common in the 1930s, when Abel Meeropol wrote this unflinching composition. "Fruit" was brought vividly to life by Billie Holiday in 1939, and has been covered and sampled by countless artists, including Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley and Kanye West.

‘How I Got Over’

‘How I Got Over’

Mahalia Jackson (1951)

American singer Mahalia Jackson sings at the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963.
American singer Mahalia Jackson sings at the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963.
Bob Parent, Getty Images

The 1951 hymn by Clara Ward made history when it was performed by the "Queen of Gospel" at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, in front of a crowd of 250,000.

‘A Change is Gonna Come’

‘A Change is Gonna Come’

Sam Cooke (1964)

Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke
AP

In the last year of his life, Sam Cooke released his masterpiece — one he wrote after being turned away from a whites-only motel. Forty-four years later, it would be quoted by America’s first Black president. Moments after winning the 2008 election, Barack Obama told his supporters, “It's been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America.”

‘Mississippi Goddam’

‘Mississippi Goddam’

Nina Simone (1964)

Jazz singer Nina Simone is shown in London on Dec. 5, 1968, photo.  Simone's deep, raspy, forceful voice made her a unique figure in jazz and later helped define the civil rights movement.
Jazz singer Nina Simone is shown in London on Dec. 5, 1968, photo. Simone's deep, raspy, forceful voice made her a unique figure in jazz and later helped define the civil rights movement.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Simone changed her artistic course in one hour when she wrote this freight train of a song: a seething response to the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Its jaunty rhythm and classy chords bely Simone’s palpable frustration: “All I want is equality/ For my sister, my brother, my people and me.”

‘Freedom Highway’

‘Freedom Highway’

The Staple Singers (1965)

The Staple singers as they sing onstage July 1971. (AP Photo)
The Staple singers as they sing onstage July 1971. (AP Photo)
ASSOCIATED PRESS

The family gospel group went from singing in church to providing the soundtrack to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Their slate of “freedom songs” began with “Freedom Highway.”

“Yes, we want peace, if it can be found,” Mavis Staples sang. “We're marching freedom highway/ And we're not gonna turn around.”

‘Respect’

‘Respect’

Aretha Franklin (1967)

Aretha Franklin poses with her Grammy Award at the 17th Annual Grammy Award presentation in New York on March 3, 1975. The award is for her performance in "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing." Franklin has won every Grammy Award for "Best Rhythm and Blues Performance, Female" since this category was created in 1968.
Aretha Franklin poses with her Grammy Award at the 17th Annual Grammy Award presentation in New York on March 3, 1975. The award is for... Aretha Franklin poses with her Grammy Award at the 17th Annual Grammy Award presentation in New York on March 3, 1975. The award is for her performance in "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing." Franklin has won every Grammy Award for "Best Rhythm and Blues Performance, Female" since this category was created in 1968.
Associated Press

Originally released by Otis Redding, Franklin's version became a landmark anthem for the feminist movement — and her most popular hit. It landed at number five on Rolling Stone magazine's list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time."

‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’

‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’

James Brown (1968)

James Brown
James Brown
Nancy Warnecke / The Tennessean

The great funk song has been adopted as an unofficial theme song of the Black Power Movement. Brown addresses prejudice towards Blacks in America and the need for Black empowerment. The hit topped the R&B singles chart for six weeks.

‘When The Revolution Comes’

‘When The Revolution Comes’

The Last Poets (1970)

Forefathers to hip-hop, the group's name is from a poem by the South African revolutionary poet Keorapetse Kgositsile. The track celebrates the aftermath of a revolution for Black Americans during the civil rights era.

‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’

‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’

Gil Scott-Heron (1971)

Accompanied by bongo and conga drums, the song was written as a response to  "When the Revolution Comes" by The Last Poets.  It was inducted to the National Recording Registry in 2005.

‘What’s Going On’

‘What’s Going On’

Marvin Gaye (1971)

Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye
Evening Standard / Getty Images

Gaye's iconic song reflects a turning point in his career, as his music became more influenced by social and political issues. It made Billboard's Top 100 at the number 2 spot, and went on to sell more than 2 million copies, becoming Gaye's second-most successful Motown song to date. 

‘Living for The City’

‘Living for The City’

Stevie Wonder (1973) 

Pop music superstar Stevie Wonder is delivering a stunning all-out performance in his marathon two-part concert before more than 10,000 fans at Middle Tennessee State University's Murphy Center in Murfreesboro Sept. 14, 1986.
Pop music superstar Stevie Wonder is delivering a stunning all-out performance in his marathon two-part concert before more than 10,000 fans at Middle Tennessee State University's Murphy Center in Murfreesboro Sept. 14, 1986.
P. Casey Daley / The Tennessean

The Grammy Award-winning song tells the story of a man born into a poor Mississippi family, facing discrimination while looking for work. He seeks a new life in New York, only to find more struggle and racism in the big city. 

‘Get Up Stand Up’

‘Get Up Stand Up’

Bob Marley And The Wailers  (1973)

Bob Marley
Bob Marley
AP Photo/Str

Said to have been written by Marley after witnessing poverty in Haiti, the song's powerful refrain lends itself to just about any movement. One of the reggae legend's signature songs, it was the last one he played on stage before his 1981 death. 

‘The Message’

‘The Message’

Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five (1982)

Inspired by a transit strike, the song's lyrics illustrate the tensions of inner-city poverty: "Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge/I'm tryin' not to lose my head/It's like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under."

Rolling Stone ranked "The Message" number 51 on its list of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. 

‘F*ck Tha Police’

‘F*ck Tha Police’

NWA (1988)

Inductees MC Ren, from left, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and DJ Yella from N.W.A appear at the 31st annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at the Barclays Center on Friday, April 8, 2016, in New York.
Inductees MC Ren, from left, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and DJ Yella from N.W.A appear at the 31st annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame... Inductees MC Ren, from left, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and DJ Yella from N.W.A appear at the 31st annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at the Barclays Center on Friday, April 8, 2016, in New York.
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

This iconic protest song continues to influence the movement against police brutality. It appears on the 1988 album Straight Outta Compton as well as on the N.W.A's Greatest Hits compilation. The song was so incendiary, the FBI wrote to NWA's record company voicing disapproval and misrepresentation of police.

‘Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution’

‘Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution’

Tracy Chapman (1988)

Folk singer Tracy Chapman sings at Wembley Stadium, London, at the opening of a global rock tour for human rights by Amnesty International, Sept. 2, 1988.
Folk singer Tracy Chapman sings at Wembley Stadium, London, at the opening of a global rock tour for human rights by Amnesty International, Sept. 2, 1988.
John Redman, AP

A social justice call from folk singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, "Talkin' 'bout a Revolution" delivers a timely reminder with each spin: "I've been standing in the welfare lines/ Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation/ Wasting time in the unemployment lines ... Don't you know/Talking about a revolution?"

‘Fight the Power’

‘Fight the Power’

Public Enemy (1989)

Public Enemy's Flavor Flav, left, and Chuck D perform for nearly 5,000 teens at Starwood Amphitheatre on Aug. 8, 1990.
Public Enemy's Flavor Flav, left, and Chuck D perform for nearly 5,000 teens at Starwood Amphitheatre on Aug. 8, 1990.
George Walker / The Tennessean

Spike Lee needed an anthem for his 1989 film "Do The Right Thing" — and he found it in a Public Enemy track that stands today as a standard in hip-hop protest canon. In his lyrics, Chuck D challenges institutional racism and tells listeners that "Our freedom of speech is freedom of death/ We got to fight the powers that be." 

‘Sound of the Police’

‘Sound of the Police’

KRS-One (1993)

Man-made police sirens echo throughout a song where KRS-One's stark realism — "And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest... After 400 years, I've got no choices," he raps at one point — captures the intense impact of police brutality. 

‘Changes’

‘Changes’

Tupac Shakur (1998)

Tupac Shakur in 1993.
Tupac Shakur in 1993.
AP

With bold lyrics and a relentless desire for change, Tupac Shakur delivered a song spanning issues that stand long after his death — racism, police brutality, destitution and drug wars. Sampling Bruce Hornsby and the Range's "The Way It Is," he paints his verses between a hook telling listeners "That's just the way it is."

‘Alright’

‘Alright’

Kendrick Lamar (2015)

Kendrick Lamar performs during the 60th annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden.
Kendrick Lamar performs during the 60th annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden.
Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY NETWORK

Like "A Change Is Gonna Come" and "What's Goin' On" before it, Kendrick Lamar's modern anthem gave a soundtrack to a movement in one simple phrase: "We gon' be alright."  The chorus — electrifyingly catchy and ultimately hopeful — echoed through city streets for the last half decade from protestors in the Black Lives Matter movement urging to end systemic racism. 

‘Freedom’

‘Freedom’

Beyoncé & Kendrick Lamar (2016)

Beyonce, left, and Kendrick Lamar perform 'Freedom' at the BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater on June 26, 2016, in Los Angeles.
Beyonce, left, and Kendrick Lamar perform 'Freedom' at the BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater on June 26, 2016, in Los Angeles.
Matt Sayles, Invision/AP

In "Freedom," one of the world's foremost stars marches through an empowering musical sermon. In liberating words often echoed at protests, Beyoncé sings: "Won't let my freedom rot in hell/ Hey! I'ma keep running/ 'Cause a winner don't quit on themselves." 

‘This is America’

‘This is America’

Childish Gambino (2018)

Childish Gambino performs at the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Festival Day 1 held at T-Mobile Arena on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in Las Vegas. (Photo by John Salangsang/Invision/AP) ORG XMIT: CAJS207
Childish Gambino performs at the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Festival Day 1 held at T-Mobile Arena on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in Las Vegas. (Photo by John Salangsang/Invision/AP) ORG XMIT: CAJS207
John Salangsang/Invision/AP

In "This Is America," Donald Glover — under his stage name Childish Gambino — stretched protest music to corners previously unreached by the artform. As he guns down a gospel choir in the music video, Glover raps that "This is America ...," reminding viewers of senseless violence fueled by racism that shouldn't be compartmentalized.

‘The Bigger Picture’

‘The Bigger Picture’

Lil’ Baby (2020)

Lil Baby at the recording studio Killer Instinct Studios in Los Angeles on Nov. 6, 2020.
Lil Baby at the recording studio Killer Instinct Studios in Los Angeles on Nov. 6, 2020.
Michael Owen Baker / For The Tennessean

Last summer, as thousands to took to streets around the world to protest racism and police brutality after George Floyd's death, Lil Baby released a song capturing a sentiment echoed by many who pleaded for change. In "The Bigger Picture," he offered the lines: "... bigger than Black and White'. It's deep-rooted, it's systematic and it's going to require a lot of time to change."  The message climbed Billboard charts and resonated with the star's peers; "The Bigger Picture" received two nominations at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song. 

Dave Paulson and Matt Leimkuehler contributed. 

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