Struggle & triumph.
Talent & intellect.
I don’t usually like using the term “unapologetically black” because everyone throws it around to describe any and everything black related, but it’s so appropriate in describing the importance of embracing black history. African-Americans are so resilient, determined and proud. It’s a beautiful and inspiring thing to see people of color glow and rise out of the traumatic and disappointing situations that many of us have dealt with. We always make something happen out of what seems like nothing. It’s been embedded in our DNA.
I try not to rely solely on Black History Month as the only time to get my knowledge up on the diverse stories and experiences of black folks. Our history isn’t something that should be only celebrated during the shortest month of the year. Black experiences of struggle and triumph happen and should be celebrated everyday. In honor of that, I wanted to share 10 of my favorite songs from people of color to inspire you. Most of them you may have heard before, but when you intently listen to a song and the message hits you deep down in your soul, you’ll learn something new and grow because of it. My hope is that you are inspired to keep pushing in your pursuit to create, inspire, and just live. Click the artist/title names to hear the songs on YouTube.
Nina Simone/Donny Hathaway/Aretha Franklin – To Be Young, Gifted and Black
All of these three amazing vocalists sing this with passion, angst and hope in their voices that I couldn’t pick just one version. The message is the same in all of them: excellence is embedded in us and that we will make it through every single one of our struggles. Get lifted.
As you may already know, this song is going to make you either cry the ugly cry or get very angry, so don’t listen to this in public and don’t go off giving non-Black folks various side eyes. Embrace the lesson and be the change — because even though this poem and Ms. Holiday’s recording are almost 80 years old, much hasn’t changed.
In his aggressive and stern voice, Kool Moe Dee said, “I never, ever ran from the Ku Klux Klan and I shouldn’t have to run from a black man.” That line hit me so hard when I heard it the first time. Kool Moe Dee, KRS One, MC Lyte, Public Enemy, Heavy D and so many others came together to speak out against black on black violence and how important it is to love each other and preserve our lives, because essentially, black lives matter. My favorite verses (other than Kool Moe Dee’s) come from D-Nice, Ms. Melodie, Heavy D and Public Enemy.
You can say whatever you want about Spike Lee now, but Spike Lee’s execution of films back in the 80s and 90s was amazing. “Fight The Power” was a perfect addition to the Do The Right Thing Soundtrack. The video and song scream blackness. Raise your fists in the air as you listen.
His voice and arrangements are perfection by themselves, but the lyrics are so amazing. Cry a little bit, pray, then change the world.
Most people know Marlena Shaw for her cover of “California Soul,” but she is one singing lady with a pretty decent catalog. “Woman of the Ghetto” is just as soulful as California Soul, but it hits so hard. You’ll simultaneously sway and raise your fist as you play this.
Most people are used to hearing the shortened version done by vocalist (and yodeler) Leon Thomas, but the original version is this 32 minute version by fusion/avant garde jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Sanders’ career catapulted with his work on John Coltrane’s Ascension. This song is a roller coaster ride. It sounds normal for a jazz track at first, but then we get Thomas’ yodels and yells, then various screeching notes, but it returns to the original essence of the beginning of the song. If you really listen to the entire 32 minutes, you’ll understand the cycle.
You’re probably asking yourself, “why is this song relevant to this discussion?” Well, think about it: the song is a personification of hip-hop, one of three genres of music that truly tells the stories of black folks. So, listen again to its hip-hop’s intricacies, her rises and her downfalls. There’s definitely history here.
For all of the folks that believe in a higher power, this song is for you. This final part of A Love Supreme will have you emotional and thanking the Creator for every single thing. When I first heard this, I didn’t know that Coltrane’s phrases were actual lyrics of a prayer, but the song felt spiritual before I even knew it was. Try listening to the song without looking at the lyrics first and then listen again while reading them. It’s so beautiful.
Nasty Nas dropped some knowledge to help the youth to reach their highest potential. Some folks may criticize him for not being completely accurate in his knowledge, but we can appreciate that his heart was in the right place, right? Right. Play this one for the kids.