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Songs About Racism

Oldies that deal with the civil rights struggle of African-Americans

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Racism in oldies music has been a recurring theme ever since the blues was born. The struggle for African-Americans to assimilate and also to thrive has been a long, hard, often angry but sometimes hopeful one, culminating in the inauguration of Barack Obama as America's first black President, a watershed moment for a country whose history is interwoven with white-on-black racism. The R&B and pop songs listed here actually did quite a bit of integrating on their own, spreading to white audiences while spreading their message.

1. "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday

So moving that listeners often broke down on tears after hearing it -- including the famed jazz singer herself -- this ballad began life as a poem written (and later set to music) by a Jewish man horrified at photos of lynchings in the American South. This being 1939, Holiday had to secure a one-song breach of contract and switch labels to even get it made, but history was on her side: it eventually became her show-closer and her signature song. And the metaphor, while powerful, did not filter the ugliness of those images, with vivid descriptions like "blood on the leaves and blood at the root / black bodies swinging in the southern breeze."

2. "Living for the City," Stevie Wonder

Stevie's known for his positivity, but this soul epic, featuring at least four different documentary-sized slices of black urban life tied together by Wonder's narration and a Greek (gospel) chorus, sounded like the revolution was just at the nation's doorstep. Or, even more accurately, like a race coming apart, spiritually starving itself to death. Arguably the high point of Wonder's astonishing early-Seventies output, especially when the music stops entirely and Wonder reveals just how easily a black man could slip into the prison system back in the day.

3. "A Change is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke

Much has been made about the fact that this was Cooke's last single before his very untimely and equally suspicious death at the age of 33 in 1964. Yet this was really just the b-side to "Shake," which couldn't have offended anyone not already put off by rock and roll. After hearing Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind," a protest song largely about war, Cooke decided a civil-rights version was needed. Hence this soaring secular spiritual, which many say contains his best non-gospel vocal performance. And as evidenced by the rarely-heard third verse, Sam was dealing with even more dangerous change than Barack Obama's: "I go to the movies, and I go downtown / Somebody keep telling me, 'Don't hang around.'"

4. "We're a Winner," 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 -- blessed with not only the pen and vocal of the legendary Curtis Mayfield but one of the fattest backbeats of its era -- 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 pushin', like your leaders tell you to," he ain't talking about Nixon. And note the odd but equally pointed syntax of the title, which suggests that the black race can and should move as one.

5. "Is It Because I'm Black," Syl Johnson

It's no wonder this rare-groove classic has been sampled by endless numbers of hip-hop artists, finding as it does the perfect mix of street cred, urban blues, crawling funk, damaged optimism, and racial awareness. "I wanna be somebody so bad," Syl repeatedly wails over these nearly eight minutes, also testfying "if you're half-white, light, brown-skinded, or high-yellow, you're still black, so we all got to stick together" and quoting Sly's "You Can Make It If You Try" as an example of how the dream seemed to be slipping away, even as it came into view. More of an extended ad-lib than a song, it still resonates as one long, aguished cry from the heart of an oppressed people.

6. "Black Pearl," 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, 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 of the black female, it's still a product of its time: Sonny wants to "put you up where you belong," which is not exactly what the feminists wanted. Still, couched in the dynamics of a romantic relationship, Charles is making a bold pledge. "You'll never win a beauty pageant, no they won't pick you," he sings. "But you're my Miss America." It's not because she's ugly.

7. "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud," James Brown

The Godfather of Soul was as influential a fixture in black America by 1968 as Dr. King or Malcolm X had ever been -- when he talked (or sang, or grunted), 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 that "We'd rather die on our feet than be livin' on our knees." Most of the kids shouting out the title phrase turned out not to be black, but no matter. His people got the message.

8. "Message From a Black Man," The Temptations

This one's very direct. "The laws of society were made for both you and me / because of my color I struggle to be free." Perhaps in line with their poppy, non-political image, Motown relegated the original Temptations version of this pronouncement to an album track, despite wide requests on black radio. (Truth be told, the Temps thought this Norman Whitfield song to be a little too much.) Later, the Whatnauts recorded it for the indie Stang label, and the Spinners cut it as well; it surfaced only once, as a quickly-forgotten single, never given any kind of push on Motown, and has never been reissued on CD, due largely to the repeated refrain: "No matter how hard you try, you can't stop me now."

9. "Chocolate City," 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 expect prophecy, necessarily. "They still call it the White House, but that's a temporary condition, too," he intones within the first few seconds of this jazzy little number, presaging Obama by a full thirty-five years. What he's actually talking about here is Washington, DC, where blacks had just become a majority after whites moved to the suburbs. 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. "Don't Call Me N*****, Whitey," Sly and the Family Stone

There's only one verse to speak of in this album track, a very 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. More of a sad commentary on racism than an attempt to rile up either side, this long, hypnotic workout, punctuated with horns like long, shocked exclamation points, laments the standoff rather than stumping for any sort of solution. Which makes perfect sense, because the positive, intelligent, multiracial and pansexual Family always led by example.
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