James Brown performing
American soul singer and songwriter James Brown (1933-2006) performs live on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in December 1981. James Brown would play two nights at the venue on 7th and 8th December 1981. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

In the beginning, was the drum. The first instrument. The original communication technology. The genesis of all other instruments. And from those instruments came the music that has been part of Black (Pan-African) life since we were the first humans to walk this earth.

So, to say music and songs have a special place in the hearts of Blackfolk would be a monumental understatement. There have always been songs to accompany us on our transgenerational journey; from blessing the world with religion, art, science and civilization, to the many cutting-edge things we gave the world just yesterday.

But our music has done more than merely play the background while Yaa Asantewaa, Queen Nzinga, Hannibal, Marcus Garvey, Fannie Lou Hamer, Steve Biko, Ketanji Brown Jackson and a gazillion others made history. So much of our music is literally history itself.

To that end, the Defender reached out to you, our readers, to see which songs y’all deem Black History personified. Here’s what you said:

“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!” It speaks 4 itself. (SisterMama Sonya)

“Funky President” by James Brown. Lyrics: “Let’s get together and buy some land…Raise our food just like the man…Save our money, do like the Mob, put up a factory and own the job…We’ve got to get over before we go under.” (Dr. Abdul Haleem “Robert” Muhammad)

“Black Man” by Stevie Wonder. “Move On Up” by Curtis Lee Mayfield. (Melanie Lacy)

“Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder, 1980. Seems like a portion of the song has become so popular while the context/meaning is sometimes unknown. For many, it’s just a cool way to sing “Happy Birthday.” Also, Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Train From Washington.” The introduction gives a brief overview of the expectations of economic opportunity (40 acres and a mule) upon the occasion of Emancipation in the U.S. in 1865. It also reflects ultimately on the lack of receipt of that material property. And don’t forget Hugh Masekela’s “Colonial Man.” The song provides specific names of historical persons involved with the colonial project(s) affecting Africa and the Americas. (Kevin Johnson)

“Ship Ahoy” by The O’Jays, the Atlantic Slave trade. “Living For the City” by Stevie Wonder, growing up in BLACK urban area. (John Crear, Black Panther Party for Self-Defense)

“Wake Up Everybody” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. “Brick House” by the Commodores—celebrates the beauty f Black women. That song Sheryl Lee Ralph sang on stage when she won her Emmy Award earlier this year about knowing her voice.  Also, “We Shall Overcome” was the central theme of the Civil Rights Movement, along with the other songs and hymns of the Freedom Riders. (Nina Wilson Jones, FAMU alum)

“Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” Gang Starr. (Eric McWhorter)

“We’re A Winner” by Curtis Mayfield. Even as a kid I felt that song spoke to Black people during the Civil Rights era about black love and black pride. That we’re waking up and in unity, we’re moving on up, no matter who tries gets in our way. (Zuberi Robert Woods)

“You Must Learn” by Boogie Down Productions. “Burn Hollywood Burn” by Public Enemy. (Lutalo Amanitaka Sanifu)

“Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud!)” by James (The Godfather of Soul) Brown!!! Also “To Be Young, Gifted and Black (That’s Where It’s At!)” by Aretha Franklin (Imani Karega)

“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. (Cynthia D. Stephens, retired judge)

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye (Ikechi Ojore, professional musician, educator)

James Brown’s entire catalog. What would we be without “Say it Loud” to remind us of the beauty in our Blackness or “The Big Payback” to let them folks know that we may not know karate but… (you know the rest). James was way ahead of the brothers with begging for his woman with “Don’t Deceive Me (Please Don’t Go).” And finally, what would our Christmas be without the plea that “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto!!!” I love all things James Brown and just about any song reminds me of a time in my childhood that makes me smile. (PW Way)

“We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, “Umi Says” by the Mighty Mos Def, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” by Stevie Wonder, “War” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, “You Will Rise” by Sweetback featuring Amel Larrieux, “Infinite Possibilities” by Amel Larrieux, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and “Show’em Whatcha Got” by Public Enemy and Prince, the entire catalogue. (Aswad Walker)

“Change Gone Come” because it was a forecast about the future of the Black experience at that time. Sam Cooke was so compelling. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye’s perspective on the impact of war and global turmoil, was very impactful in this song to me. “I’m Black and I’m Proud” was a James Brown selection that was soulful in how we are called to be unapologetic in our Blackness. “Self-Destruction” came out when various hip-hop artists decided to highlight a greater consciousness around the drug epidemic of the eighties. “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness created a message of hope and self-esteem which in some ways evokes hope in those who listened. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is the Black anthem that is widely recognized as an inspirational song for Blacks. With the song “If I ruled the World” hip-hop artist Nas captures the imagination of a world controlled by Blacks. (Bacari Alexander, college basketball coach)

“That’s The Way of The World” by EWF. “A child is born with a heart of gold… way of the world makes his heart sooo cold. (Keith Strong)

“The Message” by Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. “Self-Destruction” by the Stop the Violence Movement. (Rev. Earle Fisher)

“Alright” by Kendrick Lamar (Been Jammin)

“Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Although it was written by Simon and Garfunkel. the lyrics for me were timeless. In the middle of American turmoil, it spoke of finding peace. My favorite version was sung by Aretha Franklin. (Ken Straughter)

A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. Takes you on a spiritual journey through the dynamics of the music. (Rev. Darla Broden)

“I’m Gon’ Stand” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. (Mark Nguvu Strong)

Definitely “What’s Going On?” The song is over 50 years old and it’s as relevant today as it was then. (Joe Carmouche, professional musician)

“Black Folk” by Tank and the Bangas. (Dawn Shahidah Wooten)

“Back that Thang Up” by Juvenile because women can’t help but tap into their ancestral roots and twerk to this song. Amen! (Nkito Mwanga)

My second favorite song of all times, “Man in the Mirror,” by Michael Jackson (Kalvin “Smoove” Young)

“Jesus Loves Me,” “Amazing Grace” and “Come On In The Room.” (Demethra Orion)

“Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness and too many others to type. (David Landry)

“What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye, “Family Reunion” by the O’Jays and “Zoom” by the Commodores. (KaRa Ma-at)

“Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown. “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye.  “Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. “People Get Ready” by the Impressions. “Mississippi Goddamn” by Nina Simone. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. These are songs of protest, our condition and of liberation. (Anthony Love)

“Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead. (Vondell McCoy)

“Before I Let Go” by Frankie Beverly and Maze. (Rev. Ronald Galvin)

“Someday We’ll All Be Free” by Donnie Hathaway. It speaks to the spirit of our continuous plight in this country and how we must remain dignified and hopeful (Kashi Techalla)

KRS-1 “You Must Learn” by KRS-1. “A.F.R.I.C.A” by Stetsasonic. (Dr. Michon Benson)

“Spirit” by EWF. Definitely explains much of our story! (Randall Mose)

“Dear Mama” and “Keep Ya Head Up” both by Tupac Shakur. When these songs came out, they hit a spot in a lot of people and have proven to be timeless. (Abayomi Allen)

“Black Butterfly” by Denise Williams and others. It reminds me of the transformation of physical enslavement to the awakening of African Consciousness. (Tendai Fudail)

“Fight The Power” by Public Enemy. I think it was a turning point when our own culture was too often the blame/target for the ails of society post-civil rights and the respectability game. This song helped to shift that, calling attention to structural inequality and racist power systems. “Fight The Power” was and still is impactful. (Dr. Kim Baker)

“We People who are Darker than Blue” by Curtis Mayfield. It calls us to be proud of our race, and to move our race to a higher level. (Rev. Anika Sala)

“The Ecology” by Marvin Gaye. (Tyrone Powell Leffall II)

“A Change Goin’ Come,” “What’s Going On” and Nina Simone’s “For Women” and “Blackbird.” Each one of these songs speaks to my soul. Each song teaches that we have to see beyond ourselves and look at what’s going on in society, how we see society, how it sees us, and how to overcome. (Dr. Angela Anderson)

Aswad Walker

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...