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6 inspiring Black protest songs, from 'Strange Fruit' to Kendrick Lamar’s 'Alright'

Black Americans are still using their voices to sing for their rights, empowerment, and much-needed change.
photo illustration of Billie Holiday and Kendrick Lamar
Sings Billie Holiday and Kendrick Lamar have been credited for penning some of America's post impactful protest songs.Tyler Essary / TODAY Illustration / Gilles Petard / Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

Black America has a long and winding history of using songs for defiance and consolation.

Testimonies from slave ship sailors recall how kidnapped Africans during the Atlantic slave trade sang to send messages and track down family members. Once they reached the Americas, enslaved Africans and their descendants would use singing to share coded information about the Underground Railroad and, on rare occasions, good news.

In “Up from Slavery,” Booker T. Washington described learning about his freedom when he was a child enslaved on a plantation. 

“As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night,” he wrote. “Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom. ... Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper — the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading, we were told that we were all free.”

The use of songs as a narrative and a tool to convey an important message continued into the 20th century with Black Americans using their voices to help their fight for freedom and equality. Today, many of the songs of the past eras sadly remain relevant as Black Americans continue to fight for various social issues, including environmental and voting rights, economic and healthcare equality, and criminal justice reform.

Read on to learn some of the most relevant Black protest songs and their history.

'Strange Fruit,' Billie Holiday 

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/ Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees…”

In 1939, Billie Holiday lent her vocals to this disconcerting ballad written originally as an anti-lynching poem by Abel Meeropol. The poem was written to protest the exceedingly brutal and extrajudicial killing of Black people, which had become recurrent in the South by the 1930s. 

According to Amy Louise Wood’s book “Lynching and Spectacle,” lynchings — which typically took the form of a victim being hung by a noose to a tree — had developed into a spectator sport. The American Sociological Association says that between 1883 and 1941, 3,265 Black people (men and women) were subjected to lynchings. Yet, few stories about the public killings made their way to national newspapers.

Then, in 1939, Holiday agreed to record “Strange Fruit” after being moved by Meeropol’s poem. In her autobiography, “Lady Sings The Blues,” Holiday explained how the song reminded her of her own father’s death, which was impacted by racial prejudice after he was denied emergency medical treatment.

After recording the song for an album, “Strange Fruit” rose in popularity on radio stations nationwide. In spite of alleged harassment from government officials and resistance from her music label at the time, Holiday continued to sing the song as the closing song for her stage routines. In the decades since Holiday’s rendition of the poem, it has been credited for sparking the country’s first nationwide anti-lynching protests. 

Nina Simone recorded a version of the song. Generations later, the lyrics’ desperate plea for justice and the humanity of Black people remain relevant. Holidays’ performance has been sampled by Kanye Wests 2013 song Blood on the Leaves and Rapsodys 2019 song Nina.”

'A Change is Gonna Come,' Sam Cooke (1964)

“It’s been a long/ A long time coming, but I know/ A change gon’ come/ Oh yes, it will...”

“A Change is Gonna Come” was released in February of 1964, just several months before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law.

The previous year was described as pivotal to the fight for equality. Martin Luther King’s speeches were broadcast live on televisions across the country, and photographs captured the moments Birmingham police aimed high-pressure water hoses and dogs on school children.

Sam Cooke had first-hand experience with such racial discrimination and violence in the South. He’d spent at least part of his life in the state of Mississippi, and during his music tours in the region, he frequently found himself up against Jim Crow laws, which required him to perform before segregated audiences. Yet, the content of these encounters never made it into his catalog of hits like “You Send Me” or “Twistin’ The Night Away” until years after his success as a soul singer. Like Billie Holiday before him, speaking out against racial injustice could have caused him great trouble during his time.

Then, in 1963, two personal experiences served as a catalyst for Cooke to record the melancholy tune for the B-side of his song “Shake.” 

In a biography about his life, “Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke,” Peter Guralnick writes that Cooke was partly stirred by Bob Dylan’s lament over issues of peace, war, and freedom in his 1962 protest song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” According to Gularnick, Cook expressed a sense of embarrassment for not having used his voice to fortify the Civil Rights Movement in the way that Dylan was doing.

Then, there was also the incident on October 8, 1963. While in Louisiana, Cooke was arrested for attempting to check in at a “whites only” hotel with his wife and band. 

According to Guralnick, they were told by the arresting officer, “You are not in Chicago. We will hang you down here, and they’ll never find your body.”

By then, Cooke had already faced death threats and been part of the tour that saw singer Jesse Belvin killed in a head-on collision believed to be provoked by Klansmen. Having seen enough, Cooke penned the song that expressed the exasperation of the Black community. Though the song begins with anguish over lives lost, it ends with heartfelt hope for a better future.

'Say It Loud,' James Brown (1968)

“Say it loud (I’m Black and I’m proud)/ Say it loud (I’m Black and I’m proud)/ Say it loud (I’m Black and I’m proud)...”

If “Strange Fruit” was the soundtrack to which the Civil Rights era was beckoned, James Brown’s “Say It Loud” was the tune that encompassed the Black Pride movement. 

Towards the end of 1968, the Black community was in search of healing following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. His assassination unleashed a wave of civil unrest as well as fractures in the Black community when it came to King’s guiding principles of peaceful protest and nonviolence. For many, King’s death signaled that marches were no longer enough.

According to the “Encyclopedia of African American History,” Brown wrote “Say It Loud” after radicals of the civil rights movement pressured him to join them in their stance. Brown tapped children from the Compton and Watts areas of Los Angeles, California, to join him in the song’s chorus and released the track in August 1968, four months after King’s death.

“I had children in it, so children who heard it could grow up feeling pride,” the singer wrote in his 1986 autobiography, “James Brown: The Godfather of Soul.” “You shouldn’t have to tell people what race they are, and you shouldn’t have to teach people they should be proud... But it was necessary to teach pride then, and I think the song did a lot of good for a lot of people.”

'What’s Going On,' Marvin Gaye (1971)

“Father, father/ We don’t need to escalate/ You see, war is not the answer/ For only love can conquer hate / You know we’ve got to find a way/ To bring some lovin’ here today...”

Understanding the masterpiece that is Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit isn’t entirely possible without the context of the early 1970s. The Civil Rights era of the 1960s had come to an end, but old and new issues continued to grip the Black community. Not least of which was the arrival of Black American vets from the polarizing Vietnam War. 

In “Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War,” Daniel S. Lucks notes that young Black men enlisted in the war in hopes of proving “they were worthy of their newly acquired civil rights,” but returned home to a country that had turned cold and hostile.

According to Gaye’s biographer, David Ritz, the singer saw the heartbreak of soldiers firsthand when his brother Frankie came home after his service. 

“I was pissed at America,” Gaye told Ritz about the experience. 

Instead of lashing out, Gaye tapped into his frustration by composing the ballad “What’s Going On.”

The start of the track models the sounds of a Vietnam vet arriving at a homecoming party and then transitions into his plea for the “brothers,” “mothers,” and “fathers” of the Black community to have peace. 

'Changes,' 2Pac featuring Talent (1998)

“I’m tired of bein’ poor, and even worse, I’m Black/ My stomach hurts, so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch...”

Thirty-four years after Sam Cooke sang that a change for Black America had been “a long time coming,” the song “Changes” was posthumously released.

By then, Tupac Shakur — known professionally as 2Pac— had been dead for two years, having become a victim of gun violence. His track came after decades of fighting for equality, dignity, and freedom, including the biased war on drugs and the prison–industrial complex.

In “Changes,” Shakur critiques the U.S. government for funneling resources into misguided wars instead of home-based battles like hunger and poverty: “Can’t a brother get a little peace/It’s war on the streets and a war in the Middle East/ Instead of war on poverty They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.” 

The song also gives nuance to the dire realities for people of low-income Black communities, where crime isn’t an innate trait but frequently a means for survival: “I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do/ But now I’m back with the facts, givin’ it back to you.” 

Years after the song’s release, “Changes” remained relevant.

In 2000, “Changes” was nominated for “Best Rap Solo Performance” at the 42nd Annual Grammy Awards. Twenty-two years after the song’s release, George Floyd protestors marched and danced to the rap hit, pleading once again for change. 

'Alright,' Kendrick Lamar (2015)

"What you want you, a house? You, a car? 40 acres and a mule? A piano, a guitar?"

When Kendrick Lamar released “Alright,” he inspired fans with powerful lyrics and a 2015 BET Awards performance that encapsulated the Black Lives Matter movement to its core.

For the awards show performance, Lamar rapped the lyrics to “Alright” while standing on top of a police car. The image evoked all that the Black Lives Matter movement had been fighting against: an end to police brutality and systematic racism. Speaking to MTV for an interview, Lamar shared how a visit to Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell prompted him to consider the scope of Black history and oppression. The experience, he said, was a reminder of the fortitude of Black people.

“You know, it was a lot going on, and still, to this day, it’s a lot going on,” Lamar explained to Rick Rubin about the song in a 2016 interview. “And I wanted to approach it as more uplifting—but aggressive. Not playing the victim, but still having that: We strong, you know?”

Protestors quickly turned to Kendrick’s song at rallies in the months and years after the song’s release.

In 2015, a video showed Black protestors at a rally in Cleveland singing the song during a street protest. In 2016, protesters chanted the song after it was announced that Trump would be a no-show at one of his rallies.