27 Revolution Songs and Speeches to Revitalize Your Weary Spirit

One could argue that the soundtrack to America is Black music. For hundreds of years (401 years, to be exact), protest, resistance, and art have intermingled to produce revolution songs that give voice to the disenfranchised. In America, pop music is inextricably linked to the Black experience in this country—from the field caller music sung by enslaved Africans to accompany their backbreaking (and nation-making) labor, to the sounds from #BlackLivesMatter protests trending on TikTok right this moment, there’s no denying the fact that America’s social, artistic, and political landscapes owe a huge debt to the Black artists who gave voice to generations.

There’s a place for art in the revolution, and in order for the revolution to continue, critical art is essential. These revolution songs and speeches have the power to soothe our souls, challenge our beliefs, and inject hard truths in between heavenly melodies. Just think: The atmosphere and energy of protest, movements, and marches picks up as soon as someone introduces a drum, a beat, or a bell. Music revitalizes the spirit, gives us something to look forward to, and literally guides our steps as we push and protest.

One thing you’ll notice in this list of revolution songs is the generational reverberations of demands for justice, and a refusal to conciliate any calls for Black people to “go slow” in our fight to reclaiming what has been stolen. Heartbreakingly, so many of these songs have aged too well and are as spot-on today in 2020 as they were when written years ago. Behold, your go-to playlist filled with songs that capture the rage, pain, anxiety, hopefulness, perseverance and encouragement you’re feeling right now. —Brionna Jimerson, social media manager

Queen of music! Queen of TV! Queen of movies! Queen of hip-hop! Queen Latifah is an OG of feminist activism in hip-hop. Queen Latifah walked so that Megan Thee Stallion could gallop, and I mean that. In the 80s and 90s, mainstream rap was much more casually misogynistic than it is today (can you imagine?), and Queen Latifah's 1995 phenomenon “U.N.I.T.Y,” a call for women to own their bodies, sexuality, and humanity, earned her a Grammy. Latifah’s insistence that Black women take up space in all areas of life, unencumbered by racism and sexism, is a rallying cry we can all get behind. ⁠—BJ

Childish Gambino (a.k.a Donald Glover)'s video for "This Is America" went viral when it hit the internet in June 2018. Watch one minute, and you'll see why. It's an unflinching, necessary portrait of how the United States continues to destroy the lives of Black people while still profiting off their culture and art. —Christopher Rosa, entertainment writer

Glee star Amber Riley recently sang this classic Bey track at a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles. Its lyrics are poignant, and say all you need to know about the song. "Freedom, freedom—I can't move," she sings. "Freedom, cut me loose. Singin', freedom! Freedom! Where are you?" —CR

I don’t have many memories of my maternal grandfather, but one that will always shine in my mind’s eye: my grandfather, Lewis, shuffling and dancing à la James Brown in the basement of my grandmother’s home, singing James Brown’s “I’m Black and Im Proud!” at the top of his lungs. I remember squealing with delight when he "passed me the mic" (a.k.a the TV remote) while we took turns repeating, "Say It Loud! I’m Black and I’m proud" into our faux microphone. I had no idea that what felt more like a fun game in the moment was actually seeds of affirmation being planted in my soul, to bloom 20+ years later. Hearing this song now, I have no choice but to say it loud, be proud, and show up for my people. ⁠—BJ

Time magazine named "Strange Fruit" the best song of the century, and for good reason. You can hear the emotion in Holiday's voice as she sings about the lynchings that happened to Black Americans at the beginning of the 1900s. —CR

Swizz Beatz and Scarface tackle police violence directly on their 2016 collaboration. "A little boy got shot down today. I hope his family is okay. Is it our race that pay. I hope the whole world be okay," read the lyrics. — CR

BRB, dancing to this song for the rest of my life. It’s definitely one of those songs you grew up hearing on the radio but never learned the name of. Well, it’s from a 1991 album by Sounds of Blackness, a music group that hails from Minneapolis, MN. Not only is the music video a flaw-free ode to ‘90s black art and dance, it’s an eternal bop with the most inspiring message: “As long as you keep your head to the sky, you will win.” I don’t know a song that can jolt me out of a funk quite like this one does. As protests over the death of George Floyd continue to gain momentum in Minneapolis and beyond, this song is a perfect companion piece to the civil unrest we’re all experiencing. ⁠—BJ

Perhaps the most popular protest song on this list, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" by Gil Scott-Heron has transcended generations with its spoken-word lyrics that pack a powerful punch. "The revolution will not be right back
after a message about a white tornado," he says. "White lightning, or white people. You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom. The tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl. The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath. The revolution will put you in the driver's seat." — CR

A very straightforward song—but effective. — CR

Jay-Z pleads for police not to shoot on this haunting track, released in July 2016. "I am not poison, no I am not poison," he says. "Just a boy from the hood that. Got my hands in the air. In despair, don't shoot. I just wanna do good, ah." — CR

Another straightforward song, but the energy on it is relentless—and timeless. — CR

To call this song iconic would be an understatement. Not only did it win Grammy Awards for Best Rap Performance and
Best Rap Song, it became one of the central songs of youth-led police brutality protests in 2015. And its message still resonates today. "Alls my life I has to fight," Lamar says. "But if God got us then we gon' be alright." — CR

“Don’t Touch My Hair" by Solange is one of the most moving tracks about female black identity to come in recent years. It's a highlight off her 2016 album A Seat at the Table, which is saying something⁠—because every song on that album is phenomenal. "Don't touch my hair when it's the feelings I wear," she sings. "Don't touch my soul when it's the rhythm I know. Don't touch my crown. They say the vision I've found." — CR

Badu wrote this track after the 1999 murder of Amadou Diallo by New York City police, and the pain on it is palpable. "This world done changed, so much yeah yeah," she says. "This world done changed, since I been conscious." — CR

A song with a simple message: Keep holding on. Persist. "There ain't no time, no time for sorrow," the lyrics read. "And we ain't got time no time. Ah, time to be sad. And maybe the world ain't what it could be. But to understand why is to know reality. Ah, don't give in (hang on in there). Ah, I said hang on (hang on in there)." — CR

Miss me with that white-washed, Disneyfied version of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. King was way more radical than we remember and give his memory credit for. If the only words of Dr. King’s that you can state by heart are “I have a dream,” it’s time to get out of the sandbox and into the heart of King’s activism. The opening lines will send chills down your spine, over 65 years after they were originally uttered: “We have no alternative but to keep moving with determination. We’ve gone too far now to turn back. And in a real sense, we are moving and we cannot afford to stop because, Alabama, and because our nation has a date with destiny." Some crucial context: On Sunday, March 7, 1965, a series of marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama were organized by activists from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SCLC and SNCC). As the first march took place, State troopers attacked unarmed and nonviolent marchers/ protestors with tear gas and weapons as they crossed the county line via the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The violence of “Bloody Sunday” is echoed with chilling clarity in Dr. King’s remarks in Selma, Alabama at Brown Chapel. Listen here. ⁠— BJ

Marvin Gaye, asking the real questions! This song, released in 1971, was inspired by police brutality witnessed by Mowtown legend Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson. The wandering melody of this song perfectly captures the search for consciousness-raising in the midst of the Vietnam War and poverty. It has an almost hymnal quality to it, and instantly centers you in the (cyclical) national conversation that hasn’t turned the page just yet. ⁠— BJ

Again, another song with a direct message: Start paying attention to the world around. Just look to your left or right or read an article online—you'll see the injustices that need to be fixed. "Wake up everybody; no more sleepin' in bed. No more backward thinkin' time for thinkin' ahead," the lyrics read. "The world has changed so very much from what it used to be. There is so much hatred war an' poverty. Wake up all the teachers time to teach a new way." — CR

Monáe says by name on this song black people who were killed senselessly in racially-charged acts, including, Emmett Till, Walter Scott, Kimani Gray, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Jerame Reid, Phillip White, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Freddie Gray, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Sandra Bland, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Miriam Carey, Sharonda Singleton, Tommy Yancy, and Jordan Baker. The pre-chorus specifically is powerful: just the words "say his name" and "say her name" over and over. — CR

The tempo of this 1964 classic Nina Simone song is disconcertedly upbeat (almost like a musical or showtune), lending to the menacing nature of the message. In this song, Nina recounts how heartbroken and enraged she is over the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s hard not to remix the song to include references to Minneapolis, Ferguson, and too many other sites of murder. Almost 60 years later, each word of this song still applies. — BJ

2Pac dedicated this 1993 song to Latasha Harlins, a Black girl who was fatally shot in 1991. Her death was captured on security footage just days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King. The chorus of the song is as soothing as it is heartbreaking: “Oooh child, things are gonna get easier, oooh child, things will get brighter.” — BJ

Hill dedicated this 2014 song to the people fighting for racial equality in Ferguson, Missouri. "Black Rage is founded on two-thirds a person. Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens," she says. "Black human packages tied up in strings. Black rage can come from all these kinds of things." — CR

The title of this song is a common cry heard at racial injustice and police brutality protests. And the lyrics chillingly match up: "No justice, no peace. It's us against police. Every time I turn around they shoot another brother down in these cold, cold streets." — CR

Similarly to "No justice, no peace," "hands up, don't shoot," is another chant you'll hear at a protest. It's specifically talking about police officers who fire their guns prematurely at black civilians. "Living with my head down," the lyrics go. "Hands up. No, no. Don't shoot. Don't shoot." — CR

This may be the most essential song on this list, next to "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." The lyrics imploring individuals to stand up and fight for their rights are relevant to every generation, but this one especially. — CR

Dev Hynes’s "Sandra's Smile" is an ode to Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old woman who committed suicide in a jail cell, where she was being detained for a minor traffic violation. “Who taught you to breathe, then took away your speech? Made you feel so loved, then shook your hand with gloves?” Hynes muses on this deeply affecting track. — CR

Honestly, everyone needs to memorize this five-minute-long speech. Hey, if you can learn the words to the iconic tongue twister “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” you can internalize Davis’s measured take on how the prison industrial complex, a system that replicates poverty, violence and economic/ political disenfranchisement, directly relates to white Americans’s ability to feel “protected” by the police and law enforcement. At every turn, Davis views the prison industrial complex through an international lease, and asks us to question who exactly is being protected by law enforcement and the government, and who is being extracted from? As Davis expertly puts it in this speech, “Whatever people are convicted of, does it make sense to house hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people together or separately in isolation cells, deprive them of contact with their families, deprive them of education, deprive them of healthcare, deprive them of home, and then assume this was going to be rehabilitation?” Listen here. — BJ

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