Fire up the Dark Testament Playlist to get in the spirit to work for racial justice.
To celebrate the opening of Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice, we’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring music from Black songwriters, some of which are featured in the exhibit. You can listen to the playlist here.
As we study the words of Black writers in America, it is essential to look at the different ways Black songwriters have used music to speak to the Black experience. From songs of protest to songs of praise, the Black songwriters and singers included in this playlist share a unique musical composition of our history.
Songs with a star in a circle symbol (⍟) are all featured in our in-person Dark Testament exhibit, which you can explore now at the American Writers Museum to see how these songs aligned with important moments in the struggle for racial justice.
“Freedom” — Beyoncé feat. Kendrick Lamar (2016)
Written by Jonny Coffer, Beyoncé, Carla Marie Williams, Dean McIntosh, and Kendrick Lamar
Part of Beyoncé’s sixth studio album, “Freedom” features sample tracks from “Let Me Try” by Frank Tirado, “Collection Speech/Unidentified lining Hymn” by Alan Lomax, and “Stewball” by Alan Lomax and John Lomax. It peaked at number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 list. The song became an anthem for the 2020 Black Live Matter protests and saw a 625% rise on streaming services.
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised“ — Gil Scott-Heron (1971) ⍟
Written by Gil Scott-Heron
Based on his poem, Gil Scott-Heron recorded “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” for his 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lennox. The poem used real-life brand slogans, like Coca-Cola, Hertz, and Dove, as well as contemporary television series and celebrities, to mock the insignificance of American popular culture because, as Scott-Heron says, when the revolution comes, “black people will be in the streets looking for a better day.”
“Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” — James Brown (1968) ⍟
Written by James Brown and Aldred “Pee Wee” Ellis
As a leader in the Black community, James Brown had witnessed years of racial tension and rioting. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Brown felt called to write this song to reignite the fire of pride in African Americans. Chuck D, co-founder of the rap group Public Enemy, said “I remember defining myself as these American terms of negro to colored to black. Because of that one song, black was beautiful. The beginning of being beautiful.”
“We Shall Overcome” — The Staple Sisters (1965) ⍟
Written by Pete Seeger
Perhaps the most successful gospel-to-pop crossovers in music history, the Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
“Make Me Feel” — Janelle Monáe (2018)
Written by Janelle Monáe, Julia Michaels, Mattias Larsson, Robin Fredriksson, and Justin Tranter
Released on their Dirty Computer (2018) album, “Make Me Feel” was Janelle Monáe’s second single to chart the Billboard Hot 100. Monáe has noted that Prince helped them create beats for the album and inspired the design of their 2018 music video.
“Four Women” — Nina Simone (1966) ⍟
Written by Nina Simone
Horrified by the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Nina Simone felt called to write a song in tribute to the four young women murdered that day. Simone wanted her music to lift the souls of Black women across the country and remind them of their worth as human beings.
“Young, Gifted and Black” — Aretha Franklin (1972)
Written by Weldon Irvine
Inspired by the title of the memoir of her late friend, Lorraine Hansberry, “To Be Young Gifted and Black” was an almost instant hit on the music charts. In 1972, Franklin won the Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for the track.
“Fight the Power” — Public Enemy (1989)
Written by Carlton Ridenhour, Eric Sadler, Hank Boxley, and Keith Boxley
“Fight the Power” pulls inspiration from African-American culture, including civil rights speeches, the music of James Brown, and Black church services. The song was written as a request from Spike Lee for his 1989 film Do The Right Thing.
“Strange Fruit” — Billie Holiday (1939) ⍟
Written by Abel Meeropol
While it rarely made the news, incidents of lynching were still far too prevalent in the 1930s. Billie Holiday used the metaphor of fruit hanging from a tree to make an impactful statement about the treatment of Black Americans. Some credit this song as the “beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.”
“F*** tha Police” — N.W.A. (1988)
Written by Ice Cube, MC Ren, and the D.O.C.
Premiering on the group’s 1988 album Straight Outta Compton, “F*** tha Police” protested against racial profiling and police brutality. Since its release, the song has become an important cultural icon and can now be heard at many rallies. The song has also been censored and banned around the world.
“A Change is Gonna Come” — Sam Cooke (1964) ⍟
Written by Sam Cooke
Released after his death in 1964, Sam Cooke took inspiration from moments in his life when composing the song. It is now considered one of Cooke’s most influential songs and among the greatest songs ever written.
“Black Seeds Keep on Growing” — The Main Ingredient (1971)
Written by Donald McPherson
Part of the band’s 1971 album Black Seeds, “Black Seeds Keep On Growing” uses the image of a seed growing to detail the history of Black Americans and their journey from slavery to prosperity.
“This Is America” — Childish Gambino (2018)
Written by Donald Glover & Ludwig Göransson
“This Is America” is the first ever rap song to win Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards. The song is perhaps best remembered for the 2018 music video directed by Hir Murai. The video used contemporary, viral dance moves as well as minstrel show-esque movements. You can watch the video here, though some of the imagery may be emotionally triggering to some, viewer discretion advised.
Matthew Masino is the Social Media Coordinator for the AWM. He is also a content creator, writer, and theatre director based in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated with a B.F.A. in Theatre Directing from Columbia College Chicago in 2019. As a theatre artist, Matthew has worked with the International Voices Project, the Chicago Fringe Festival, and BYOT Productions. You can learn more by visiting his website www.matthewmasino.com.