Woman singing

A History of Black Women Using Music to Fight Racial Injustice

A History of Black Women Using Music to Fight Racial Injustice

Black women refuse to back down in the face of racial injustice. Whether this was during the Civil Rights Movement, or in present day during the Black Lives Matter Movement, Black women ensure that their voices are heard. Artists are in a unique position because they can use their music as a form of protest. Although male artists also produce strong protest music, women are generally perceived as more palatable and less abrasive, thus being seen as less of a threat and getting more airtime. Music is one of the most effective forms of protest as it is easily accessible, and therefore reaches a large audience. It is a more benign form of protest that has the ability to ‘slip’ into our brains- raising awareness, stirring up feelings, and causing people to come down morally on specific issues. Black women in particular have been very effective in using their artistic platforms as a way to bring issues of Black injustice to a larger audience.

Nina Simone heavily utilized her music to express her emotions during the Civil Rights Movement. Her passion for activism is best articulated through her song “Mississippi Goddam.” She opens her song by stating, “the name of this song is Mississippi Goddam and I mean every word.” She asserts to her predominately White audience that this is how she feels- and she won’t apologize for it. She wrote the song in response to the murder of Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader killed in Mississippi by a White supremacist, as well as the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which lead to the death of four young Black children. She sings, “Alabama’s gotten me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.” She fearlessly expresses the anger that she feels about the rampant racial violence in her world. At the same time, she sings “Can’t you see it / Can’t you feel it / It’s all in the air.” She asks people to wake up, to realize their lack of efforts in standing up to racial violence and segregation.

I’ll never forget when the Black Lives Matter movement started. I was in 8th grade. The first thing I remember was Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem, then before I knew it, I looked outside of my window and the streets of New York City were flooded with people marching and protesting against police brutality. Here we are, six years later, and Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was recently fatally shot by a cop during a traffic stop.

Alicia Keys wrote the song “Perfect Way to Die” last year, to raise awareness for issues of racial profiling and police brutality within our country. In contrast to Nina Simone, Alicia Keys’ song takes on a more somber tone. She opens the song with the lines, “Simple walk to the corner store / Mama never thought she would be getting’ a call from the coroner / Said her son’s been gunned.” She expresses the feelings of a mother’s grief. Specifically, she is alluding to the story of Michael Brown, an African American man who was shot down by the police; he was unarmed. Alicia Keys expresses how even through a simple everyday action like going to the corner store, a mother can lose her son in an instant solely based on racial profiling. She highlights the violence of this action by pointing out that there was a “river of blood in the streets” but he was “just another one gone.” Her song emphasizes that we need to do something to put an end to the seemingly everlasting police brutality that plagues our country. It has taken away beloved family members for far too long.

Whether it is reassuring protestors to keep faith, raising awareness, or creating specific calls to action, music encourages activism. Black women continue to use music to fight against racial injustice, and will persist with this powerful form of protest. As songs continue to be released, I encourage you to both listen, and amplify their voices.