‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,’ by Gil Scott-Heron
“The first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move. So when we said that the revolution will not be televised, we’re saying that the thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film. It’ll just be something you see and all of a sudden you realize, I’m on the wrong page, or I’m on the right page but I’m on the wrong note.” —Gil Scott-Heron, speaking to Skip Blumberg for the award-winning Public Broadcast System series ‘The 90’s.’ Watch the full interview below.
‘We The People,’ by A Tribe Called Quest
When A Tribe Called Quest dropped this song on Nov. 11, 2016, the U.S. was reeling from the election of Donald Trump. Jayson Greene of Pitchfork called the song “a sliver-sized miracle, a crack of light illuminating the door in a dark wall. This is the function Tribe songs have always served — they point to a path through wilderness.” Q-tip muses on how black communities are marginalized, scrutinized and, eventually, colonized: “…living in a fish bowl / Gentrify here, now it’s not a shit hole.”
‘Make America Great Again,’ by Pussy Riot
In 2012, three members of the music collective Pussy Riot were arrested and accused of “hooliganism” by the Russian government. Member Nadya Tolokonnikova served some of her two-year sentence in a women’s penal colony, where she reported that prisoners worked 16-17 hours a day, and complaints were met with punishment. Since her release, Pussy Riot has continued to say exactly what they mean, like in this 2016 response to the election of Donald Trump: “Let other people in / Listen to your women / Stop killing black children / Make America Great Again.”
‘The Guillotine,’ by The Coup
Boots Riley was born into a family of social justice organizers in Chicago. His German Jewish grandmother fled Europe in 1938. Needless to say, Riley’s had a few things to say over the years about racial justice. Don’t let the title of this track scare you; just listen to the lyrics: ‘If you press your ear to the turf that is stolen,” Riley sings, “You can hear the sound of limitations exploding.” This isn’t about violence, it’s about dismantling a broken system.
‘This is America,’ by Childish Gambino
Donald Glover made a brilliant artistic statement about gun violence and racism in America with the video for this song, featuring Glover dancing through an escalating riot. The video offers layers of meaning to peel back and explore: Is the choreography intended to distract from the violence? Does Glover gun down the gospel choir as they sing “get your money black man” as a way of protesting the stereotypical black performance role he has taken on to earn money? It’s a visual feast meant to be picked clean to the bone.
‘Malcolm Said It,’ by Akala
The British rapper, journalist, author, activist and poet known as Akala (Kingslee James McLean Daleya) points out the throughline in the messages from black activists through the years — “Malcolm said it / Martin said it / Marley said it / Ali said it / Garvey said it / Toussaint said it” — then reminds us how hated they were in their lifetimes: “We love them dead when they speak no more / But they will endure, ideas are bulletproof.”
‘Get Up, Stand Up,’ by The Wailers
Bob Marley used simple, often joyful language to talk about oppression and the path forward: “We sick an’ tired of-a your ism-skism game / Dyin’ ‘n’ goin’ to heaven in-a Jesus’ name, Lord / We know when we understand / Almighty God is a living man / You can fool some people sometimes / But you can’t fool all the people all the time / So now we see the light / We gonna stand up for our rights.”
‘Les Fleurs,’ by Minnie Riperton
Jordan Peele chose to use this song to close out his mind-bending, social commentary horror flick Us. The song is a breath of fresh air after a tense, deeply psychological movie — Peele has called the song a “palate cleanser.” While this track from 1970 certainly isn’t a traditional protest song, its lyrics are indeed cleansing, a reminder to constantly search for compassion, that most radical of emotions: “Inside every man lives the seed of a flower / If he looks within he finds beauty and power … Throw off your fears / Let your heart beat freely at the sign / That a new time is born.”
‘List of Demands (Reparations),’ by Saul Williams
“I want my money back / I’m down here drowning in your fat / You got me on my knees praying for everything you lack / I ain’t afraid of you / I’m just a victim of your fears / You cower in your tower praying that I’ll disappear/ I got another plan, one that requires me to stand / On the stage or in the street / don’t need no microphone or beat.” Hard not to think of Trump in his palace built by black hands, protected by armed guards, hiding with the lights out as the world outside demands change.