The music of black liberation

As Black History month draws to a close, Chanté Griffin celebrates the emancipatory power of music.

Billie Holiday 1947
Portrait of Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947 Credit: William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress

Music has always housed the seeds of revolution with its innate ability to galvanize individuals and nations. Transcending time, borders, and even language, music has blown seeds of change from continent to continent.

More impressive, though, has been its ability to become a bridge over troubled waters to people of the African diaspora, who have undergone bone-crushing oppression, only to bend that pain into songs of resistance.

These four songs have documented murder, movements, injustice, and just as importantly – the indomitable spirit of black people:



The United States of Afro-America 

A trumpet’s melancholic sound opens Billie Holiday’s classic melody, ‘Strange Fruit’. The notes burgeon with sadness before a single lyric is even sung. The pace like thick molasses pouring, the track has a strange kind of beauty – Holiday’s captivating voice revealing the lyrics’ dark secrets. 

The song should not be this beautiful, but it is. Songs about lynching should not make us hit repeat, but this one does. The conflicting nature of the song is mirrored in its lyrics:

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh / Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

It feels strange, even disrespectful, to love a song like ‘Strange Fruit,’ a song that depicts the worst of our humanity with the best of our humanity. The former doesn’t deserve the latter, yet the latter makes the former bearable. 

Recorded in 1939, ‘Strange Fruit’ was originally written as a poem by Abel Meeropol under the pen name Lewis Allan. The song captivated audiences throughout the United States; reminded the Southern states of their horrid roots and current atrocities; and showed the world that there was still much more to overcome:

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

It was by no means the first protest song, but it was the first to transform an explicit political message into popular entertainment, says writer Dorian Lynskey.  Audiences’ reactions to the chilling ballad varied. Some sat stunned, some applauded thunderously, while others stormed out in anger.

‘Strange Fruit’ paved the way for the US civil rights movement and protest music around the globe. Today, it is listed on the United States National Recording Registry, an archive of audio of cultural or historical importance.

Anti-apartheid melodies

When people mourn death, they often wail. Instinctively, they utter primal sounds unbound by words. Bagpipes and a sound reminiscent of a wail precede a recitation of Peter Gabriel’s funeral ballad, ‘Biko’.

The song memorializes Stephen Biko, the anti-apartheid activist killed by the South African government in 1977. British rockstar Peter Gabriel penned the song in 1979 to honour him and support the anti-apartheid movement. In ‘Biko’, Gabriel writes:

You can blow out a candle / But you cant blow out a fire / Once the flames begin to catch/ The wind will blow it higher

The song was a vehicle for communal mourning that illuminated a collective movement hellbent on freedom. It’s fitting that it is a rock song because it was, ultimately, a rallying cry, a staunch declaration that protesters would not be stopped – not even by death. The track served as a reminder that Stephen Biko’s death was not in vain, as much as it was a prophetic declaration to mourners that the movement’s Sunday morning resurrection was just around the corner.

In the 1950s, the entire world watched apartheid carve through South Africa. Musical artists around the world, including the coalition of American performers Artists United Against Apartheid (AUAA), fought with drumsticks and biting lyrics to universally condemn this system of oppression. (AUAA raised $1 million for anti-apartheid efforts off the back of their 1985 record ‘Sun City’).

Once apartheid fell and South Africa elected its first Black President, Nelson Mandela, new melodies emerged – this time songs of celebration. Brenda Fassie’s ‘Black President’ chronicled Mandela’s rise to power from the pain of his incarceration to his newfound freedom and election. Although celebratory in tone, the pangs of a decades-long injustice could be felt in Fassie’s voice. The song rang with the tenor of a country still reeling from the wounds of racial injustice.

A Jamaican Rhythm 

The pulsating groove of Bob Marley & the Wailers’ ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ captivates generations of people. You can’t help but move, press your hips side to side or nod rhythmically. The drums and bass, the words compel you to:

Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights! / Get up, stand up, dont give up the fight!

Written by Marley and Peter Tosh in 1973, the reggae song entreats its listeners to stand up against injustice, and to reject the white-washed, unreachable and abstract notion of God’s justice in the next life:

Most people think / Great God will come from the skies / Take away everything / And make everybody feel high / But if you know what life is worth / You will look for yours on earth

Marley argues that true spirituality isn’t passively waiting for justice, but actively pursuing it in the present. It’s no accident that this call to fight is embedded in pulsating rhythms. He and Tosh wanted the song’s message to infiltrate our daily lives – to speak to us at home, while dancing, while driving, or rolling a tree. They wanted to convey the real truth about injustice: that it reigns until there’s a revolt.

Bob Marley’s message, that the oppressed must rise up, galvanized his fellow Jamaicans and folks around the world. It led to an assassination attempt on his life in 1976, causing him to flee Jamaica.

‘Get Up, Stand Up’ became an international human rights anthem and the official anthem of Amnesty International, encouraging the world to rise up until we could all live in One Love.


The Haitian Revolution

Nanm Nan Boutey’ (‘Soul In a Bottle’) by the Haitian group Boukman Eksperyans, aptly captures the gutting consequences of imperialism, colonialism, and slavery on a people, the effects of which are felt even generations later:

Hey, this is tough! / Hey, this is tough!/ Our soul in a bottle / This is tough!

We have to speak like these people / We have to see like these people / We have to listen like these people / We have to look like these people

When will we arrive / When will we take a stand / My friends this is tough!/We’re going to join the revolution!

The image of a soul being trapped is as tragic as it is true, a jarring depiction of the brutal subjugation not only of Haitians, but of other members of the African diaspora around the globe. The chorus of powerful singers reminds the listener that an entire group suffers, an entire people cry out to live with their souls intact.

Even the name, ‘Boukman Eksperyans’, (translated as ‘Boukman Experience’), highlights the transcontinental nature of protest. The title was a tribute to Boukman Dutty, the legendary Jamaican born voudou priest who helped spark the Haitian Revolution in 1791. The group took his name to signify that they too would rage against state-sponsored oppression, this time via song. The group added ‘Experience’ because it wanted to rock out like the American-English rock band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Music contains revolutionary powers. It is as moving as it is mysterious, much like the human soul’s ability to endure grave oppression.