In the midst of an extremely stressful election, it’s important we have music that is hopeful and reassuring in tone, but also remains honest about the threats marginalized communities face. Here is a playlist with anthems both past and present, featuring some of music’s most resilient and revolutionary voices.
Alright – Kendrick Lamar
“Alright” is the protest song of a generation. Released in 2015 as the fourth single leading up to Kendrick’s rap opus “To Pimp A Butterfly,” “Alright” was quickly adopted by Black Lives Matter activists as a refrain to chant at protests. The overt and confrontational politics of the song blend with affirmations of a better future to create a punchy, powerful anthem which helped rocket Kendrick from musical icon to de facto political leader.
Hold On – Yola ft. The Highwomen & Sheryl Crow
Yola’s “Hold On” is a message of resilience and courage in the face of hardship. Its impassioned fusion of soul and country will burn itself into your heart. Yola sings, “Mama said to me, stave on / No matter what they tell you girl, stave on / Everyone that seems alright has a soul that’s hurting deep inside.” She calls for compassion and community to overcome stressful times — a valuable lesson for this election season.
A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
Since its release in 1964, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” has only grown more relevant with time. It’s been sampled by the likes of Nas (“It Was Written”) and Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah (“The Soul Controller”). Cooke’s song is a loud and epic soul anthem with sweeping strings — a surge of optimism that looks toward the future with bright eyes and an open heart. The song was part of the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and although Sam Cooke was killed shortly after he birthed the song into existence, Black singers such as Aretha Franklin and Bettye LaVette immediately picked up the song and began performing it on tours across the South. Its uplifting spirit is something we can still take inspiration from in today’s era of protest.
Song 33 – Noname
“Song 33” is a fiery takedown of America’s political institutions. Noname — one of music’s most radical and revolutionary voices — raps with bitter confidence about abolishing the police, combatting patriarchy as well as misogynoir, and dismantling systems of white supremacy. Noname closes the song on an optimistic note and reclaims her power, rapping, “This the new world order / We democratizing Amazon, we burn down borders / This a new vanguard, this a new vanguard / I’m the new vanguard.”
Without a Face – Rage Against The Machine
Rap-rock pioneers Rage Against The Machine put out some of the most blistering political music of the 90s. On “Without a Face,” the band’s frontman Zack de la Rocha speaks to the immigrant experience; he opens the song confidently rapping, “Got no card so I got no soul / Life is prison, no parole, no control.” De la Rocha’s lyrics on the track not only recall his ancestors and draw on their strength, but also find him commenting on the resilience of the immigrant community as he looks forward to the future and the promise of revolution.
Stay Alive – Mustafa
On “Stay Alive,” Mustafa serenades the marginalized and the disenfranchised. The song is instantly captivating, as Mustafa’s heavenly voice contrasts nicely with his gritty and urgent poetry: “A bottle of lean / A gun in your jeans / And a little faith in me.” He offers no solutions, only a promise that life can and will be better when members of a community lean on each other. “Stay Alive” is protest disguised as mellow guitar music; it’s a plea to hang onto the fight long enough for real change to be effected.
Raise Yourself Up – Matana Roberts
Matana Roberts is an often-overlooked titan of contemporary jazz. Her compositions weave together tales from American history and celebration of Black culture in invigorating fashion. “Raise Yourself Up” features a driving groove and bright saxophone and provides an instant boost of serotonin. It’s a hopeful and empowering musical perspective that staves off feelings of bleakness and despair, even if only temporarily. It’s the perfect morale boost for election day, and a great excuse to dance off your stress.
Now That The Buffalo’s Gone – Buffy Sainte-Marie
“Now That The Buffalo’s Gone” is a profound piece of protest music that rails against colonization and the violent displacement of indigenious Americans. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s graceful folk ballad is full of quiet rage, and she is direct in her language: “It’s written in books and in song / That we’ve been mistreated and wronged.” The song recognizes the potential for America to right its wrongs, but that is predicated on colonizers returning stolen land to indigenious populations. In the meantime, we must continue to fight alongside indigenous activists and organizers to return what is rightfully theirs.
Mississippi Goddam – Nina Simone
Recorded in response to violent white supremacy in the South during the 1950s and 60s, “Mississippi Goddam” is a furious cry for justice and liberation. Nina Simone was a bonafide musical leader of the revolution, combining her music with activism — she performed “Mississippi Goddam” at the conclusion of the 1965 Selma marches to a crowd of thousands. Lyrics such as “They try to say it’s a communist plot / All I want is equality / For my sister my brother my people and me” are still eerily applicable today. Simone’s revolutionary spirit lives on in both her music and her legacy as an activist, as well as in the music of current artists, from Kendrick Lamar to Beyoncè. It is imperative that we carry that spirit with us into the election and far beyond.
We The People…. – A Tribe Called Quest
“We The People….” is a call for solidarity by one of underground hip-hop’s most legendary groups. It’s a massive pushback against hatred and intolerance, and it restores power to the people. A Tribe Called Quest’s songs have always worked to create unity across generations of musicians and music fans, and on “We The People….,” they pass the torch and encourage future generations of artists and activists to take the reins. In an election that depends on young voter turnout, we would be wise to heed their words.
To listen to this playlist for the 2020 election on Spotify, click here.