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Top 11 Songs About Racism
This month’s Top 11 concerns racism — and, specifically, some of the most notable songs to tackle the complicated subject over the years.
“Hollywood folks like to believe they are wrapped in their liberal beliefs, but it’s all just a ruse. They got the complexion for the protection. Hollywood only brings up race when it works for them.”
— Paul Mooney
- “Brother Louie” by Hot Chocolate and Stories
“Brother Louie” was written by Errol Brown and Tony Wilson of the British band Hot Chocolate. The story of an interracial affair became a No. 7 hit in the UK in 1973. Brown was born in Jamaica and moved to Britain as a child. He told Melody Maker that the song “comes from early dating in a place where there’s a majority of white people. That was fine for us because we grew up and rubbed shoulders with other nationalities so it wasn’t a heavy thing. But in those days a lot of white parents never had anything to do with black people. It was understandable — they just didn’t know what was going on, apart from what they read in books or saw on TV: jungle scenes.”
Hot Chocolate’s original track included a spoken section that used racial epithets, making it unsuitable for US radio stations. New York band Stories, fronted by Ian Lloyd, released a less controversial version later in 1973 and had a No. 1 hit. “Sitting in Bob Reno’s A&R office at Buddah Records, I went through a lot of different demo tapes and discs,” Lloyd told Forgotten Hits. “When I heard the chorus to ‘Louie’ I told Bob, ‘This is a number one record — let’s do it.’ At the time I did not know that I was listening to Hot Chocolate’s finished master. I think both versions were released around the same time. The rest is rock history.”
“Brother Louie” by Hot Chocolate
“Brother Louie” by Stories
- “Blackbird” by the Beatles
Paul McCartney recorded “Blackbird” for the Beatles‘ White Album in June 1968, two months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. McCartney told KCRW, “I was in Scotland playing on my guitar, and I remembered this whole idea of ‘you were only waiting for this moment to arise’ was about, you know, the black people’s struggle in the Southern states, and I was using the symbolism of a blackbird. It’s not really about a blackbird whose wings are broken, you know, it’s a bit more symbolic.”
“Those were the days of the civil rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about,” McCartney recalled in Many Years From Now. “So this was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: ‘Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.'”
- “Black or White” by Michael Jackson
“Black or White” was written and produced by Michael Jackson and Bill Bottrell for the Dangerous LP. The song promoting racial tolerance was a No. 1 hit in 1991. “The genesis of the songs we co-wrote consisted of Michael humming melodies and grooves, and him then leaving the studio while I developed these ideas with a bunch of drum machines and samplers,” Bottrell told Sound on Sound.
“The guy’s an absolute natural — I mean, we’re talking about Michael Jackson — and for me the best thing about ‘Black or White’ was that his scratch vocal remained untouched throughout the next year and ended up being used on the finished song. He had some lyrical ideas when he first entered the studio, and he filled them out as he went along.”
Jackson originally released an 11-minute video directed by John Landis. The last four minutes, which included numerous crotch grabs and Jackson smashing windows and destroying a car, were later cut after protests. The rap segment, lip-synched by Macaulay Culkin, was performed by Bottrell but credited to the pseudonym L.T.B.
“Black or White” by Michael Jackson (shortened version)
“Black or White” by Michael Jackson (long version)
- “Society’s Child” by Janis Ian
Janis Ian recorded “Society’s Child” in 1965 but it did not become a Top 20 hit nationally until the summer of 1967. Ian, who grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, was just 14 when she wrote the song about how social pressure doomed an interracial romance. In the song, the girl’s parents object to her boyfriend, who is Black. “My parents were the complete opposite of the parents in that song,” Ian said in Songfacts.
“They wouldn’t have cared if I’d married a Martian, so long as I was happy. And because it was an all-black neighborhood, most of my good friends, Deborah Keeno, Connie — this boy that I just adored, who was just a sweetheart — they were all black, because the white kids, frankly, were kind of that snotty, white, middle-class … the girls always had the current clothing. And I thought the Black chicks — they dressed better, they listened to better music.”
Ian, who had started as a folk singer in Greenwich Village, was surprised that fellow folkies resented her success. “That shocked me,” Ian told Performing Songwriter. “Who would have believed that attitude would come from the folk community? But in those days, if you were a folk singer, you weren’t supposed to have a hit record. The feeling was that if that happened, you lost your street cred. But what’s the goal? The ultimate goal is to be heard.”
- “Why Can’t We Live Together” by Timmy Thomas
“Why Can’t We Live Together” became a Top 10 hit in 1973 for Timmy Thomas, a Miami teacher who had been a session musician for Booker T. & the MGs. “I was sitting in my study, and I heard Walter Cronkite,” Thomas told Spin. “He said, ‘35,000 Viet Cong died today, 15,000 Americans.’ I said, ‘What?! You mean that many mothers’ children died today? In a war that we can’t come to the table and sit down and talk about this, without so many families losing their loved ones?’ I said, ‘Why can’t we live together?’ Bing! That light went off. And I started writing it then. ‘No more wars, we want peace in this world, and no matter what color, you’re still my brother.'”
The song became an international hit and an anti-apartheid anthem in South Africa that was played at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. “It was very exciting,” Thomas recalled in Henry Stone Music. “Anywhere in the world that there was unrest, they called me in. I played the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa. I knew my music couldn’t change laws, but it could change hearts. And I never played a single segregated concert anywhere.”
- “Southern Man” by Neil Young
Neil Young released “Southern Man” on his 1970 album After the Gold Rush. The song excoriated the South for its history of slavery, cross burning and violence against blacks. “This song could have been written on a civil rights march after stopping off to watch Gone With The Wind at a local theater,” Young wrote in the liner notes of his Decade collection. “Southern Man” and 1972’s “Alabama” provoked a rebuke from Lynyrd Skynyrd, who name-checked Young in “Sweet Home Alabama.”
As Black Lives Matter protests swept the country in 2020 in response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd, Young released a 2019 live video of “Southern Man” on his Neil Young Archives site. “Here’s me as an old guy singin’ his 50-year-old song that was written after countless years of racism in the USA,” he captioned the video. “And look at us today! This has been going on for way too long.
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Here’s me as an old guy singin’ his 50 year old song that was written after countless years of racism in the USA. . . . and look at us today! This has been going on for way too long. It’s not just Southern Man now. . . . .It’s everywhere across the USA. It’s time for real change . . . . new laws . . . . new rules for policing . . . . “Change gonna come at last . . . . .” ‘Southern Man’ is from the forthcoming ‘POLAR VORTEX’ live performance longform at NYA.
“It’s not just ‘Southern Man’ now. It’s everywhere across the USA. It’s time for real change, new laws, new rules for policing.”
“Southern Man” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
- “We’re a Winner” by the Impressions
“We’re a Winner” was written by Curtis Mayfield of the Impressions to encourage black pride and show solidarity with activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights protests of the 1960s. The song reached No. 14 in 1968. The Impressions’ Sam Gooden told NPR that Mayfield said, “‘This particular song is a song that I think we should use to spread some of Dr. King’s messages across the country.’ We felt they would uplift not only our people, but all people.”
“My political thoughts was just what was happening with Martin Luther King, and that was one way for us to kinda leave our mark, was through the songs,” the group’s Fred Cash said in the Village Voice. “The ‘Keep on Pushing.’ The ‘Choice of Colors.’ The ‘We’re a Winner.’ ‘This Is My Country.’ ‘Cause we was working so much at that particular time that there was very little time that we had to do marching. But that’s one way that we did — through the music.”
“We’re a Winner” by the Impressions
- “People Got to Be Free” by the Rascals
“People Got to Be Free” was released in the summer of 1968 in the midst of civil rights protests. Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati were inspired to write what became an anthem for racial tolerance after they were threatened during a tour of the South. “People Got to Be Free” was a No. 1 hit and on its release the band announced that it would only perform at concerts that included an African American act. As a result, many shows in the South and other parts of the country had to be cancelled.
“It caused a lot of difficulty at the record company because they kind of felt we should not get involved,” Cavaliere told the Orange County Register in 2018. “Kind of like the way they are today. Music people, they hardly get involved at all, and when they do, they get reprimanded, such as the Dixie Chicks.
“But that was not the case then, we were very involved, I was very involved, and I said, ‘We’re going to put this thing out.’ And as a result it became No. 1 in all of the oppressed places all over the world. Such as Berlin in those days, Hong Kong, South Africa, which was not a free country. So I’m pretty proud of that.”
- “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” by Marvin Gaye
“Inner City Blues” was written by Marvin Gaye and James Nyx Jr. The song asked why life was so tough for African Americans in urban areas with a government rich enough to fund projects like the space program. “Marvin had a good tune, sort of blues-like, but didn’t have any words for it,” Nyx explained in the Detroit Free Press in 1998. “We started putting some stuff in there about how rough things were around town. We laughed about putting lyrics in about high taxes, ’cause both of us owed a lot. And we talked about how the government would send guys to the moon, but not help folks in the ghetto. But we still didn’t have a name, or really a good idea of the song. Then, I was home reading the paper one morning, and saw a headline that said something about the ‘inner city’ of Detroit. And I said, ‘Damn, that’s it. Inner City Blues.'”
“Inner City Blues” was recorded at Motown with Gaye playing piano. Released in October 1971, it was the third single from Gaye’s groundbreaking LP What’s Going On. The shortened “Inner City Blues” single reached No. 9 on the Billboard chart.
- “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown
“Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” was written by James Brown and his bandleader, Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis. Released as a two-part single in 1968, the black pride anthem reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and was a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was inspired by infighting Brown witnessed among African Americans. The song featured call-and-response between Brown and a group of Los Angeles-area kids brought into the recording studio. “It was necessary to teach pride then, and I think the song did a lot of good for a lot of people,” Brown wrote in his autobiography The Godfather of Soul.
“People called ‘Black and Proud’ militant and angry — maybe because of the line about dying on your feet instead of living on your knees. But really, if you listen to it, it sounds like a children’s song. That’s why I had children in it, so children who heard it could grow up feeling pride … The song cost me a lot of my crossover audience. The racial makeup at my concerts was mostly black after that. I don’t regret it, though, even if it was misunderstood.”
- “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
“A Change Is Gonna Come” has become a civil rights anthem in the years since its release as the B-side to Sam Cooke‘s 1964 hit “Shake.” The single was released posthumously days after Cooke, 33, was shot to death in Los Angeles in December 1964.
Cooke was inspired to write “Change” after he and his band were refused rooms at a Shreveport, Louisiana Holiday Inn in 1963 despite having reservations. Cooke was also motivated when he heard Bob Dylan‘s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick wrote in Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke that the singer “was so carried away with the message, and the fact that a white boy had written it, that … he was almost ashamed not to have written something like that himself.”
“It was less work than any song he’d ever written,” Guralnick told NPR. “It almost scared him that the song– it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular — in the sense that you started out, ‘I was born by the river’ — but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people.”