Music To Get You Through Times Like These

By Dianca London

This week was more than rough. It was downright unbearable. So soon after the tragedy in Orlando and the temporary thrill of July 4th, we find ourselves mourning the loss of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two innocent black man murdered unjustly by cops. The image of their blood and the sound of their pleas flooded our Facebook feeds, and days later their final moments continue to replay online. There is no escaping the pain of this loss, and its aftermath in Dallas shows us brutally that violence begets violence. We are forced to watch as our nation tears itself apart.

In times like these it becomes difficult to find respite from all of the tragedy that surrounds us. Concepts like hope and freedom feel impossible. Our hearts ache. How can we, at a time like this, begin to process the horror of racism and the loss that it leaves in its wake?

Over the past few days, like so many of us, I’ve felt anxious, upset, and have found it difficult to sleep. I’ve thankfully been able to find moments of compassion, solidarity, and peace through conversations with friends and family — and through songs. No matter how hopeless things might seem, music has always helped me make sense of the senseless. Listening to the songs of my generation and of generations past has shored me up as I attempt to cope. I don’t have the right words to express or soothe what so many of us are feeling right now. I don’t have a solution to how we can correct racism’s vicious legacy. But I do have a list of songs that keep me sane when being black in this country is too much to bear.

Strange Fruit — Billie Holiday

Adapted from an anti-lynching poem written by Abel Meeropol in 1936, “Strange Fruit” is one of BIllie Holiday’s most chilling ballads. The song, which was recorded and sung by Holiday three years after the publication of its literary predecessor, quickly became a notable protest song for African Americans as lynchings throughout the U.S. (particularly in the South) peaked. Eighty years later, Meeropol’s somber stanzas and Holiday’s irreplaceable voice serves as a timeless dirge connecting their past to our present. “Strange Fruit” is a heart-wrenching and haunting gift. It gives us permission not only to document our trauma and but to grieve publicly.

I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned — Mahalia Jackson

Gospel music and the black church have always served as sources of strength during tumultuous times. From Negro spirituals to modern-day gospel, the black community frequently used songs o boost morale during the Civil Rights Era, which made singers like the Mahalia Jackson integral. Jackson, who after being invited by Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy to perform at a concert in Montgomery Alabama in 1956 to protest bus segregation, decided to sing despite having received multiple death threats from white supremacists. During the terror of segregation, Jackson remained brave. In 1963 she prefaced King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech with “I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scored,” a hymn that deeply resonates with the experience of endless generations of black Americans.

I wish I knew How It Would Feel To Be Free — Nina Simone

You cannot listen to Nina Simone without being changed. Her voice and deliberate diction feel like a testimony, documenting the black experience in an inexplicable way. Watching footage of her performing has a similar effect. Like Jackson, Simone was dedicated to the civil rights movement and integrated into her musical performances, often voicing her political views in concert halls across the country in addition to various civil rights meetings and events including the march from Selma to Montgomery. “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free,” recorded in 1967, served as an one of the civil rights movement’s many anthems. Filled with yearning and recognition of all the promise and potential freedom brings, Simone’s words mirror what we still pray for: equality.

We Shall Overcome — Diana Ross

A historic protest song for countless communities. “We Shall Overcome” is a tried and true reminder of the power of music. Sung by 300,000 voices during the 1963 March on Washington and recited two years later in Dr. King’s last sermon before his assassination, “We Shall Overcome” is one of the few songs that within seconds can evoke a sense of urgency, anticipation, and remembrance for those who sacrificed their safety and ultimately their lives in the name of justice. Here, Diana Ross, whose voice defined soul and R&B, sings this seminal hymn in 1996 during a performance in Budapest. No matter how grim the circumstances, “We Shall Overcome” will continue to kindle hope.

Is It Because I’m Black — Syl Johnson

An alarmingly stark portrait of what it means to be an African American, “Is It Because I’m Black” is unabashed from beginning to end. Syl Johnson’s 1969 single addresses a question that’s perpetually weighed on the hearts and minds of Black Americans since our ancestors arrived as slaves on America’s shores. Speaking from himself and for his people, Johnson’s query, much like Langston Hughes’ “I, Too,”’ recounts the frustration and irreversible damage racism has caused within his community. As the song persists, his voice does not falter. It is a steadfast and memorably melodic refusal to turn a blind eye to systemic racism and the injustice it begets.

What’s Going On? — Marvin Gaye

The title track on Marvin Gaye’s ’71 full-length “What’s Going On” isn’t just a Motown classic. It’s a symphonic talisman from an era defined by protests and political unrest. Originally written in response to police brutality and the violence that broke out during an anti-war protest in Berkeley’s People’s Park, the lyricism of “What’s Going On” brings to mind the more recent catastrophe of Thursday night’s sniper attack in Dallas. As Gaye sings “don’t punish me with brutality… talk to me,” it is difficult not to think of current movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the nationwide misuse of authority by police. “What’s Going On,” although bittersweet, offers probable solutions for progress. For Gaye, dialogue and compassion are the first steps we must take in order to build better world.

People Get Ready — Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions

Following in the footsteps of Mahalia Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions eased the anxiety of racism in the mid-’60s with the gospel-inspired “People Get Ready.” Composed and solely written by Mayfield, the track revives the gripping imagery of crucial spirituals like “The Gospel Train” and the widely known “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The 1965 chart topper was undoubtedly a godsend during the height of the Civil Rights movement and remains pertinent, urging its listeners towards participation and communal effort. Decades later, Mayfield’s freedom song offers a praxis for the downtrodden: salvation lies in solidarity.

Ooh Child (Things Are Gonna Get Easier) — The Five Stairsteps

Subtly somber yet rooted in optimism, the Chicago based soul family group The Five Stairsteps’ unforgettable melody “Ooh Child” hit the airwaves during the spring of 1970. Written by the group’s producer Stan Vincent, the track was penned initially for his son and went on to become a source of inspiration and uplift for many due to its lyrics. Between delicate chords and swelling harmonies, the promise that The Five Stairsteps convey is just enough to make even the darkest day feel bearable. They assure us that eventually “things are gonna get easier,” no matter how long it takes.

Feel Better World!… Love Ms. Badu — Erykah Badu

Nearly a year ago, Erykah Badu blessed us with an unexpected and intuitively curative mixtape titled Feel Better World!… Love Ms. Badu. Comprised of jazz, soul, and funk, Ms. Badu’s mix lifted our spirits during a summer marked by crimes against African-Americans. She released the mix with the following message:

“All over the globe… Keep walking tall brothers and sisters. Someday we will all be free. This world is in need of healing. I carefully and lovingly selected high frequency tones for the soul. Please listen from top to bottom. Love, Ms. Badu”

Her mixtape, which is nearly and hour and a half in length, includes iconic greats like Donnie Hathaway, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Stevie Wonder, and Sun Ra in addition to Badu herself. Ending with “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” her mixtape is a priceless gift and an anchor to cling to as we weather the storm of injustice.

Disparate Youth — Santigold

The lead single from Santigold’s sophomore LP Master, “Disparate Youth” looks towards the future, conjuring a map for future generations to follow. For the Philadelphia native, the riveting anthem “is about the youth creating their own world and not having to take this broken shit that’s handed to them.” This song and the album itself, says Jay-Z, “sounds like a revolution,” and it is doubly moving when experienced through the Sankofa-soaked lens of the single’s video. It is an uplifting reminder of the potential our future holds.

Freedom — Beyoncé

Beyoncé’s captivating performance of “Freedom” at last month’s BET Awards couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Sharing the stage with fellow activist and singer-songwriter Kendrick Lamar, her latest rendition of one of Lemonade’s most empowering tracks left viewers in awe. Watching her and Lamar on stage, it becomes clear that “Freedom” far more than just a song of personal anguish. It’s a proclamation, a political call to arms. It a manifestation of her open letter addressing the murder of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile:

“… We have to believe that we are fighting for the rights of the next generation, for the young men and women who believe in good. …this is a fight for anyone who feels marginalized who is struggling for freedom and human rights.”

This song is a gift.

A Change Is Gonna Come — Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin’s riff on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” as its title suggests is at its core song of hope. It’s narrative is heartwrenchingly familiar but persists with conviction: It’s been a long, a long time coming. but I know a change is gonna come. Fifty years have passed since Franklin sang these words, and yet they sink deep into our hearts, bestowing us with an assurance that regardless of how much anguish we encounter, justice, truth, and love will overpower the violence of fear and hate.

It is my sincerest hope that these songs will give you solace as we remind ourselves, as Detroit-based activist and writer Adrienne Maree Brown suggests, that “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.” And perhaps someday, as these immortal black artists remind us, getting easier. Getting changed. Getting free.

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