African American sound recorder on the streets

Black Power Playlist: Music is the Message

August 11, 2015 by Independent Lens in Lists

The soundtrack to America’s civil rights movement before the mid-1960s was predominantly made up of gospel standards and spirituals, with a smattering of popular folk. But by the late 1960s, music was changing right along with the political landscape.

Just as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X parted ways in their philosophies of how to fight for equality, R&B diverged into soul and funk. Not satisfied with waiting for incremental change while holding hands and singing songs dating from the age of legal slavery, the Black Power political movement had a natural corollary in music.

Although its roots can be traced back beginning as far back as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (nothing genteel about that one) through Sam Cooke’s inspired “A Change is Gonna Come,” the soundtrack of Black Power had harder-driving rhythms with less conciliatory lyrics. “We Shall Overcome” was replaced by Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” and James Brown’s ecstatic “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Other critical tracks include “Am I Black Enough for You,” by Billy Paul; “Message from a Black Man” by the Temptations; and even John Coltrane’s jazz instrumental “Alabama.” It also gave rise to groups like The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets, whose African percussion-backed spoken-word declarations were both righteous and coarse.

Check out our virtual mixtape of soul, funk, and jazz tunes and audio clips from that period.

WARNING: Some of the songs on this list contain language that some may find objectionable. They are included to illustrate the political climate and breadth of rhetoric in the movement.

(Requires the Spotify application, available free to download).

Listen: The Black Power Mixtape



Blues, Funk & Soul

Billie Holiday Strange Fruit
Sam Cooke A Change Is Gonna Come
Nina Simone By Any Means Necessary (Interview)
Nina Simone Mississippi Goddamn
Donny Hathaway To Be Young, Gifted And Black
Aretha Franklin Respect
James Brown Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud
The Meters A Message From The Meters
The Impressions We’re A Winner
Sly & The Family Stone Everyday People
The Temptations Message From A Black Man
Gregory Isaacs Black Liberation Struggle
The Staple Singers Respect Yourself
Marvin Gaye You’re The Man
Etta James Tell It Like It Is
Donny Hathaway Someday We’ll All Be Free
Curtis Mayfield Mighty Mighty – Spade And Whitey
The Isley Brothers Fight The Power – Part 1 & 2
The O’Jays Give The People What They Want
The Chi-Lites Give More Power To The People
Billy Paul Am I Black Enough For You?
Parliament Chocolate City
Stevie Wonder Living For The City
Sly & The Family Stone Don’t Call Me N****r, Whitey
The Temptations Ball of Confusion
Marvin Gaye Save The Children
Eddie Kendricks My People … Hold On
Segments Of Time Message To The System
Nina Simone Tell It Like It Is
William DeVaughn Be Thankful for What You Got
Earth, Wind & Fire Mighty Mighty
Johnnie Taylor I Am Somebody, Parts 1 & 2
Marvin Gaye Right On – Detroit Mix
Les McCann & Eddie Harris Compared To What
Syl Johnson Is It Because I’m Black
Elaine Brown The Panther


Max Roach Freedom Day
John Coltrane Alabama
Archie Shepp Blues For Brother George Jackson
Joe Mcphee Nation Time

Spoken Word and Other

The Last Poets N*****s Are Scared Of Revolution
The Last Poets When The Revolution Comes
The Watts Prophets I’ll Stop Callin’ You N*****s (Skit)
Black Panther Kids Power to the People, Free Our People
Prison Radio Project Black Panthers, Cointelpro & Repression Inside
Prison Radio Project Black Power & The Global Revolution


Sources: Soul-Patrol African American Music and Culture Database; Black Power: Music of a Revolution; Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop, by Denise Sullivan; Smithsonian Folkways

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