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Nina Simone performing in 1968. Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

These 16 songs broke ground for ‘This is America’

A black man is shot in the head. The refrain: “This is America.” A gospel choir goes silent in a hail of bullets from an even bigger gun. “This is America,” Donald Glover, stage name Childish Gambino, tells us again and again.

It’s clear the song is meant to be a diagnosis of our country’s ills. Since its release a week ago, people have been debating which ills, exactly, the artist is addressing. Is it an indictment of gun violence, an ambiguous take on carnage and chaos, an examination of the deep-seated racial history of this country, or all three?

Wherever public opinion falls on the song, it builds on a rich history of black artists taking stock of the world around them. As I watched Glover doing Blocboy JB’s “shoot dance” amid a backdrop of violence, I thought of Prince’s lament — “Oh why, oh why” — over the headlines of his time: AIDS, the Challenger explosion, Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense program. There’s also John Lee Hooker singing in 1963 that he “ain’t going down to Birmingham by myself.” And there’s the dramatic police encounter that interrupts Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” Or Solange Knowles wanting a seat at the table.

This week, the NewsHour asked several music experts for songs that can be seen as musical predecessors to “This Is America.”

In their own words, here are 16 suggestions. This list is in no way complete, but we’ve kept it long to illustrate the rich and varied history of artists who have spoken on black life in America. Add your own thoughts about what’s missing in the comments below.

And, for the record, almost everyone we talked to mentioned Nina Simone’s take on “Mississippi Goddamn” because her mid-performance declaration, “I ain’t bout to be nonviolent, honey!” is unforgettable.

Warning: Some of these videos have explicit lyrics.

1. “Winter in America” album by Gil-Scott Heron and Brian Jackson (1974)

This is almost a dystopian take on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” The album documents a history of genocide, dispossession, with all the healers killed or betrayed, and no one knows what to fight for. “Winter in America” was recorded in 1973, during the global economic slump, energy crisis, the Watergate scandal, and when U.S. counterinsurgency operations under President Nixon were ramping up and many activists were being thrown in jail.

— Robin Kelley, professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles

2. “Minstrel Man” by Margaret Bonds (1959)

Composer and pianist Margaret Bonds’s “Minstrel Man” is, like “This is America,” a tale that disrupts the playful surface of U.S. entertainment. Set to lyrics by poet and essayist Langston Hughes, the song reveals the interiority of the black minstrels who, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, played a decisive role in the making of U.S. popular culture. Highlighting the complicated pairing of violence and laughter, pain and joy that arrange their performances, Bonds and Hughes disclose the national need for black gaiety, while suggesting that this will be the legacy forced upon black entertainers for the rest of the century to come.

— Shana L. Redmond, professor of musicology and African American studies at University of California, Los Angeles

3. “ATM” by J. Cole (2018)

“ATM” is a clever use of “mumble rap” values in a song that is actually interrogating the morality of the stuff. I think “This Is America” is going for the same kind of big picture satire on how bad behavior begets bad behavior in a violent, materialistic society.

— Craig Jenkins, pop music critic at New York Magazine

4. “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” by D’Angelo (2000)

Like D’Angelo’s epic video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” Gambino/Glover seduces us with a mix of blank expression and bare chest. Once enticed, we willingly enter this self-contained world — this “America” — – that both desires blackness, while religiously destroying black bodies.

— Salamishah Tillet, Robert S. Blank Presidential Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at University of Pennsylvania

5. “Hands Off” by The Last Poets (1972)

Refusing to be restricted or misunderstood due to their experiences and dreams, The Last Poets argue throughout their larger catalog that their knowledge is real. Like the display by Gambino, the U.S. of their narration is composed of a mixture of talent and terror. “Hands Off” is a tale of the present, informed and created by centuries of damning evidence. The stolen gifts of African science and dance, and centuries of enforced bondage and segregation substantiate the fact of African resilience and legitimate enduring calls for vengeance. They end by predicting that the time was near when white oppressors will “reap what you sow.”

— Shana L. Redmond

6. “Cold War” by Janelle Monáe (2010)

This song uses a sci-fi story as a sort of vessel to make a larger point about cultural and racial divisions.

— Craig Jenkins

7. “Police State” by Dead Prez (2000)

Images of state violence are compelling and terrifying (and not limited to black urban communities), but even more compelling is Dead Prez’s vision of what America could be: a cooperative socialist society where the state withdraws — withers away, as it were — so people could take back the land and resources, and care for one another.

— Robin Kelley

8. “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone (1964)

This iconic protest song takes aim at the widespread anti-black violence that marked federal integration in the middle-century United States with specific undertones of affection for the three little girls murdered in 1964 by bombing in Birmingham. Composed by Simone as the next best option to taking up arms, the song’s oompah musical style is unsettled by the punctuated rage of her vocals, which offer no haven for listeners seeking a show tune. Just as Glover unsettles listeners preconceived notions of the song that will follow, the sounds of “Mississippi Goddam” work in deep tension with the lyrical content. The intentionally incendiary language kept it off of mainstream radio, but not out of public debate or memory.

— Shana L. Redmond

9. “Fables of Faubus” by Charles Mingus (1959)

A comment on Gov. Orval Faubus for deploying the National Guard to block black kids from attending a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, Mingus includes a biting call-and-response with drummer Dannie Richmond that calls out Southern politicians as well as President Dwight Eisenhower, “Nazi fascist supremacists” and the Ku Klux Klan.

— Robin Kelley

10. “Amerykahn Promise” by Erykah Badu (2008)

“This Is America” is not just any run-of-the-mill protest song, but a distillation, like Badu’s “Amerykahn Promise,” of how broken American dreams have always been for African Americans.

— Salamishah Tillet

11. “If You Don’t Like the Effects, Don’t Produce the Cause” by Funkadelic (1972)

Off the band’s 1972 album “America Eats Its Young,” the song is an advisory word about political protest starting at home, and the ways that real change is harder than just protests. It’s about changing your life if you want to see changes in the outside world.

— Craig Jenkins

12. “Black Is” by The Last Poets (1971)

Embedded in “Black Is” is the precarity and power of black life. When the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man” overhears a black preacher ask his congregation what “black is … black ain’t,” The Last Poets fill in those ellipses. “Black is so terrible, it’s terrifying,” they rhyme. “Black is such a shock, it’s electrifying.” And “gunshots and black screams and white screams,” and “black is free.”

— Salamishah Tillet

13. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill (1998)

Hill matches lyrics about the social missteps that can ruin your life with a music video that’s a celebration of black dance and style between the ’60s and ‘90s.

— Craig Jenkins

14. “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Jimi Hendrix (1969)

Hendrix’s solo guitar version of the national anthem is a powerful instrumental critique of American militarism (at home and abroad).

— Robin Kelley

15. “Burn Hollywood Burn” by Public Enemy feat. Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane (1990)

This is dance music that doubles as wide-angle political analysis and advocates for black creative self-sufficiency, which seems like some of what “This Is America” was trying to get at visually.

— Craig Jenkins

16. Lupe Fiasco feat. Matthew Santos, “American Terrorist” (2006)

Chicago emcee Lupe Fiasco describes the “War on Terror” through genealogies that recast the roles of “terrorist” and “victim.” He argues that centuries of U.S. enslavement of Africans and the use of pervasive bio-warfare against indigenous communities defy narratives of U.S. innocence, among other points. Fiasco ultimately frames a national future of lingering division, vulnerability, and injury with the provocation: “How do you forgive the murderer of your father?”

— Shana L. Redmond

The above submissions were edited for length and clarity.

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