America has a difficult history with racism that it, unfortunately, continues to struggle with today. Though many efforts have been made to improve American life for all people, there are many who still find that racism impacts their daily existence. This is where songwriters have stepped in to shine a light on the hardest work that still has to be done.
Sometimes melancholy, sometimes filled with rage, these are the top 27 songs about racism from the past several decades:
1. This is America – Childish Gambino
A skilled actor as well as a musician, Childish Gambino is known for his cinematic music videos. “This Is America” made headlines when it came out in 2018 and added a troubling visual to the conversation about guns and racism in America.
2. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
First released in 1971, this song has been remastered with references to today’s political and social unrest. The lyrics are haunting when paired with images and audio of violence from current events.
3. Fuck Tha Police – N.W.A.
This 1988 protest song faced a lot of backlash when it was released. It even experienced worldwide censorship. Even a radio station in Australia went on strike when they were told to stop playing it. The result of these censorship efforts has generally had the opposite intended effect. For many decades now, this song remains a hit.
4. Glory – Common And John Legend
Written for the 2014 film Selma, this won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in the same year. Paramount Pictures produced the music video as well. With John Legend’s smooth vocals and Common’s powerful rapping, this song aimed to become an anthem for anti-racism.
5. Changes – 2Pac Featuring Talent
2Pac’s posthumous release is easily one of his greatest hits. Sampling recognizable songs and referencing current events of the 90s, this song is still relevant and important today.
Next: The greatest rappers of all time (our featured list)
6. F.U.B.U. – Solange
“F.U.B.U.” or “For Us, By Us” by Solange came out in 2016, and it lists a series of everyday racist things people experience. The song is not only a description of the way racism affects people in our communities, but it’s also a way for Solange to reach out and say, “You’re not alone.”
7. Say Her Name (Hell You Talmbout) – Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe is known for making amazing, experimental art with her music, and this is no exception. Her 2015 protest song, made with her Wondaland artist collective, has simple but powerful lyrics. The singers repeat the names of Black people who have died because of racial violence, and then they demand that listeners say the victims’ names.
8. Freedom – Beyoncé
In 2016, Beyoncé released a one-hour music-video film that contained her entire album, Lemonade. “Freedom” is one track on that album, and it became a Black Lives Matter or BLM protest anthem following the killing of George Floyd.
9. Fight the Power – Public Enemy
Film director Spike Lee needed a musical theme for his 1989 film Do The Right Thing, and Public Enemy rose to the occasion with this song. The songwriters later clarified a verse about Elvis Presley, stating that their concern was the lack of attribution given to Black artists during Presley’s rise to fame.
10. Baltimore – Prince Featuring Eryn Allen Kane
One of Prince’s later releases, this 2015 song states that “If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace.” It refers to police brutality in race-fueled violence, and it is a melodic plea for everyone to stop the misery.
11. Black Man – Stevie Wonder
This 1976 funk rock hit goes through a series of colors to list the different people who have fought and died for America. Several of these color terms are now considered dated and inappropriate, but at the time, the song made a strong point about the contributions of all Americans.
12. Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
This pivotal song was recorded in 1939 and is still painfully relevant today. Billie Holiday’s mournful voice tells the story of Black lynchings in America. “Strange Fruit” has come to be known as the start of the civil rights movement.
13. Alright – Kendrick Lamar
There is a lot to examine in this song’s lyrics. It’s worth a close look because Kendrick Lamar’s artistic expression here is packed with meaning. He was inspired by the novel The Color Purple and by the struggles he witnessed people facing in South Africa.
14. The Story of O.J. – Jay-Z
Rolling Stone called this the best music video of 2017, and there’s no question it’s an amazing work of art. The beat backs up poetic lyrics that illustrate the seemingly impossible struggle African Americans face due to systemic racism.
15. Mississippi Goddam – Nina Simone
Nina Simone wrote and performed this as her first civil rights song in 1964. In 2019, The Library of Congress labeled the song among works that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
16. Black Rage – Lauryn Hill
A striking look at the classic musical theater hit, “My Favorite Things,” this song lists the things that have created “Black Rage.” It’s a fearless takedown of systemic racism. The irony of the melody that is usually associated with descriptions of privilege sends a powerful message.
17. Birmingham Sunday – Joan Baez
Joan Baez, a 60s-era icon of civil rights protest music, performed this song about the 1963 KKK bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. It is a narrative song that tells the painful story of what happened on that terrible day.
18. We Shall Not Be Moved – The Freedom Singers
Performed by many artists over time, this live recording of “We Shall Not Be Moved” captures the essence of the song. It is a protest song for people who are doing sit-ins or marches, refusing to give up their ground. It has historically been used in civil rights protests to fight back against racism and other bigotry.
19. The Lonesome Death Of Emmett Till – Bob Dylan
Also known as “The Ballad Of Emmett Till,” this song was never officially recorded by Bob Dylan. Its lyrics recount when a 14-year-old Black boy was killed in 1955.
20. Chapter 319 – clipping.
You may recognize one of the voices on this track. Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame) is the lead rapper of clipping. This track features his rapid-fire rapping, and it pulls absolutely zero punches when it calls out current racism. It quickly became a BLM protest and march anthem.
21. We the People…. – A Tribe Called Quest
In 2016, Billboard listed this as the 10th best song of the year. The lyrics parody Donald Trump’s speeches and directly address the current events of that year, including racism and other bigoted systems.
22. This Land – Gary Clark Jr.
This 2019 release by Gary Clark Jr. has been called blues rock with a reggae vibe. It opens with the line, “Paranoid and pissed off” and goes on to describe the impact that racism has on people throughout the land.
23. Blue Lights – Jorja Smith
In 2018, the British songwriter Jorja Smith released her political takedown of racial profiling among law enforcement officers. “Blue Lights” refer to the lights of police cars, and the lyrics illustrate why innocent Black men would run from those lights.
24. Black Like Me – Mickey Guyton
This is a country song about racism in America, which makes it stand out among the others. Mickey Guyton released this track in 2020. The lyrics say that anyone who believes racism is a thing of the past should try to be Black. It’s a rousing ballad that’s right at home both in country music and in anti-racism playlists.
25. Comment #1 – Gil Scott-Heron
Backed up by drums, this spoken word poem is absolute fire from 1970. With statements like “And America is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey” and “Who will survive in America?,” the voice may be familiar. Check him out in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” for more of his amazing performances.
26. A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
When Sam Cooke wrote this 1964 ballad, he was mostly inspired by his own life. Earlier, he and his band were turned away from a white-only hotel. The melody feels slow and sad at times, but the lyrics are hopeful, promising that change will come, though it may take a long time.
27. Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud (Pts.1 & 2) – James Brown
Who else but James Brown? He says it loud: “I’m Black and proud.” This is a classic song about continuing to love yourself and your heritage, even through the worst of history.
Released in 1968 at the height of the 60s civil rights movement, this song spoke to many men and women of the time who were fighting for equal rights. It continues to speak to people around the world today.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.