Most people I know right now are fed up, weary, and looking for whatever motivation they can find to maintain the energy and determination needed to keep marching on, whether literally or figuratively. A friend asked recently about art that expresses the energy and spirit of defiance against an unjust status quo, and of course my brain got to buzzing.
Because my brain goes like this, I have to distinguish this particular sub-area of songs from certain others. So, for example, there are great songs of reassurance (“Lean On Me,” “O-o-h Child,” etc.) that don’t quite fit the spirit here. Ditto songs that enumerate injustice without explicitly encouraging action – that’s no disrespect to early Bob Dylan or to the great early ‘70s Motown songs of activism (“War,” “Inner City Blues,” “Ball of Confusion,” etc.). These could populate other lists, but here the focus is on “things are bad, let’s get up and do something.” So without further ado:
1 ) “I’m Goin’ Stand!!!” by Sweet Honey in the Rock
To not include Sweet Honey’s “Ella’s Song” on a list like this is something wild, but this short and disarmingly direct song (as with “Ella’s Song,” from We All . . . Every One of Us and reissued on the compilation Breaths) is as potent and succinct a call to action as one could hope for.
2 ) “Small Axe” by the Wailers
I’m partial to the version from Burnin’ from 1973 (one of my all-time favorite records), but their mid-60s ska version is great too – in either case, the confident expression of the underdog’s determination to prevail resonates powerfully.
3 ) “Members Don’t Git Weary” by Max Roach, feat. Andy Bey
This one, the title track of and only vocal number on a uniformly beautiful album, chokes me up every time, as Andy Bey wails these spiritual verses over a furious rubato backdrop by Max alongside Stanley Cowell, Jymie Merritt, Gary Bartz, and Charles Tolliver. Seldom will you hear something that melds gnarly and comforting as organically as this.
4 ) “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron
Many of the cultural references are dated (or, for my generation, at least rely on having had older siblings) but the sentiments of boldly declaring the inevitability of revolution and change are utterly timeless, as is Gil’s snarling delivery and the incredible groove underpinned by the drums of Bernard Purdie and the electric bass of Ron Carter.
5 ) “Siyayilanda” by Juluka
In high school I had a copy of Scatterlings by the South African band Juluka (led by Johnny Clegg, who wrote this song and later rerecorded it with his subsequent band, Savuka, and Sipho Mchunu) that my cousin had literally recorded on a portable tape player from an auto garage where someone was playing it on their own stereo. Not great fidelity, obviously (for me, then), but I could hear the sound of anti-Apartheid revolution loud and clear nonetheless, and this one still stirs that in me.
6 ) “Change” by Fishbone
Ironically, the Truth and Soul album is full of hard-driving music, but to me its most potent anthem of resistance is this gentle, acoustic ballad co-written by Chris Dowd and Kendall Jones. If it seems counterintuitive that one of the most moving and inspiring folk ballads since early 1960s Dylan comes from a Black American band known for ska and metal, then you need to give a listen.
7 ) “Fight the Power” by Isley Brothers
Maybe it makes me a geezer that I picked this over the Public Enemy song by the same name, but this maybe less obvious choice stands aside James Brown’s “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing” as one of the great funk anthems of standing up and standing firm, not to mention having some of the funkiest bass you’ll ever hear.
8 ) “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” by Freedom Singers
When I recorded this song for my Soul Force album, I studied many versions of the song, but kept coming back to the field recording of the Freedom Singers’ a cappella version, which still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
9 ) “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder
Another song I recorded for the same album, the culminating track from Hotter Than July isn’t a perfect fit in that it doesn’t explicitly call on the listener to stand up, but to me that’s implicit in the very purpose of the song, demanding that Martin Luther King Day be made a national holiday. That this song is known by so many for its catchiness is just one sign of its persuasiveness and just one mark of achievement for what I feel is one of the great positive examples of propaganda in musical history.
10 ) “We Shall Not Be Moved” by Mavis Staples
This track is a perfect marriage, as an oft-performed civil rights anthem is one of numerous highlights on We’ll Never Turn Back, a whole Mavis Staples album devoted to such anthems. I have sung this one at numerous protests myself, and at this point it’s Mavis’ voice I hear in my head when it comes to mind.