Tomorrow marks the beginning of February, which is also Black History Month. While every Berklee student is required to take a music history class called Music of the African Diaspora in the United States, and even Berklee's mission statement says that its curriculum is "founded on jazz and popular music rooted in the African cultural diaspora..." not everyone grows up immersed in the historical elements of this music and culture. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but you may think of this as a five-minute crash course in African-American music. After this, hopefully there's a desire to take initiative and listen to more of this rich history of American music.
Lift Every Voice And Sing
Affectionately known as the Black National Anthem, and written by J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson, "Lift Every Voice And Sing" is one of the most important songs in the African-American tradition. If you know the Star Spangled Banner, you should know this song, and that's not even hyperbole.
Happy Birthday (the Stevie Wonder version)
Stevie Wonder wrote this song in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday becoming a national holiday. This was a long and hard fought victory, as the opponents of this being signed into law were prominent. If you really want to see a cool performance, check out tons of celebrities being conducted by Quincy Jones at the inaugural performance of the song.
A Change Is Gonna Come | Sam Cooke
Used in countless films and television shows (most notably in Spike Lee's Malcolm X biopic), this song was a defining moment in Sam Cooke's career, as he was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Listening to the words of this song, and how relevant they are today makes this required listening.
Be Real Black For Me | Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
Black History Month is not just about all of the struggles African-Americans have faced, it's also about celebrating black love! Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway wrote and sung several duets, and this is one of my favorites. Every musician should dig into their catalog, individually and as a duo.
SCREAM | Michael Jackson & Janet Jackson
Michael Jackson is known for his pop tunes and for unifying anthems like "Earth Song" and "Man in the Mirror," but he also made songs with strong political messages against bigotry, and one of his best was this duet with his sister, Janet. While most look at "They Don't Care About Us" as his most political song, I think that this one is less overt, but more hard hitting and powerful.
Young, Gifted, and Black | Nina Simone
Later popularized further by Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone wrote and performed the original version of this song, an empowering anthem for young, black children everywhere. Ms. Simone, another critical musician during the Civil Rights movement gave this important interview about black beauty, and though she herself struggled with self worth, created lasting art that empowers us all.
Keep on Pushing | The Impressions
Curtis Mayfield, writing and producing machine behind The Impressions (and his own incredible solo career), wrote many empowering songs, this being among the more popular of them, even it its simplicity. Other fantastic songs to check out by Mayfield include "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue," and "If There's Hell Below."
Home Is Where The Hatred Is | Gil Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron was one of the most important musicians making music that was social commentary in the 1970s (and also just sounded incredible). He is most known for "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," but also found acclaim with songs like "We Almost Lost Detroit." His catalog of work is definitely underrated among the masses, and should be studied by musicians who care about learning from the African-American tradition.
Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child | Odetta
She is often referred to as "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement." A crucial figure in the musical tradition of African-Americans, the contributions of Odetta are often overlooked, but are weaved within the lineage of the some of the most popular music today. Beyoncè's "Formation" could not have existed without the beauty and brilliance of Odetta. Learn more about her here.
Again, while this is by no means a fully exhaustive list of songs every musician should know for Black History Month, it does highlight some incredibly important work by profoundly gifted musicians. I hope you'll celebrate their work every day, and not just this month.