In the liner notes to John Coltrane's 1964 album Live At Birdland, Amiri Baraka (then writing as Le Roi Jones) contemplated the gift the saxophonist and his band offered with this music inspired by the horrific deaths of four Black girls in a Birmingham church bombing inspired by white supremacist hatred. "Listen," Baraka wrote. "What we're given is a slow delicate introspective sadness, almost hopelessness, except for Elvin [Jones], rising in the background like something out of nature... a fattening thunder, storm clouds or jungle war clouds. The whole is a frightening emotional portrait of some place, in these musicians' feelings." Baraka is describing the transformation in art of unfathomable pain, the human response to violence, into grace. Not transcendence or reconciliation – but grace, the honor of one presence, the ability to face injustice and remain whole and gain the energy to respond. That's what Coltrane created in his landmark piece, which you'll find in the middle of the list below, as part of a history that parallels American culture's development: the story of Black American music and its response to oppression, and particularly, state-sanctioned violence.
In recent weeks, musicians have responded to the crowning of the Black Lives Matter movement as a central force motivating social change by writing new anthems, a remarkable new chapter in protest music. Listeners have connected creative leaps like Lil Baby's "The Bigger Picture" and Terrace Martin's "Pig Feet" to the hip-hop classics that challenged police violence in the 1990s and beyond, and to singular historical works like Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit." The truth, though, is that the witnessing, coded or open warnings and encouragement and political dissent communicated through today's urgent soundtrack characterize the whole of Black American music. From the oldest shout songs that surfaced on the Georgia coast to the spirituals that were revered after Emancipation, shared choruses documented brutality and exhorted people to resist. Jazz and blues songs that, to white listeners, seemed like good fun for dancing were news reports to those who knew how to listen. The civil rights movement codified hymns of resistance, but the soul and funk that poured from radios paid mind to police harassment and other threats too, sometimes more pointedly. There was never a moment, in fact, when Black musicians put aside their commitment to telling the truth of how Black people have been wronged, and survived, and fought back.
The 50 songs discussed in this list often describe specific acts of police violence but they are not limited to that subject. Together they construct a kind of timeline of an ongoing movement within American music, stretching back more than a century. It is meant to be revelatory but not complete. The songs here take on some of the ugliest stories with which America — and, since it goes international, the world — has to reckon. They mourn the dead and fight for the living. Some are easy to identify as protest songs; others feel like a party. Many address police violence directly decades before that subject became a lodestone in hip hop. Some of these songs have been misinterpreted even when their messages are perfectly clear. All contribute to the history of Black people showing what America's official histories would hide in plain sight: the destructiveness of white supremacy and the uprisings against it that are not only organized and political, but personal. Like music itself, this spirit of resistance takes many shapes, but has never been silenced. As Baraka said of Coltrane, all you have to do is really listen.