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153 Years After the Emancipation Proclamation, the Music Continues

In 1926, the 2nd week of February was announced to be “Negro History Week”, coinciding the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (responsible for Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) and Frederick Douglass (African American social reformer). Today, the whole month of February is observed as “Black History Month”. The particular history of African-American people is rich with music that has evolved with each chapter of their defeats and glories. The story continues today, as music sustains its utility to help them with their pursuit.

Let’s take a look at some of the songs that reflect their fight for freedom and equality.

Wade in the Water


“During the 19th Century, thousands of slaves escaped to freedom through a secret network known as the Underground Railroad. It is believed that, along the way, spiritual songs were used as secret coded messages to escaping slaves. ‘Wade in the Water’ warned them to flee dry land for the water so that the dogs and owners chasing them couldn’t track their scent.”

Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin


By no means did freedom from slavery also mean freedom from oppression. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans continued to struggle, as they suffered being subjects of humiliation in minstrel shows. Derogatory at its roots, minstrel shows depicted people with dark skin as not having a lot of wit. Eventually though, one can ask who outwitted who? Later on, the people who were made fun of persevered and used music to their advantage, particularly the European instrument called the piano, and played on to eventually create a distinct style with notable syncopation and innovation. The style came to be known as ragtime. The song above was composed by Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime”, who, some may say, managed to outwit the oppressors of the time with the song’s great success.

Strange Fruit written by Abel Meeropol, performed by Billie Holiday


Originally entitled Bitter Fruit, the poem, filled with haunting images of blood and “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze", was written by a teacher who protested against lynching. Strange Fruit was put into song and later on performed by Billie Holiday in 1939.

Highway 61, acappella by Willie Foster


“The blues sank its earliest and deepest roots in fields worked by sharecroppers. Willie Foster, still performing at 77, is one of a dwindling number of bluesmen with the memory of laboring to a song. “A man be way down in the field plowing with a mule, singing, ‘Oh, my baby gone. I’ll soon be gone myself.’ That was because he couldn’t move off the plantation when he gets ready. He would ask the man, ‘Can I move?’ And if he say, ‘Naw you can’t move,’ he’d run off and he would sing, ‘I’m gonna leave you, baby, and I won’t be back no more.’ It wasn’t his wife he was singing about.”       -Traveling the Blues Highway, National Geographic

Black, Brown and Beige by Duke Ellington


“The premiere of Black, Brown and Beige represented the highest profile example of Ellington's lifelong efforts to advance the politics of race through music, lifestyle, and image, but rarely words. No black American had ever been so widely hailed around the world as a major serious artistic figure without the stereotypes usually affixed to black entertainers.” - American Quarterly

A Change is Gonna Come


A Change Is Gonna Come" was almost instantaneously adopted as an anthem by the Civil Rights Movement upon its release. According to Mark Naison, professor at Fordham University, this song "bridged the multiple and diverse feelings about America in the black community - the portion that wants to forget about all the pain and suffering, the portion which honors the pain and suffering, and the portion which is determined to stick together to overcome this in the face of obstacles.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron


"All of those poems do not just represent me. They represent the people I know and the people I see. You have to separate the problems that effect the whole community from the problems that effect just the individual person. A good poet feels what his community feels. He feels what the organism that he's a part of feels. And one of the problems that our community was facing as a whole was the fact that we were being discriminated against and there was something that needed to be done."       -Gil Scott-Heron

While there are plenty of more songs to explore here, especially in the hip hop genre alone, songs about hope, or the seemingly never-ending struggle to be ‘free at last’, we will stop here; otherwise we could go on forever. And you might be thinking, with all the racial tension still hot on American pavements, is there even still hope? Will this struggle ever be over? We leave you with a quote from rapper Talib Kweli’s essay, From Ferguson to Freedom: Hip-Hop’s Role

In this climate, much like musicians and artists during the civil rights and Black Power movements, hip-hop artists are in a unique position to help shape a new culture. Will they challenge the inner workings of the music industry? Will they change the content of their music? In this environment more than ever before, they have a chance to impact an entire generation.