These black female singers wanted to sing one thing loud and clear: Black Lives Matter. With every song that inspired from the 1930s to the civil rights movement in the 1960s to Black Lives Matter activists today, many black female artists have been able to assert their belonging to a community – showing that music and the cause/results of racism in the United States are deeply linked. With that being said, let’s listen to these special voices encouraging everyone to emancipate themselves and to free themselves from any form of domination.
Black Female Singers Who Celebrate Black Power
Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, Commodore Records 1939
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”
The song is first and foremost the story of a poem, Bitter Fruit, written in 1937 by the young Abel Meeropol, after seeing the unbearable photo of the lynching of two black teenagers from Indiana. These strange fruits are the corpses that hang from the trees in the South. In 1939, Billie Holiday, one of the most famous jazz singers of the time, performed for the first time on stage in New York, at the Café Society. That evening, in the twilight, the racial struggle finds its voice: strong, painful, sublime. Strange Fruit, by its political and symbolic dimension, shocks well-meaning America, which accuses the singer of communist propaganda and boycotts her on the airwaves. Singing of poplar trees which were about cotton picking, Billie Holiday had just sung the first hymn of the American Civil Rights Movement, an eternal symbol of the fight against racism and oppression. Very few black female singers in the world will give you goosebumps as soon as she starts singing these lyrics!
I Never Loved A Man, Aretha Franklin, Atlantic 1967
Find out what it means to me
Take care, TCB
In 1965, when Otis Redding wrote Respect, he called for respect from women, especially at home. In 1967, when Aretha Franklin took up the song, she instead made a plea for women. By reversing the roles, it addresses all minorities, oppressed or invisible. His Respect is universal. At the end of the 1960s, it naturally became the symbol of the pride of the black community and earned Aretha Franklin her title of Queen of Soul.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Nina Simone, RCA Victor 1970
In the whole world you know
There are billion boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black,
And that’s a fact!
At the end of the 1960s, soul opened up a new path: the exaltation of black pride, displayed and committed. Nina Simone will make Black Gold, her manifesto record. Already, in 1964, she spoke of her rage and indignation with Mississippi Goddam, written in reaction to the assassination of militant Medgar Evers and the death of four black girls in an attack by the Ku Klux Klan. From there, her songs will be inseparable from her fight for the black cause, which she defends body and soul. In 1969, she took over the luminous To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which encouraged black-American youth to believe in themselves and to move forward. Let it be said: with Nina Simone, Black is beautiful!
Anti Love Song, Betty Davis, Just Sunshine 1973
Cause I know you could possess my body
I know you could make me scrawl
I know could have me shaking
I know you could have me climbing walls
That’s why I don’t wanna love you
One of the most fiercely independent, sexually liberated, Betty Davis embodies par excellence the woman proud of her skin color and her origins. And she sings it with rage! With it, all excesses are allowed. On stage as in her records, the ephemeral wife of Miles Davis invents an unbridled, extroverted, and feminist funk. Evidenced by her Anti Love Song, the explicit sense of provocation, however, earned it regular booing, censorship or boycott. No doubt that she was one amongst some black female singers who was too far ahead of her time!
Talkin ‘Bout a Revolution, Tracy Chapman, Elektra Records 1988
Poor people gonna rise up
And get their share
Poor people gonna rise up
And take what’s theirs
In the 1980s, the observation was bitter: the equality of rights between whites and blacks was only glaringly apparent. The ghettoized America is plagued by violence and poverty. Born in the suburbs of Cleveland, the young Tracy Chapman writes Talkin ‘Bout a Revolution to denounce the prejudices that weigh on blacks and the poorest classes. She urges them to change the world by making their voices heard, against institutionalized racism and capitalism. A few years later, in 1992, the race riots that engulf Los Angeles will resonate with its protesting and engaged folk.
Everything Is Everything, Lauryn Hill, Ruffhouse 1998
I wrote these words for everyone
Who struggles in their youth
Who won’t accept deception
Instead of what is truth
It seems we lose the game,
Before we even start to play
Lauryn Hill is part of a hip hop group that did not choose their name at random – The Fugees, in reference to refugees, those immigrants who fled the poverty of their country of origin. The 1990s were the decade of angry, disillusioned, but optimistic youth. At least this is the message that Lauryn Hill chooses to deliver, by claiming a different identity.
Far from the divas of the time, she emancipated herself with an intimate and mixed first solo album, which awakened the best of rap and Motown. Like her song Everything is Everything, she defends an active, peaceful, and militant humanism. Almost fifteen later, in 2014, she released the track Black rage in support of the people of Ferguson, which has been in the throes of violent riots since the death of the young black named Michael Brown. This was proof that one amongst many prolific black female singers Queen Lauryn is not giving up.
AD 2000, Erykah Badu, Motown 2000
No you won’t be name’n no buildings after me
To go down dilapidated ooh
No you won’t be name’n no buildings after me
My name will be mistated, surely
This world done changed, so much yeah yeah
This world done changed, since I been conscious
Erykah Badu immediately shows that music and activism are intimately linked by defining herself as a singer and activist. Often compared to Billie Holiday for her grain of voice, she affirms her Afro-centric approach in her lyrics as in her outfits. On her second album, she dedicated the song AD 2000 to the young Guinean Amadou Diallo, unfairly shot by four New York police officers. As often, the police are acquitted. His song will be a standard, with the victim’s initials, against any form of police violence.
Sacrifice, VV Brown, YOY 2015
Put it on the table
Change your your nigger roots
You know that you were able
And you’re gonna sacrifice
Since 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has given a new voice to the black community. Many African-American artists thus claim their commitment to music, by asserting their identity and denouncing the prevailing racism. Despite being British, VV Brown is one of the most supportive singers in the movement. With its shocking clip, the track Sacrifice FROM 2016 denounces white supremacy, supported by the sampled speeches of Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. So many voices that hammer home the urgency to speak again.
Here, Alicia Keys, RCA 2016
In the morning from the minute that I wake up
What if I don’t want to put on all that makeup?
Who says I must conceal what I’m made of?
Maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self-esteem
Whose job is it to straighten out my curves?
I’m so tired of that image, that’s my word
In 2017, Alicia Keys unveiled a new face on YouTube, sober, without makeup or artifice. No more foundation or airbrushed smoothing and extensions, the singer proudly assumes her afro cut and her mixed origins. In the tradition of the Black is Beautiful movement of the 1960s, the fashion is nappy hair (contraction of the terms natural and happy). This is what she advocates in Girl can’t be herself. By reviving the reggae and soul tradition, Alicia Keys defends a multicultural America, where everyone has the freedom to be themselves. And sings her most committed album to date.
Lemonade, Beyoncé, Parkwood / Columbia 2016
My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana
You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma
I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros
I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils
Earned all his money but they never take the country out me
I got hot sauce in my bag, swag
Haters will say that Beyoncé found out she was black in 2016. Let’s say instead that she has expressed a political conscience that has so far remained relatively low-key. And when Queen B. displays her convictions, the least we can say is that she does not take half measures! First, there is the video for Formation, which unequivocally condemns the police violence suffered by the black community, then there is Lemonade, her manifest album which loudly celebrates African-American culture, finally, there is its frenzied Super Bowl choreography, which openly claims Black Panthers heritage.
No doubt: the Black Lives Matter activist movement has always had black female singers voices in its ranks, admittedly a bit flashy, but famous enough to be widely heard.