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  • Desmond Jordan

Singing Their Way to Freedom: A History of African American Freedom Songs and Protest Music



After the tragic death of George Floyd in the midst of spring 2020, African American rap artist Lil Baby released his song “The Bigger Picture” as both a response to the injustices in America and as a message of solidarity with the, at the time, infuriated African American community. In less than a month, the song accumulated a total of 65.4 million total streams, blazing its way to the top of the charts. The song contains powerful and inspiring lyrics speaking out against contemporary racial inequalities, police brutality, and the struggles of his environment and people. The message of the African American struggle conveyed through music is one with a long and rich history. Lil Baby’s hit song is one piece in a large genre of music known as protest music or freedom songs.


Negro Spirituals


Originating from a translation of a Bible verse Ephesians 5:19, these Negro Spirituals played a critical role in the lives of many Southern Slaves. These songs, sometimes inspired by Christian hymns or created solely by enslaved African Americans, encompassed the powerful and robust emotions of slaves. Described as having the “language of dissent,” they told the stories of the tribulations faced by slaves along with their determination, perseverance, sorrow, and longing for spiritual and physical freedom.


These spirituals were known as some of the first protest songs, allowing slaves to envision their passages to freedom and sometimes called “codified protest songs” as many were seen as incitements to escape slavery and would include coded messages within them. Escape routes like the Underground Railroad used railroad terminology, so songs like “I got my ticket” were thought to be ways to discreetly communicate passage into the Railroad. Furthermore, it is for sure known that songs like “Go Down, Moses” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” were used as ways to communicate passages for slaves to escape.


These spirituals were an integral part of early African American culture and showcased the creativity and ingenuity of southern slaves. Former slaves would later go on to form groups such as the Jubilee Singers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The performance of these would go on to inspire prominent civil rights activists and be used in many future fights during the Civil Rights movement in America.


Freedom Songs

As African Americans transitioned from slavery to citizenry, the fight for civil rights continued to grow. As they marched down the streets of Jim Crow Era states, experiencing physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” “Eyes on the Prize,” and “Tree of Life” could be heard being sung by activists. These “freedom songs” were a vital part of the Civil Rights Movement. These songs helped to inspire, unify, and give voice to the Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, like the hymns sung by their ancestors, these songs conveyed the plight faced by African Americans as they fought for the right to be treated equally. Songs such as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” described the grotesque treatment that African Americans faced during these times.


These songs also helped to interconnect the African American community, even those who did not participate in the rallies, protests, and other active forms of rebellion against the state were able to sing these tunes in places like church and their own homes, allowing them to feel a part of the movement.


Contemporary Protest Music


Since the late 20th century and early 21st, hip-hop and rap artists have not been shy in speaking out against injustices they experienced. Now faced with systemic racism, police brutality, and discrimination, many contemporary rap artists have begun to integrate forms of protest into their music, continuing the trend of those before them. Songs like NWA’s “F*** Tha Police” painted the image of the community’s rough relationship with the police. This trend continues as more artists begin to speak out against injustices faced by oppressive governmental systems. From Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” to newer artists like DaBaby and his remix of his hit song “Rockstar”, artists continue to include messages focusing on the struggles of African Americans in their music.


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