After Cooke and his entourage were arrested for trying to stay at a whites-only motel in Louisiana in 1963, the soul singer channeled his frustrations and hopes into what would become a foundational anthem of the civil rights movement. Cooke performed the song only once in his lifetime: He was fatally shot just before its release. (He also reportedly told protegé Bobby Womack, who said the song sounded “like death,” that he didn’t want to sing it in public again because of its heavy subject matter.) Yet its power hasn’t diminished: The U.S. Library of Congress added it to its National Recording Registry in 2007, and Barack Obama quoted the song’s lyrics the night he was elected president in 2008.
Nina Simone — “Mississippi Goddam” (1964)
Written in response to 1963 events such as the assassination of activist Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., “Mississippi Goddam” marked Simone’s shift toward more politically outspoken music. What sounds at first like an upbeat show tune soon transforms into a dirge for Black Americans who’ve been brutally killed across the South. With her “do it slow” refrain, Simone also takes aim at white moderates who called for the civil rights movement to be more incremental. Radio stations across the South banned the song, and Simone later said the backlash curtailed her career. But in speaking her mind despite the risks, Simone made it easier for other artists to do the same in decades to come.
Marvin Gaye — “What’s Going On” (1971)
A bold departure from the Motown sound that made Gaye famous, the smooth stylings of “What’s Going On” don’t mask the hurt that inspired it. After watching police violently attack anti-Vietnam War protesters in Berkeley, Calif., in 1969, Renaldo “Obie” Benson (of R&B group the Four Tops) relayed his horror to co-writer Al Cleveland, who came up with an early version of the song. Benson later presented it to Gaye, who drew from his conversations with his brother Frankie, who fought in the war. The end result reached No. 2 on the Hot 100 thanks to its healing words: “For only love can conquer hate.”
N.W.A — “Fuck Tha Police” (1988)
N.W.A pushed West Coast hip-hop to the forefront of protest music with “Fuck tha Police,” whose lyrics take the form of a trial, with “Judge [Dr.] Dre presiding” and “prosecuting attorneys” MC Ren, Ice Cube and Eazy-E testifying against the LAPD. The song prompted the FBI to complain to the group’s label about “discouraging and degrading” lyrics, but the track’s raw message gave voice to the feelings of many Black Americans — and it has reverberated throughout pop culture ever since.
Public Enemy — “Fight the Power” (1989)
When Rosie Perez danced to this song at the start of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, she didn’t just help create one of the most iconic opening credits scenes in film history — she also captured what made this track so effective: its ability to get listeners up on their feet, with a beat as urgent as the lyrics about standing up to injustice. The song’s official music video, also directed by Lee, took a more literal interpretation of its message, following the group as it performed at a rally in Brooklyn alongside images of Malcolm X and other “heroes [who] don’t appear on no stamps,” as frontman Chuck D raps.
Kendrick Lamar — “Alright” (2015)
When the Compton, Calif., rapper performed this song at the 2015 BET Awards atop a graffiti-covered police car, Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera claimed that “hip-hop has done more damage to African Americans than racism.” But that year, as Black Lives Matter protests unfolded in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore police custody, this soulful standout from Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was the soundtrack: a message of resilience that echoed through the streets. Fans dubbed it “the new Black national anthem” on social media, and the song, which later won two Grammy Awards, continues to be played at protests today.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2020, issue of Billboard.