To celebrate Black History Month, we collaborated with Andre Benito Mountain—elementary principal, author, and founder of Def-Education Consulting LLC— to curate some Black History in words and sounds. 28 songs for 28 days of celebration!
What songs are you listening to this month? Did your favorites make our list?
Day 1: “Young Gifted and Black” by Big Daddy Kane
With a title inspired by a Nina Simone classic, this song opens with a fiery intro from Minister Louis Farrakhan who says, “We call an individual into existence, and when that individual comes, I make no apology for what I’m about to say!” That is essentially the work of educators. In his lyrics, Big Daddy Kane challenges rappers with a “handful of literature” and reminds older artists that Hip-Hop reintroduces their music to a new generation. This song also exemplifies the connection between Hip-Hop and Blues, as it is built upon a sample from Albert King’s “I’ll Play the Blues for You.”
Day 2: “You Must Learn” by Boogie Down Productions
KRS ONE offers a brilliant critique of the school system in this track where he questions the cultural relevance of the curriculum years before it became the focus of critical pedagogy. “When one doesn’t know about the other one’s culture, ignorance swoops down like a vulture.” KRS ONE and Boogie Down Productions master the craft of edutainment in this track, making it an essential one on the journey to revise and reconstruct how we educate urban youth.
Day 3: “I Owe You Nothing” by Seinabo Sey
Seinabo Sey—born in Sweden, with roots in Gambia and Senegal—asserts that she owes nothing to those who expect her to “dance” for them. This track captures the feel of reclaiming your power. It is a bold representation of the struggle of people in the African Diaspora and the shared struggle of casting off the chains of imperialism. To “be myself” without “frontin’” is the most authentic form of freedom one can attain.
Day 4: “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” by McFadden and Whitehead
This track from 1979 captures the hopefulness and resolve that has driven African Americans to push through obstacles and continue to make progress despite structural and institutional oppression. They remind us “we can’t let nothing hold us back” as we “polish up our act.”
Day 5: “Message to the Messengers” by Gil Scott-Heron
As one of the forefathers of what would become Hip-Hop, Gil Scott-Heron used spoken word poetry, jazz and blues to capture the essence of the Black American experience. In this track, recorded later in his career, he speaks directly to the new era of poets: rappers. His message is to have greater accountability regarding the power of your message.
Day 6: “Four Women” by Nina Simone
Nina Simone was one of the most socially conscious artists of modern times. She was bold and very vocal about the inconsistencies and inequities of American life for African-Americans. She challenged other artists to use their platforms to speak out against injustice. This song is a figurative walk through the lives of four African American women—all unique, all shaped by life in America in different time periods and by different experiences.
Day 7: “Young Black Intelligent” by Masta Ace
We all possess personal stories about overcoming the doubts and chastisements of our peers to walk into our own greatness. Masta Ace, one of Hip-Hop’s legends, masterfully captures his experiences as a young man coming of age in Brownsville, Brooklyn— navigating the obstacles of his neighborhood and the challenges of staying focused. He rises to the occasion and embraces the high expectations thrust upon him by his family. This song ends with a powerful oration from Public Enemy’s Chuck D with a call to action for young people to strive for greatness in their own way.
Day 8: “A Song for Assata” by Common
Much of the U.S. curriculum makes a cursory reference to the activism of the Black Panthers. Here, Common uses this song to teach a full lesson on the life of Black Panther Assata Shakur, exemplifying the pedagogical potential of the art form. Opening with a powerful invocation, “In the spirit of God, in the spirit of ancestors, in the spirit of the Black Panthers, in the spirit of Assata Shakur…” His storytelling is vivid and purposeful. The song features Goodie Mob’s CeeLo Green, providing a gospel-infused backdrop that, along with the organ, gives this song a gospel-grounded feel.
Day 9: “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy
From the deep symbolism of their logo that depicts a man in the crosshairs of a gun to the piercing impact of their lyrics, Public Enemy has never been unclear about its purpose as a group. This anthem is no less pointed. It opens with a charge that our “best trained … troops refuse to fight,” challenging those listening to become active in the struggle against oppression. Laced with phrases like “swing while I’m singing,” P.E. reminds us that there is no progress without struggle. “Fight The Power” channels not only the frustration of a generation at odds with the power structure, but also a mindset that is fully aware that “most of [their] heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”
Day 10: “Don’t Touch My Hair” by Solange
This ode to the Black woman’s ‘crown’ by Solange is a fair warning about the depth of the relationship between hair, self-love, and one’s very soul. Embracing natural hair speaks to a reclaiming of our own standard of beauty that is not measured against Eurocentric standards of what is acceptable and professional. The song is Solange’s response to a common microaggression experienced by many Black women—setting the necessary boundaries on how others interact with her. The song evokes a deep sense of self-determination, pride, and solidarity and honors the legacy of the Black aesthetic.
Day 11: “B.I.B.L.E.” by Killah Priest
Killah Priest’s “B.I.B.L.E.” is his critical analysis of religious doctrine and ritual in the absence of critical thought. He questions his upbringing and demands answers that align with what he has learned through reading and study. It is similar to the journey of Siddhartha, as he looks back at his life and what he’s been taught as he seeks a higher level of enlightenment. Black History Month is a time for us to be reflective and to engage in self-education that is necessary to unpack the historical truths about our legacy.
Day 12: “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday
Adapted from a poem written by Abel Meeropol, this song describes the lynchings of African Americans in the American South. In the face of pressure to steer clear of this topic, Billie Holiday courageously sang this song in an effort to bring awareness to this brutal practice. The song is considered one of the first protest songs, ultimately banned by several radio stations. This act only helped to fuel the song’s popularity.
Day 13: “Rise Up” by Andra Day
Honoring Black History means not only focusing on the achievements and successes that have occurred, but also acknowledging the resilience of Black people in a society that has historically restricted their freedom. Written during a difficult time in her own life, “Rise Up” is Andra Day speaking life into herself, saying the words she needed to hear to get through a difficult experience. The song was adopted as the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter Movement and speaks to a new era of resistance, resilience, and revolution.
Day 14: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron was one of the forefathers of Hip-Hop culture, using his spoken word poetry to challenge us to become active in transforming our reality. In this song, he forces us to grapple with our own complicity in bringing about change as he opens with the phrase “You will not be able to stay home brother.” Revolution will not be a passive experience that we watch from our couch, but rather an active experience that will happen as a result of a series of deliberate and strategic economic and political decisions we make in solidarity.
Day 15: “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing” by James Brown
James Brown’s music stands the test of time. His sound was bold and his lyrics spoke to the Black American experience. He understood the power of his music and wrote many songs during the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement that became anthems for social change and empowerment. This song promotes equality and self-reliance. Brown challenges those who are successful to give back saying, “When some of us make money, we forget about our people…” With opportunity comes the responsibility to give back.
Day 16: “Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley
Bob Marley teaches an American history lesson on this track, describing the experience of Africans brought to the Americas against their will, “fighting for survival.” The song’s title comes from the name Native Americans gave to the African Americans because of the texture of their hair that reminded them of the pelts of buffalo, the color of their skin, and their strength.
Day 17: “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” by Fela Kuti
The late Nigerian artist and activist Fela Kuti used his music as a weapon against political corruption and imperialism. This song speaks to the ongoing struggle to empower youth by reforming what is taught. Sadly, many texts and standards continue to emphasize the ‘discovery’ of indigenous peoples by European explorers. As we become more courageous in our teaching, we can eliminate the nonsense that continues to drift into classrooms regarding history.
Day 18: “Mama Africa” by Akon
Akon celebrates the motherland in this song about reconnecting with the continent. He reminds listeners that the continent has so much love to give to those whose origins trace back to its shores. He uses each letter of the word Africa to remind us of the richness of our homeland. Black History Month, like Kwanza, must be a time when we reconnect with our culture, increase our understanding of who we are as a people, and deepen our understanding of the place from which many of our traditions originated.
Day 19: “Baltimore” by Nina Simone
This song was originally written and sung by Randy Newman and later recorded by Nina Simone while she was living in Paris. Nina Simone paints a picture of the decline in the quality of inner-city life. Tragically, many of our cities are still in the state described in this song. Never one to shy away from truths about the plight of Blacks in America, even during her time in Europe, Nina’s melancholy delivery both is pensive and stirring.
Day 20: “Little Ghetto Boy” by Donny Hathaway
Donny Hathaway asks “whatcha gonna do when you grow up and have to face responsibility?” He presents the choices facing young men in a blunt and powerful way. This song, released in 1972, is about rising above one’s circumstances. The fact that much of the song could easily still apply to life in America’s cities is troubling and makes this a timeless depiction of an experience many African Americans can relate to well.
Day 21: “Am I Black Enough For You?” By Billy Paul
Released as the follow-up single to his crossover hit “Me and Mrs. Jones,” this track urges Black America to get up and get busy to change their condition. Years later, a documentary film would chronicle the story of the song and the man behind it. Billy Paul uses the song to promote solidarity, activism, and education as a way of improving the condition of Black people in America.
Day 22: “Makeda” by Les Nubians
This track by French-born duo Les Nubians is a virtual history lesson. Makeda was the Queen of Sheba. They sing, “Je chante pour raviver les memoires, Exhumer les connaissances,” roughly translated to “I sing to revive memories, exhuming knowledge.” They repeat the refrain “Makeda vit en moi,” which means “Makeda lives in me.” Reclaiming our history, our regal origins, and learning our history are central themes of Black History Month. Les Nubians also represent the sound of the Diaspora and the global impact of people of African descent.
Day 23: “Zimbabwe” by Bob Marley & the Wailers
Bob Marley was a revolutionary pan-Africanist. This song was released in 1979 as the people of Zimbabwe fought to free themselves from British colonial rule. One year later, Bob Marley would perform at the nation’s first Independence Day Concert.
Day 24: “UMI Says” by Mos Def
Yasin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, unveils his humanity in this track. Umi is Arabic for ‘mother’ or ‘foundation.’ The refrain, “I want Black people to be free” speaks to a collective struggle that he exemplifies through his art and his activism. The song shows the complexity and range of one of Hip-Hop’s most talented and multi-faceted artists.
Day 25: “Freedom” by Pharrell Williams
Opening with pulsating piano chords and a rhythmic chant, Pharrell Williams’ “Freedom” is an anthem in celebration of a global pursuit. Black History Month is a celebration of the pursuit of Freedom, and this track reminds us of just that.
Day 26: “Wade the Water to My Knees” by The McIntosh County Shouters
In the spirit of the traditional work songs and chants of the Georgia coast, the McIntosh County Shouters perform this song without instruments, just as it would have been sung in the fields of the American South. The call and response found here is rooted in African music and is the source of the same element we see in more contemporary music, especially Hip-Hop.
Day 27: “Okra” by Olu Dara
Olu Dara, father of Nas, is a multi-talented artist in his own right. His music is infused with elements of jazz, blues, and zydeco. This song captures the arrival of the ‘corn man’ singing about the many vegetables he has for sale. Olu Dara’s Okra reminds us of how collective economics has always been part of empowerment and liberation. The song also highlights the indelible connection of African people to the land.
Day 28: “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone
Nina Simone vents her frustration with the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in this song that was banned in many areas due to its title. The song is a quintessential protest song, indicting America for its brutality and inequality in a scathing way. Nina Simone’s activism as an artist was bold and uncompromising.
Get the entire #MyBlackHistory in Words & Sounds playlist and join our celebration!