20 Songs That Confront Racial Injustice In The U.S. You Should Listen To Now
They say art imitates life, and it couldn't be more true when it comes to the music industry. Now, more than ever, artists are penning songs that reflect the social issues affecting Americans. Rappers, pop stars, and ballad singers alike are churning out tracks that share a powerful message. And if you want to show support for the artists using their platform to speak out, take a listen to these 20 songs that confront racial injustice in the U.S.
It's always nice to see artists making music with a meaning, but these artists capitalized on their celebrity and influence to send a message and call for change. When stars stop playing it safe, and drop bold songs that call for an end to racism in America, more people stop and listen up.
Many of these songs are emotional, and a number focus on the senseless deaths of young Black men or women who were killed unjustly by white men and never got the justice they deserved, like George Floyd, Mike Brown, and Trayvon Martin. Most importantly, they all move the conversation forward when it comes to America's problem with racial inequality.
1. Childish Gambino - "This Is America"
There are various interpretations of Glover's 2018 track (and the song's accompanying music video), but what is widely agreed upon is that it's commentary on being Black in America. The songs alternates between a seemingly cheerful vibe to more aggressive, bass-driven beats throughout, which some believe symbolizes the cyclical shifts in America's mood when Black men are killed — a few weeks of uproar, only for things to go back to business as usual, with no significant changes being made.
Key lyric: This is America/Don't catch you slippin' now/Look at how I'm livin' now/Police be trippin' now
2. Kendrick Lamar - "Alright"
“Alright” appeared on Lamar's third studio album To Pimp A Butterfly, and earned him two Grammy Awards. While the song's overall message is one about facing one's challenges, failures, and disappointments in life and holding onto hope that things will be alright, the song addresses Lamar's personal experiences and challenges as a Black man, like police brutality and racism, head-on.
Key lyric: "And we hate po-po / wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, n***a/I'm at the preacher's door/My knees gettin' weak and my gun might blow/But we gon' be alright."
3. Ty Dolla $ign - "No Justice"
Ty Dolla $ign's impactful 2016 track featured his incarcerated little brother Big T.C. and served as a tribute to lives lost by police brutality. The lyrics draw attention to specific issues Black people face when interacting with the police, like DWB (Driving While Black - when police pull Black people over for no reason other than "looking suspicious," aka, racial bias), and police not being held accountable for use of excessive force which contributes to the countless senseless killing of Black people.
Key lyric: "We all created equal but ain't nothing about us equal/You know that (You know that)/There can never be no justice when killing us is legal/Somebody's gotta take a stand"
4. John Legend & Common - "Glory"
Legend and Common teamed up to produce "Glory" for the historical drama film Selma, which follows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery to protest segregation and fight for the right to vote. The song's overall message is about the glory people of color will feel when the war against racism is won and all people are treated as equals, like MLK dreamed about.
Key lyric: Hands to the Heavens, no man, no weapon / Formed against, yes glory is destined
5. Alicia Keys - "We Gotta Pray"
Keys released "We Gotta Pray" in December 2014 in response to the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City.
Key lyric: We gotta pray, pray for the world tonight/We gotta save, somebody save somebody tonight
6. YG - "FDT"
YG held nothing back on 2016's "FDT." The title stands for "F*ck Donald Trump," as the title suggests, he makes his opinions about Donald Trump's presidency impeccably clear in the lyrics. The song also featured the late Nipsey Hussle.
Key lyric: "This man's not peaceful, racism's evil/This man hates Muslims, that's a billion f**kin' people"
7. J. Cole - "Middle Child"
J. Cole's 2019 track "Middle Child" is about feeling like the "middle child" of hip hop, but also addresses issues affecting the Black community like mass incarceration.
Key lyric: "Too many n***as in cycle of jail/Spending they birthdays inside of a cell/We coming from a long bloodline of trauma"
8. Black Eyed Peas - "Where Is The Love?"
The Black Eyed Peas anthem "Where Is The Love?" came out in 2003, and not only addressed ongoing racism in America, but other issues like like terrorism and war.
Key lyric: "If you only got love for your own race/Then you're gonna leave space for others to discriminate"
9. Beyonce & Kendrick Lamar - "Freedom"
"Freedom" was featured on Beyonce's Lemonade album, and serves as an anthem to Black women. Likening them to forces of nature, the song is a rally cry about the liberation of Black women, who have long watched their Black sons and daughters senselessly killed and saw little to no justice served. The "Freedom" music video featured the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner holding photos of their sons.
Key lyric: Freedom! Freedom! I can't move / Freedom, cut me loose! / Freedom! Freedom! Where are you? / 'Cause I need freedom, too! / I break chains all by myself / Won't let my freedom rot in hell / Hey! I'ma keep running / Cause a winner don't quit on themselves
10. DJ Khaled, Rick Ross, & More - "Don't Shoot"
A slew of hip hop heavy-hitters banded together to release "Don't Shoot" in 2014 in response to Michael Brown's killing by Ferguson police. The song featured 13 artists in total.
Key lyric: "As we keep our hands up high and scream for justice/Ferguson, rest in peace Mike Brown/And all the young soldiers out there"
11. Janelle Monae - "Hell You Talmbout"
In August 2015, Monae released "Hell You Talmbout" in honor of victims of police brutality and racially motivated shootings, enlisting a number of musicians to be featured on the track including Jidenna and St. Beauty.
Throughout the song, the artists call out victims by name, like Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray.
Key lyric: "Say his name"
12. Jay-Z - "Spiritual"
It had been three years since Jay-Z released new music when he dropped his powerful track "Spiritual" in response to the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in Louisiana and Minnesota in July 2016.
Key lyric: "I am not poison, no I am not poison/Just a boy from the hood that/Got my hands in the air/In despair don't shoot"
13. Miguel - "How Many"
Following the July 2016 shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, he dedicated a song to the Black Lives Matter movement asking the question Black people have been asking for centuries: How many Black lives need to be lost until society wakes up and make a change?
Key lyric: "Mmm I wonder, how many Blacks lives, how many Black lives / How many heartbeats turned into flatlines / How many Blacks lives, how many Black lives / Does it take to wake the change?"
14. Vic Mensa - "16 Shots"
Vic Mensa is well-known for his activism, and with "16 shots," he took a strong stance on police brutality. The song details instances of excessive police violence against Black people, the main focus being the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald. The song calls for an end to excessive police violence against Black people.
Key lyric: "There's a war on guns, but the guns keep ringin'"
15. Ariana Grande & Victoria Monet - "Better Days"
“Too many precious lives were taken from us this week, this month, this year,” Grande wrote on Instagram when sharing "Better Days." The song arrived after the July 2016 police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and shared visions of a brighter future.
Key lyric: "Baby, there's a war right outside our window/Don't you hear the people fighting for their lives?"
16. Macklemore - "White Privilege II"
Macklemore wrote this 2016 track in response to Darren Wilson, the former police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, was not indicted. At the time, he attended Black Lives Matters protests in Seattle and felt unsure of his place there. "This song is uncomfortable," Macklemore told NPR of "White Privilege II," but admitted that it was entirely "purposeful."
Macklemore has long been at the center of discussions about white privilege. After he scooped up a 2014 Grammy Award for Best Rap Album for The Heist, beating out presumed front-runner Kendrick Lamar, he shared a screenshot of a text to Lamar admitting he believed Lamar was robbed and faced criticism for not confronting racial bias within the Recording Academy in his acceptance speech when he had the chance despite having spoken up about his white privilege in the past.
BLM organizer Deray Mckesson spoke with Macklemore about the song and came to the conclusion that while the song is not above critique, a white man engaging with other white people to discuss the uncomfortable and oft-ignored subject of white privilege is a good thing.
Key Lyric: "You speak about equality, but do you really mean it?Are you marching for freedom, or when it's convenient?"
17. Lady Gaga - "Angel Down"
In an October 2016 with Beats 1’s Zane Lowe, Gaga revealed she penned her ballad “Angel Down" about the shooting of Trayvon Martin. “I was overwhelmed by the fact that people just stood around and didn’t do anything about it and that the justice system continues to over and over again not seek justice for these families,” Gaga told Lowe.
Key lyric: Shots were fired on the street/By the church where we used to meet/Angel down, angel down/Why do people just stand around?
18. Red Hot Chili Peppers - "The Power Of Equality"
The Chili Peppers released "The Power of Equality" in 1991, detailing the racism that was being exhibited in America. In the lyrics, the band unleashes against the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the media.
Key lyric: "The power of equality is not yet what it ought to be"
19. The 1975 - "Love It If We Made It"
The 1975's Matty Healy actually explained the meaning behind his lyrics confronting how Black people are treated in the U.S., positing that Black culture is fetishized and co-opted in American society, while Black people, at the same time, are criminalized and killed unjustly. He wrote,
It’s made quite apparent that black people in America... are fetishized, that people have a fetish for and a phobia of at exactly the same time. [B]lack culture, it’s what is celebrated culturally most in its superficial form, but then you move onto the next line where you have a prison system that preys on young black people in order to keep itself in business and turning over. This weird paradox. It’s just strange, isn’t it?
Key lyric: "Selling melanin and then suffocate the Black men/Start with misdemeanors and we'll make a business out of them"
20. Bruce Springsteen - "American Skin (41 Shots)"
Springsteen was inspired to write this anthem about senseless police shootings of Black men after Amadou Diallo died at the hands of four N.Y.P.D. police officers in February 1991 when they fired a combined 41 shots at him, claiming they mistook him pulling out his wallet for a gun.
Key lyric: "Is it a gun? Is it a knife? / Is it a wallet? This is your life / It ain't no secret (It ain't no secret) / It ain't no secret (It ain't no secret) / No secret, my friend / You can get killed just for living in your American skin"