Human societies are ever-changing. As a result, they can become more and less equal over time. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen enormous change. However, much remains to be done. Equality remains worth fighting for, now as before.
Here are 20 of the best songs about equality:
20. “Ghost Town” – The Specials
The Specials released “Ghost Town” in 1981. Interested individuals should have no problem guessing that it refers to the hollowing out of the inner cities, which remains relevant in the present. However, some of the lyrics make more sense when one learns that England was experiencing riots around that time. Discriminatory treatment of ethnic minorities served as the spark, though urban decay provided plentiful fuel for it.
19. “Beds Are Burning” – Midnight Oil
Midnight Oil is an Australian band with a strong interest in sociopolitical issues. For instance, they were inspired to write “Beds Are Burning” when they played for Aboriginal communities while touring the Outback. The song became an international hit. Thanks to that, it did much to make Aboriginal communities’ plight known to the outside world. Unfortunately, progress on resolving the relevant issues has been unimpressive at best.
18. “Birmingham Sunday” – Joan Baez
The music for “Birmingham Sunday” came from an old Scottish ballad called “I Once Loved a Lass.” Sadly, the lyrics refer to something nowhere near as pleasant.
Those unfamiliar should know “Birmingham Sunday” is about the KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. It resulted in four dead children and more than a dozen wounded individuals. The bombing galvanized supporters of the civil rights movement, thus contributing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
17. “One” – U2
“One” is one of U2’s greatest hits. As the story goes, the band went to Berlin around the German reunification. Supposedly, U2 was expecting to draw inspiration from the celebratory mood. Instead, they found people in a bleak mood, which soon sparked conflicts between them.
Fortunately, U2 managed to make a breakthrough, thus resulting in one of the best songs of the early 1990s. Moreover, “One” has seen extensive use for the band’s subsequent charitable efforts.
16. “Greatest Love of All” – Whitney Houston
The struggle for equality is mental as much as physical. After all, every action comes with a cost. As a result, it is hard to convince people to work towards fine-sounding ideals unless they believe in them. One can make a strong argument that this starts with self-love and self-confidence, which give interested individuals the inner strength needed to fight for fairness rather than let the injustices of the world stand. Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” is focused on precisely this.
15. “Imagine” – John Lennon
“Imagine” sees John Lennon envisioning his perfect world. One could call it overly idealistic. Still, visions of utopia wouldn’t be able to inspire interested individuals without the daringness to dream on a grand scale.
14. “Fight the Power” – Public Enemy
Right is not synonymous with might. As a result, the struggle for equality often requires interested individuals to challenge established and entrenched powers. Besides this, “Fight the Power” is an excellent reminder that different communities have different perspectives.
The song contains a memorable line stating that Elvis and John Wayne weren’t heroes to the black community. Interestingly, Public Enemy’s Chuck D has said that he doesn’t dislike Elvis so much as the systems that made Elvis a superstar while overlooking the black artists who paved the way for him.
13. “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” – James Brown
James Brown released several songs about black empowerment as a solution to anti-black racism. “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” is the best-known of the lot, as shown by its far-reaching influence. For instance, Chuck D claimed it convinced him to call himself black.
12. “Same Love” – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis recorded “Same Love” to support Washington’s Referendum 74 in 2012. Those unfamiliar should know the latter was meant to either approve or reject same-sex marriage in the state before the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Obergefell v. Hodges legalized it throughout the country in 2015. Unsurprisingly, “Same Love” remains popular with those supportive of LGBT+ rights even though its original goal has long since been met.
11. “Equal Rights” – Peter Tosh
Peter Tosh released “Equal Rights” in 1977. It is a song about the true meaning of peace. Specifically, it states it isn’t merely the absence of violence. Instead, true peace requires the presence of justice, thus explaining much about the song’s name.
10. “What’s Going On” – Marvin Gaye
“What’s Going On” is one of the better-known songs released in the early 1970s. Interested individuals might be familiar with how Marvin Gaye took inspiration from his brother, who had served in the Vietnam War. However, there were other influences.
One excellent example would be Renaldo Benson, who was upset by the police brutality at the People’s Park protest in 1969. Subsequently, he and his friend Al Cleveland penned the song, which was rejected by Benson’s peers in the Four Tops for its potential controversy. Fortunately, Gaye was looking for something new, as shown by how he accepted the song before tweaking it to make it his own. The result is “What’s Going On,” which marked the man’s departure from a more standard Motown sound.
9. “Where Is the Love?” – The Black Eyed Peas
“Where Is the Love?” was a transition point for the Black Eyed Peas. After all, it was when the group went mainstream. Moreover, “Where Is the Love?” saw Fergie becoming an official member of the Black Eyed Peas.
Justin Timberlake contributed to the singing and songwriting of the song, which makes sense because the group hoped that his reputation would help them secure listeners. Sadly, his name isn’t included in the credits as one of the singers because his record label feared that he would become over-exposed. Luckily, the song became a Top Ten hit in several countries anyways.
8. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” – Gil Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron released “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” in 1971. Some people have interpreted it as a call to militant action. However, Scott-Heron himself has said it is about a revolution of the mind, which makes sense because the lyrics focus on media more than anything else. Indeed, the song’s name refers to the idea that those in power will seek to suppress attempts at revolutionizing how things are done.
7. “Sleep Now in the Fire” – Rage Against the Machine
Rage Against the Machine is an intensely-political band. As a result, every one of its singles can be connected to the fight for equality. “Sleep Now in the Fire” is about economic issues, thus explaining why the music video was filmed on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange.
6. “Fortunate Son” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Fortunate Son” is one of the most famous anti-Vietnam War songs ever released. The curious thing is that it is more about class than about the conflict itself. That is because the song’s title refers to how the children of the elite were able to avoid the hardships of military service through various methods unavailable to the general public.
Something that caused understandable outrage among those who were not so well-off. Since its initial release, “Fortunate Son” has seen extensive use by anti-war and anti-elitism protestors.
5. “One Love” – The Wailers
“One Love” was released when Bob Marley was still with the Wailers. Despite this, it is strongly associated with him rather than his one-time band members, so much so that it can be considered his signature song. The lyrics make it clear there are problems in the world. Even so, they ask listeners to hold onto love as the solution.
4. “Born This Way” – Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga specifically made “Born This Way” a self-affirmation statement. She took inspiration from the great songstresses of the 1990s and even earlier predecessors. In particular, Lady Gaga has mentioned a gay black activist named Carl Bean, who performed “I Was Born This Way” in 1977.
In any case, it isn’t hard to see why LGBT+ communities and other minorities adore the song considering its message of self-love and self-respect. “Born This Way” reached the number-one position in the United States and several other countries when released in 2011. On top of that, it sold more than 8.2 million copies
3. “A Change Is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke released “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1964. He took inspiration from several things. For instance, he and his entourage were once denied service by a whites-only motel before being arrested for being “disruptive.” Furthermore, he was moved by Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
For a time, Cooke hesitated to release a song about racism because he feared that would alienate his sizable white fan base. Still, he overcame that fear in the end, thus making this song possible. Cooke never lived to see its full impact. However, “A Change Is Gonna Come” is widely considered one of the most emblematic songs of the civil rights movement.
2. “The Times They Are A-Changin'” – Bob Dylan
History is often described as the product of great individuals in popular discourse. This approach makes for excellent storytelling. Unfortunately, it is more than a bit misleading, not least because no one can gain so much control over the course of events.
There is a certain sense of comfort to be found in this. Even if something seems as solid as a stone in the present, there is no guarantee that will remain the case in the future. The world is constantly changing. No one has ever been able to change that.
Moreover, it seems safe to say that no one will ever be able to change that. Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin'” as a reflection of the mid-1960s, which saw fierce contention over how the world should be. Those times have passed. Even so, the song’s message remains as relevant as ever, which is rather ironic considering its name.
1. “Respect” – Aretha Franklin
Otis Redding released “Respect” in 1965. His version was a hit with black audiences that saw some crossover with their white counterparts. That said, everyone remembers “Respect” because of Aretha Franklin, who recorded the same song with different lyrics and a different arrangement before releasing it in 1967. It was a transformative moment.
The original centered on a hard-working man demanding sex from a woman. Franklin’s version had very different connotations, not least because of the role changes. “Respect” influenced the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism.
Amazingly, it is also the source of several well-known phrases. For example, “taking care of business” came from this song. Similarly, its lyrics featured “propers,” which would evolve into the “props” of a later era. Small wonder that Rolling Stone named “Respect” number five on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
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