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More than music: 10 songs that have changed the world, from Billie Holiday to Kendrick Lamar

Kiah Welsh

We all know music can effortlessly make you move your body, sometimes involuntarily. But music can just as easily move your mind — whether you feel happy, sad or in distress, there are lyrics that speak to the soul. Throughout history, we’ve seen the capability of music bringing people together to unite toward a common cause.

Now, when it comes to social change the old saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” definitely can hold true. If we take a look at songs that have been influential in breaking down barriers we could end up with a list long enough to circle the globe more than once.

As February is Black History Month, we took a look at 10 songs that have contributed to social change.

'Strange Fruit' by Billie Holiday (1939)

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is said to be the original protest song. It’s a chilling uproar against the inhumanity of racism. Originally, the song depicted a time where there was segregation in the South, but it has since evolved into a song that serves to tackle injustice and inequality.

Holiday has influenced many musicians with this jazzy classic. Artists include India Arie with “Songversation”, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” and Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves.”

'I Wish I Knew' by Nina Simone (1967)

Music with passion. Music with life. Music with purpose. That’s how Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew What It Would Feel to be Free” can be described. This uplifting tune, originally recorded by jazz pianist Billy Taylor, served as an anthem at the heart of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Simone’s lyrics, “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free/ I wish I could break all the chains holding me,” illustrate her desire to live in a world where racism and segregation didn’t hold her captive. Ironically, these powerful words certainly do justice by accurately capturing the society in which Simone lived — where the concept of equal rights and justice were as imaginary as the shackles of which she sang.

'We Shall Overcome' by Mahalia Jackson (1960)

An old classic, sung by the soulful Mahalia Jackson, “We Shall Overcome” is a song that can persevere through any circumstance. The lyrics in the song are a reminder to keep holding on to faith and hope, despite a rough dispatch or situation: “We shall overcome someday/ Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe/ We shall overcome someday.” The song is an inspiration for freedom and change, and has been used at many rallies advocating for change.

'Respect' by Aretha Franklin (1967)

There was a lot happening in the world when this song was released in the late 1960s. The Black Panthers were on the rise and there was the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s — and women played a core part in that activism, but their hard work was overlooked. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” served as a solution for a call to action. Originally recorded by Otis Redding, Franklin’s rendition is undeniably an influential R&B/soul recording in pop and rock 'n' roll history.

'Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud' by James Brown (1968)

“Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown is all about social change: it changed how the black community perceived themselves, conveying self-confidence and assertiveness.

“I clearly remember calling ourselves coloured, and after the song, we were calling ourselves black,” said Brown in an interview with the Associated Press. “The song showed even people to that day that lyrics and music and a song can change a society.”

Released in the 1960s, Brown’s funky and pulsating song became a black anthem. It was written during the civil rights movement when the black community was still fighting for basic human rights.

'The Revolution Will Not be Televised' by Gil Scott-Heron (1970)

“The Revolution Will Not be Televised” has been levelled to legendary status over the years. A classic song recorded in the 1970s, it was born out of the civil rights and black power movements. Gil Scott-Heron’s song critiques the disengaged or disengaging character of broadcast news. His lyrics, “You will not be able to stay home, brother/ You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out,” serve as an example of what “the revolution will not” be or do. It’s a political song that not only encouraged out-of-the-box thinking but was a call to action, challenging all those who desire equal rights to stop asking and start demanding.

‘F--k tha Police’ by N.W.A (1988)

N.W.A. get right to the point with their song “F--k tha Police.” This controversial song boldly describes, without hesitation, their livelihood growing up in the inner city under police surveillance. They talk of their experience of injustice, dealing with racial profiling and police brutality. The song’s release in the 1980s had so much impact, it provoked the FBI to write to N.W.A’s record company about the lyrics, expressing and arguing that the song misrepresented police. “F--k tha Police” is a song that demonstrates that every voice counts, and freedom of expression applies to everyone.

Editor's note: strong language in video below.

'Fight the Power' by Public Enemy (1989)

"Fight the Power" by Public Enemy is perhaps the best-known track from the group. Released in 1989, the song was conceived at the request of film director Spike Lee, who desired a musical theme for his film Do the Right Thing — a film about racial tension.

"Fight the Power" soon became a revolutionary song that not only spoke against racial tension but raised political awareness: "What we need is awareness, we can't get careless/ You said what is this?/ My beloved let's get down to business/ Mental self-defensiveness fitness." Similar to Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not be Televised," Public Enemy rapped about social consciousness. "Fight the Power" created a unified message that is relatable to many.

'Black or White' by Michael Jackson (1991)

This iconic tune was a big hit in the '90s, and its lyrics had an effective yet simple message: “Black and White” was a plea for racial tolerance. In the song, Michael Jackson sings, "I’m not going to spend my life being a colour/ Don’t tell me you agree with me/ When I saw you kicking dirt in my eye/ I said if you’re thinking of being my brother/ It don’t matter if you’re black or white." When the song was first released in 1991, it tallied seven weeks at number one on the Billboard charts. It’s ironic that a song entitled “Black or White” can show the world in a different colour.

'Alright' by Kendrick Lamar (2015)

Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" transcended music and became a political movement. Released in 2015, this song came out at a time when there was an unprecedented amount of police violence against black Americans, and Black Lives Matter became the centre of mainstream consciousness as a result. Lamar's song speaks of the difficult reality those with "no voice" experience.

Although Lamar's "Alright" may go hand in hand with the Black Lives Matter movement, his song is timeless because it encourages those going through a difficult time in their lives to move forward and keep reaching.

Editor's note: strong language in video below.

What other songs would you add to the list that has impacted social change?

Follow Kiah Welsh on Twitter: @simplykiah