Essay on the Role of Music in the Civil Rights Movement

Published: 2021/11/23
Number of words: 3055

It is difficult to imagine something like music being of extreme importance in difficult humanitarian situations. As one would imagine, all of the crucial events would come out of revolts, strikes or political actions. However, sometimes, culture can be a very powerful tool in these kind of crises to help organise or even trigger these kind of events. In this essay, I will argue how music became an important tool for African-Americans and their civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties and how it contributed to its (partial) success.

The healing and yet striking voice of the ’’Negro’’ and its function

The sixties was a time of revolts in the United States. The appearance of the generation X, a young cohort of people descendants of the baby boomers, who disliked the way in which society functioned, started to take unprecedented habits (forming grunge bands, experimenting with drugs, etc.).They triggered revolts and many political movements. However, the most important of these moments is, perhaps, the civil rights movement.

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Even though slavery was abolished in 1863, the struggles of the African-American communities with racism and discrimination have always been present, and continue to be present today. Music has always been a stereotypical characteristic of black communities in the States, and there is a good reason why.

Ever since the appearance of the slavery trade, African-Americans would continuously work at the cotton fields in the states of the south, in the Delta Area, with little rest. In order to make this harsh task slightly more bearable, they came up with a particular singing style. They would sing songs about their lives, how everything changed since they were taken away from their land, their living conditions in America, etc., and they would sing them while doing their work. They were usually deep, sad songs, reason why this style was eventually called the blues.

The blues had a very important psycho-sociological function in this setting. Through song, African-Americans developed, perhaps in a subconscious way, this tool that would help them create a sense of community, a sense of unity, a means of mentally evading themselves from the harsh lives they were forcedly assigned to have by white people, owners of the lands. It was this singing voice used as a tool that would help them alleviate their inner wounds, sooth them, keep them going. This singing voice has been present ever since in African-American communities (not without musically evolving with the pass of the years) and its sociological function has remained pretty much intact.

Because of its origins (and the fact that racial problems are still present in the current society), this singing voice has shaped the stereotype of the African-Americans as natural born singers, it has developed the image of the African-American mummy, who is here to calm us down with her voice in times of crisis, but can also incite revelry if needed.

These various images demonstrate the way the black woman’s voice can be called upon to heal a crisis in national unity as well as provoke one. […] A figure that serves the unit, who heals and nurtures it but has no rights or privileges within it – more mammy than mother. Here I am not suggesting that the individual women themselves chose to serve as mammies but instead that this figure of the singing black woman is often similar to the uses of black women’s bodies as nurturing, healing, life and love giving for the majority culture.[1]

As Farah Jasmine Griffin explains in the citation above, the voice has acquired a dual quality- That of nurturing and healing, and that of being provocative.
The quality of healing is a feature that was embedded in the black singing voices of the past, coming from the early nineteenth century, and straight from the cotton plantations. However, the quality of provocation comes from later times, those of the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century – and it comes straight from the will of African-American communities to improve their quality of life, from claiming their rights as citizens and human beings. This is where the next part of the essay begins.

The fight in search of civil rights – The use of the voice as popular music

Brown baby, brown baby
As you grow up I want you to drink from the plenty cup
I want you to stand up tall and proud
And I want you to speak up clear and loud

As years go by I want you to go with your head up high
I want you to live by the justice code
And I want you to walk down freedom’s road

It makes me glad you gonna have things that I never had
When out of men’s heart all hate is hurled
Sweetie you gonna live in a better world

Nina Simone (Eunice Waymon being her real name), someone who we could call to be one of those ‘’mammies’’, is a crystal clear representation of the voice of the African-Americans.

Many critics from around the world concluded she was ‘’the best singer of jazz of these last years’’ who had a particularly ‘’extraordinary presence’’ in live performances and a magical ability to connect to her audiences.[2]

The lyrics above belong to one of her songs, ‘’Brown Baby’’, and clearly reflects the desperation and longing for freedom of these communities. This song carries all the weight of a people who are so afflicted by the neglect of their rights that their anger is uncontainable.
Through song, Simone sharply portrays the situation of Negro communities and delivers it in the form of singing voice to black audiences to make them aware of the contrast in treatment of blacks and whites from the part of society, and to white audiences to show them the injustice that is being committed to her people.

However, her music becomes a more powerful weapon after Simone hears about an explosion that took place at 16th street Baptist church in 1963 that took the lives of four little girls and was perpetrated by the Kun Klux Klan.

According to Simone, ‘’Mississippi goddam’’ ‘’erupted out of me’’ right after she had heard about the church bombing. […] ‘’I sat down at my piano. An hour later, I came out of my apartment with the sheet music for ‘’Mississippi goddam’’ in my hand.’’ The song thus anticipated the arguments that Amiri Baraka would make about the political purposes of culture when he organised the black arts movements in 1965.[3]

Mississippi Goddam came out of anger after Simone had heard about one of the most brutal racist events of the nineteen sixties and became a strong cultural weapon that delivered irony, anguish, and the frustration of the ‘’go slow’’ politics of change. It is a piece of popular culture that serves a political purpose as it unites a whole community together and motivates them to fight against one of the biggest injustices ever perpetrated to human beings. ‘It came to me in a rush of ‘’fury, hatred and determination,’’ as she suddenly realized what it was to be black in America in 1963. It was, she said ‘’my first civil rights song’’.’[4]

Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam

Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air
I can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer

Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying ‘Go slow!’

But that’s just the trouble
‘Do it slow’
Washing the windows
‘Do it slow’
Picking the cotton
‘Do it slow’
You’re just plain rotten
‘Do it slow’
You’re too damn lazy
‘Do it slow’

The thinking’s crazy

They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister my brother my people and me

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie

Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying ‘Go slow!’

This song serves as a magnificent example of how music can inspire people to pull social constraints and change things, to work as a conduit to contextualise pain, suffering, frustration, longing for change. Listening to it can serve as a tool for interpretation of these things and therefore, as an eventual catalyst for action. It represents the provocative feature of the Afro-American voice.

Another good example, even though a bit lighter than the previous one, is A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke. In it, the struggle and repression of the everyday life of a black citizen is depicted. It gives us the feeling that these people are not welcomed and, therefore, do not feel like they are at home. It represents an alienation of the Afro-American citizen from their own society (alienation projected by white people), and the beginning of several activities that eventually triggered the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. This song was released in December of 1964 and was written and recorded at a time when the Selma movement was being established (same as Mississippi goddam). Earlier that year president Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, prohibiting segregation of public facilities.
The song gives the listeners hope because it is imminent and it can be felt in the air- a change is going to come (we are almost there, segregation is illegal now, an important step has been made). This is an example of the understanding, comprehensive and calming voice of the African-American voice.

I was born by the river in a little tent
and just like the river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

James Brown came up with a very catchy song in 1968, at the end of the civil rights movement that encouraged a feeling of acceptance and self-appreciation, pride, dignity. Say it loud – I’m black and I’m proud made people feel reassured by their race, deconstructing all possible feelings of repression or complexes of inferiority established by the whites. The right to vote of African-Americans had just been established and barely four years earlier, segregation had been abolished. However, acceptance of these changes by white citizens was something that was going to take some time to achieve. This song gives a message of encouragement and strength. The political message is still very well imprinted in the lyrics.

Now we demand a chance to do things for ourselves
We’re tired of beating our head against the wall
And working for someone else
We’re people, we’re just like the birds and the bees
We’d rather die on our feet
Than be living on our knees
Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud

As Farah Jasmine puts it, ‘the voice [of the African-Americans] expresses a quality of longing: longing for home, for love, for connection with God, for heaven, for freedom. It also seems to be a conduit between what and where we are and what and where we want to be.’[5]

Support of the civil rights movement coming from other communities

During the civil rights movement there were many groups that actively fought for a society in which Afro-Americans could live unsegregated and could vote (NAACP, SCLS, SNCC, CORE, Black Panthers). All of these groups were mainly led and compounded by people of colour. However, there were also certain groups of white people who supported the struggle of the Afro-American communities in search of their rights, the most predominant being the White Panthers, which supported all of the goals of the Black Panthers. Some of the supporters of the White Panthers were the members of the rock band MC5, who became famous for expressing ideas of freedom through their music (all kinds of freedom for all people), being an important promoter of the counterculture even though the band was active for just about three years.

From evidence of its hints of success, one could begin to construct an aesthetic and perhaps even a program that proposed how rock culture fit into society as something more significant than a diversion.[6]

Once again, we have music that becomes politicised and serves as a way of social awareness, unity, and revolt. The music of MC5 projected energy and represented freedom for all, which was one of the most popular ideas and goals of the counterculture movement.

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As exposed throughout this essay, music had a very important role during the American civil rights movement, especially the music coming from the black communities because of its healing and provocative characteristics, features that are embedded in the voice of African-Americans since the times of slavery. The role of music was that of nurturing, uniting, inspiring and encouraging social and political activities that eventually gave a repressed community what they had been needing for centuries, really – Freedom.

The civil rights movement resolved in the abolition of segregation and political actions by the government that allowed black communities to vote, all of these things having effect on all states.
However, today, racism and discrimination is something that is still present and causing struggles in African-American communities, and music is still serving as a tool for the same purpose. Several artists have covered songs by Nina Simone and other artists key to the civil rights movement, keeping her music fresh and useful in the movements of the twenty-first century.

A few examples:
Berklee Black Lives Matter – Four Women.
Carolina Goddam – A Rendition of Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam.
Ed Sheeran – Be My Husband.
Karan Casey -Backlash Blues.
KUKU – Brown Baby, Trailer – Session Flagrante
Roberta De Gaetano & Band – Ain’t got no, I got life


Edwards, Brent Hayes O’Meally, Robert Griffin, Farah Jasmine, Uptown Conversation, (Columbia University Press, 2012).

Feldestein, Ruth, ‘I don’t trust you anymore’, The Journal of American History, 91/4 (2005) 1349-1379.

Waksman, Steve, Noise, Performance, and the Politics of Sound (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.1998).


Brown, James, ‘Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’, A Soulful Christmas, ([Los Angeles:] King [,6187,] 1969).

Cooke, Sam, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, ([Hollywood:] RCA Victor, 1964).

Simone, Nina, ‘Brown Baby’, 1961 live performance at the Village Gate in 1961 (

Simone, Nina, ‘Mississippi Goddam’, Nina Simone in Concert, ([New York:] Phillips Records 1964).


AhSa-Ti Nu Tyehimba-Ford, ‘Carolina Goddam – A Rendition of Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam’, music video,, 16 June 2016 (2 may 2017).

Berklee collage of music, ‘Nina Simone – Four Women (Cover by Berklee Black Lives Matter)’, music video,, 28 March 2016, (02 May 2017).

Casey, Karan, ‘Karan Casey – “Backlash Blues” (Nina Simone cover)’, music video,, 20 July 2015 (2 May 2017).

De Gaetano, Roberta, ‘Ain’t got no, I got life – Roberta De Gaetano & Band (Nina Simone cover)’, music video,, 30 July 2016 (2 May 2017).

Mississippi Public Broadcasting, ‘FULL DOCUMENTARY: Mississippi’s War: Slavery and Secession | MPB’, Documentary,, 19 Nov 2014 (2 May 2017).

Sheeran, Ed, ‘Ed Sheeran – “Be My Husband” (Nina Simone cover) captured in The Live Room’, music video,, 30 July 2012 (2 May 2017).

Studio Flagrant, ‘KUKU – Brown Baby (Nina Simone Cover) | Trailer – Session Flagrante 1’, music video,, 22 June 2015, (2 May 2017).

[1] Edwards, Brent Hayes O’Meally, Robert Griffin, Farah Jasmine, Uptown Conversation, (Columbia University Press, 2012) 104.

[2] Ruth Feldestein, ‘I don’t trust you anymore’, The Journal of American History, 91/4 (2005) 1349-1379 (1351).

[3] Ruth Feldestein, ‘I don’t trust you anymore’, The Journal of American History, 91/4 (2005) 1349-1379 (1369).

[4] Ibid, 1349.

[5] Edwards, Brent Hayes O’Meally, Robert Griffin, Farah Jasmine, Uptown Conversation, (Columbia University Press, 2012)

[6] Steve Waksman, Noise, Performance, and the Politics of Sound (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.1998) 49.

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