It's Been Said All Along
Voices of Rage, Hope & Empowerment
Rock Hall Inductees Chuck Berry, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Little Richard, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, James Brown and Aretha Franklin were trailblazers in speaking out for the cause of dignity and equality. But it didn’t end there.
In every generation, Black artists have elevated the conversation about race, equality, justice and peace – including superstars like Prince, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Tupac Shakur, Rage Against the Machine, Prince, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé. The message is clear: musical artists have channeled the power of rock & roll to respond to racism all along.
Select artifacts include:
- Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” lyrics. The political anthem was revisited in 2020 to address the current landscape and recognize the recent protests and rallies.
- N.W.A.’s jacket reflecting the relevance of their single “F*ck tha Police.”
- Aretha Franklin’s Valentino dress worn during her first appearance at Radio City Music Hall, where she sang “Respect,” which became an anthem for the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements.
- A jumpsuit worn by James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul” who brought motion to the Civil Rights Movement with style.
- 1973 Wattstax film poster representing a cross-section of Black music from gospel to pop and was the largest gathering of African Americans during that time.
- Handwritten lyrics from songwriter and rapper D Smoke, “Let Go” recorded hours before the killing of George Floyd, and recently performed live for the first time on the 2020 BET Awards.
For centuries, artists of all colors and creeds have used music to exercise their liberty of expression by calling out the injustices that African American people have endured. The ideology of expressing rage in music is one that can be misinterpreted. Black artists themselves were not immune to feeling the not-so-subtle rage – they, too, suffered racism within the music industry. The inability to dine, lodge, receive fair wages, travel safely or be admitted into the very venues where they performed, were just a few of the hurdles that racist segregation laws built. No matter the opposition, these artists, including those of today, have expressed their undeniable rage in song – with messages of anger, love, integrity, authenticity and resilience.
"Fight the Power"Public Enemy perform "Fight the Power" at the 2013 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
"Fight the Power"
"Strange Fruit"Diana Ross performs Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" at the 2000 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
Primarily concerned with ending institutionalized racism, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was significant in the fight for a democratic society, and music of hope accompanied the struggle. In 1961, groups of civil rights activists called Freedom Riders rode interstate buses into the South to challenge segregation. They were harassed, beaten and arrested. One group of Nashville students rode to Birmingham, Alabama, where they were arrested by Public Safety Director Bull Connor. The jailed students kept up their spirits by singing songs such as “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Connor escorted them back to the Tennessee border saying, “I just couldn’t stand their singing!” Today, marches still send messages of protest and hope worldwide. The music surging through these movements communicate visions of hope for a just society.
"Think"Aretha Franklin and Lenny Kravitz perform "Think" at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert
In the years before rock & roll, work songs, spirituals, the blues and jazz provided messages of encouragement and empowerment. In Black culture, music as an art form has been a powerful method to process frustrations, with the basis of it stemming from pain, misery and the strong desire to overcome. The power of a song can encourage listeners in the worst of times. One example of those cataclysmic times was on April 5, 1968, with the nation on edge the night after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, James Brown gave the performance of a lifetime at Boston Garden. The powerful and emotional concert aired on local TV, and as a result, Boston avoided the major rioting that other American cities experienced. Brown became outspoken on Black self-empowerment and echoed it in his songs including “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I’ll Get It Myself).” His courage inspired other artists and subsequent generations to understand – and use – the power of music to propel change.
"Ain't Got No - I Got Life"Lauryn Hill perform Nina Simone's "Ain't Got No - I Got Life" at the 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
"Ain't Got No - I Got Life"
"Redemption Song"The I Threes perform Bob Marley & The Wailers' "Redemption Song" at the 1994 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
Cleveland, Ohio 44114