Erika Harold’s Black History Month Playlist

Young Black woman In recording studioOur Executive Director Erika Harold has assembled a Black History Month playlist, including songs that capture the strength, perseverance, hope, and beauty of the Black experience in America.

Along with the book recommendations we shared from Black leaders in the legal community, this Black History Month playlist recognizes the contributions, sacrifices, and legacy of Black Americans and their essential role in defining the soundtrack of our nation.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” – performed by Tasha Cobbs Leonard

Commonly known as “The Black National Anthem,” James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a poignant hymn that reflects on “the days when hope unborn had died” yet proclaims an unwavering commitment to “march on ’til victory is won.”

“My Country ‘Tis of Thee” – performed by Marian Anderson

Renowned contralto Marian Anderson touched the nation’s conscience with her 1939 Easter Sunday concert, which was performed at the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution precluded her from singing at Constitution Hall on account of race.

The first song Anderson sang for the 75,000 people in attendance and millions listening by radio was “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” made even more compelling by the unique circumstances of her concert.

“Stand Up” – performed by Cynthia Erivo

“Stand Up,” from the movie “Harriet,” expresses Harriet Tubman’s sacrificial quest for freedom as she repeatedly risked her life as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad to help people escape the bondage and brutality of slavery.

“I’m gonna stand up
Take my people with me
Together we are going
To a brand new home
Far across the river
Do you hear freedom calling?
Calling me to answer
Gonna keep on keepin’ on”

The majestic power of Cynthia Erivo’s voice captures the galvanizing force of Tubman’s leadership.

“His Eye Is On The Sparrow” – Mahalia Jackson

No Black History Month playlist would be complete without Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel,” whose rich contralto voice made her a force at churches, civil rights rallies and concert halls, on television and radio, and even at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball.

Jackson’s rendition of the classic hymn “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” showcases the beauty of her vibrato, the power of her voice, and the depth of her faith.

“Feeling Good” – performed by Nina Simone

Released in 1965 by legendary jazz/folk singer and activist Nina Simone, “Feeling Good” expresses both optimism for the “new day” to come and perhaps an undercurrent of defiance in laying claim to the freedom and “new life” that a “new dawn” would bring (“Oh, freedom is mine, and I know how I feel / It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me / And I’m feelin’… good”).

Although many artists have covered “Feeling Good,” Simone’s version is widely regarded as the definitive one.

“A Change is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke

A song and singer that feel relevant and prescient in every era, Sam Cooke’s soulful “A Change is Gonna Come” is instantly recognizable from its first line (“I was born by the river”) and then builds to a hopeful crescendo (“It’s been a long / A long time coming, but I know / A change gon’ come / Oh yes, it will”).

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T” – performed by Aretha Franklin

Although “Respect” was originally performed by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin’s rendition was performed with such command and swagger that it became an enduring empowerment anthem and closely associated with the civil rights and women’s rights movements.

“Tell Him” – performed by Lauryn Hill

The first Hip Hop album to win a Grammy Award for Album of the Year and Number 10 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was both a coming-of-age and defining-of-age album.

“Tell Him,” one of the album’s hidden tracks, expresses Hill’s own evolution: “Now I may have wisdom and knowledge on Earth / But if I speak wrong, then what is it worth?”

“Glory” – performed by Common and John Legend

“Glory” is the theme song from the movie “Selma,” which depicts Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

The legato of John Legend’s smooth singing juxtaposed with the staccato of Common’s rapping creates a compelling counterpoint, and the lyrics evoke the unique role music has played in addressing injustice: “The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful / We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through.”

What songs would you add to this Black History Month playlist? Add your recommendations in the comments.

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