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Black Studies

Music with a Message: Then and Now

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By Carlton Wade, MS, ’98, ’15

Exactly 60 years ago, singer/ songwriter Nina Simone said in an interview that “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” A direct reflection of those times, protest songs such as James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud),” Bob Marley And The Wailers’ “Get Up Stand Up,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What's Goin' On” resonated the pains of police brutality, struggles of systemic racism and perils of poverty.

Thirty years later, rapper/political activist Chuck D reiterated Simone’s sentiments in a magazine article, proclaiming that rap music is the “CNN for Black people.” Set against the backdrop of President Reagan’s war on drugs (which ultimately meant war on people of color), the murders of Yusef Hawkins in Brooklyn and Latasha Harlins in Los Angeles and the beating of Rodney King caught on camera with four LA police officers being acquitted for the crime, groups like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, X Clan and NWA took to the recording booth to voice their frustrations while many outraged Americans took to the streets. 

Now some three decades later in this new Generation Z, people of color are still battling the same evils of their forefathers. From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, James Chaney to James Byrd, Amadou Diallo to Alton Sterling, the fight for justice and equality continues. Musicians are still reflecting the times and reporting from the frontlines as cancerous racial tensions fester in our country. Although the years have progressed and times have changed, many songs from 1990 and today suggest that things are still the same, including: 

  • Public Enemy - Brothers Gonna Work It Out
  • DaBaby ft. Roddy Ricch – Rockstar
  • Paris - The Devil Made Me Do It
  • Lil Baby - The Bigger Picture
  • 2 Live Crew - Banned In The U.S.A.
  • H.E.R. - I Can't Breathe
  • X Clan - Heed the Word of the Brother
  • Buju Banton – Blessed
  • Eric B. And Rakim - In The Ghetto
  • Alicia Keys - Perfect Way To Die


➤ To comment on this fall 2020 article, visit the Center for Black Studies on Facebook.
➤ To give, visit the USM Foundation.


Photo of Carlton Wade

Carlton Wade, MS, ’98, ’15, is a hip-hop journalist who has been published in The Source magazine, and He also worked as a public relations writer for Sony/ Columbia, Atlantic and Jive Records.  


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