From 90’s Hip-Hop to the Neo-Soul: A Black Power Playlist Over the Years

Music has often been a sphere of Black empowerment, with artists like James Brown and Nina Simone, amongst many others, bringing Black experience and pride to millions of listeners.

This playlist ranges from hip-shaking to solemn and quiet within just a few songs, a small display of the many sounds and feelings of music dedicated to Black Power.

Solange — F.U.B.U.

Off Solange’s 2015 album, A Seat at the Table, “F.U.B.U.” is a steady track dedicated to empowering Black folks “all around the world.” The song’s title, which takes inspiration from the clothing brand “For Us By Us,” is an outright assertion that the song is specifically for Black people to enjoy and feel heard by.

Many of the song’s lyrics speak on Black experiences, ranging from being seen as a criminal, or otherwise not a full citizen/human being, to the common trauma that is white people. Several times in the track she references using the n-word in the chorus, singing “Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along / Just be glad you got the whole wide world.” 

Her ethereal vocals are supported by clapping drums and some light piano chords, creating a beat that takes a pace reminiscent of a marching crowd or a moving train. The tempo of the song creates a steadfast atmosphere, displaying the strength of Black folks that have to deal with the violence and trauma of oppression.

That feeling is further held up by the song’s structure, as she repeats the chorus seven times, with five of her own verses, not including the guest verse from The-Dream. Repeating the chorus so many times is impactful and does well to drive her point home. She says she created the song “because I wanted to empower,” and that “F.U.B.U. exhibited Blackness in any space, on a huge global level, and that is what I wanted to do with the song.”

Ric Wilson — Fight Like Ida B and Marsha P

With a stunning house beat that shows love to the Black and queer folks that pioneered and popularized the house scene in Chicago almost 50 years ago, Ric Wilson lays down the boogie in honor of Black activists Ida B Wells and Marsha P Johnson. 

With such a catchy beat, he could’ve said just about anything he wanted and it would’ve gotten stuck in people’s heads. But Disco Ric recognizes that power, giving airtime to the important work of Black activists worldwide.

The song was popular at protests in 2020; it dropped in July, and the thumping beat is well-suited for an outdoor, energetic scenario. As many other artists have done in the past, this track takes messages of anti-racism and equality, turns them up to 10, and gets to dancing about it. 

Providing an atmosphere for protesting white supremacist delusion and dancing at the same time, Wilson ends the song with a cutting question: “which side are you on?” The song’s outro, spoken by Crista Noel, furthers the message: “I am the revolution / and the revolution don’t stop.”

Dead Prez — We Want Freedom

Dead Prez is a notoriously muscular rap duo from New York in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time where rap was burgeoning and growing to many parts of the country. It was fitting for Dead Prez to come up around when Andre 3000 was claiming that the “south got something to say” because it more and more took over-the-top grittiness and pervasive lyrics to be heard as a rapper from New York.

“We Want Freedom” is a direct protest against white supremacy and settler colonialism, demanding that they be let free from the rampant racism and oppression in America. Their lyrics are cutting and unflinching in their portrayal of the impacts of capitalism’s exploitative nature:

“Yeah our lives fucked up, no doubt / All this shit we go through every day … Imagine havin’ no runnin’ water to drink / Chemicals contaminate the pipes leadin’ to your sink / Just think, if the grocery stores close they doors / And they saturate the streets with tanks and start martial law.”

The beat is a classic New York boom-bap beat, an homage to the Black and Puerto Rican folks that pioneered hip-hop, and specifically rap within that. Dead Prez’s production tends to veer closer to signature instrumentals, rather than experimental, and that reflects their approach to music. They pull no punches, staying tied to reality and how to transcend it.

Deetranada — Hoodlums!

Elevating a Black experience, that of a kid from the inner city who has been stranded by the exploitative and unnatural nature of capitalism, Deetranada tells the story of a kid that’s “just tryna eat.” The song features a snippy trap-inspired instrumental with hitting bass, a signature sound for Deetranada.

The song’s lyrics delve into her life: “But they ain’t think the girl that stayed all in the house was provoking / I only did it just to prove I can open doors they tried closing / Breaking into opportunities they said wasn’t open.” Her dedication to telling her story is empowering; these kinds of stories tend to be silenced by the white establishment of the music industry. 

“I hope my album inspires everybody — Black youth in particular to break generational curses and be open about what they feel and what they want to do with their lives,”  she said in an interview with Hummingbird Mag.

The signature trap instrumental leaves plenty of room for Deetranada to tell her stories, an instrumental choice that achieves her lofty goals. Deetranada’s voice is strained and passionate throughout the track, giving even more power to her lived experience.

Brooklyn Funk Essentials — I Got Cash

Balancing between spoken word and melodic delivery, “I Got Cash” is an impossible track to skip over. Over a bass-bumping instrumental, the lead vocalist goes on to deconstruct white people’s complete lack of personal culture – rather, that their culture is completely based on stealing from other cultures.

At heart, this song is a diss track. The lead vocalist’s deep voice and strong-willed attitude combine with the funky beat to create a stormy song that leaves no second guesses about what Brooklyn Funk Essentials is trying to get across.

The song takes aim at everything white people are up to – and makes sure to call out faux-progressive white suburban liberals: “And your idea of multiculturalism / Japanese restaurant on Monday / Indian on tuesday / And on Wednesday, Caribbean / Not too spicy please.” This quote also brings out the important role comedy has played in Black Power movements; the whole song has witty remarks about white peoples’s bullshit, making the song an easy one to get new listeners interested in.

Common & PJ — What Do You Say (Move It Baby)

Common deserves endless recognition for his dedication to Black Power. He’s been an active musician for over 20 years at this point, and has stayed true to his core values — this latest album, A Beautiful Revolution (Pt. 1). With this album, he speaks on the ills of society, but also makes sure to spread hope for Black folks struggling with the everyday trauma of racism.

“What Do You Say” is a smooth track with a slightly funky beat, a groove that’ll have you tapping your foot while you’re appreciating Common’s tight lyricism. Similar to Ric Wilson, Common makes his message more easily transmittable with a light and recognizable rhythm. And as always, Common’s bars are on point: “When it feel like the world about to erupt / I’ma hold you down ’til you see up / Optimism that we got from wisdom.” While he recognizes the trauma of today, he also appreciates and encourages Black joy, telling the subject of the song that their “presence is a joy to be in.”

PJ makes a fantastic contribution to the track, just as she did throughout the album. Her chorus, centered around “Move it baby, we can make it larger than life,” is gleeful and fun to sing along with. The song’s uplifting beat and message fit seamlessly, making it a pleasant and valuable addition to any Black-centric playlist.

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