Although R&B is mostly known as lovers' music, there's been a long history of performers using the music to make a point or further a social or political agenda, particularly during the civil rights era. During the 1960s and '70s, various artists not known for "message" songs injected a healthy dose of serious commentary into their songs, and although the tradition has faded with time, it has never completely died. And with that said, here's your R&B Guide's picks for the best social/political protest songs by R&B artists.
One of the most powerful songs ever about social change, "A Change Is Gonna Come" was one of the first overtly political songs by an R&B artist. Although it was only a moderately successful commercially when it was released in the mid-1960s, it eventually became a shining, somber anthem for the civil rights movement and has been covered over the years by everyone from Three Dog Night (in 1969) to Seal (in 2008).
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), Marvin Gaye
A poignant call for attention to the plight of America's urban areas, as well as a plea for help, "Inner City Blues" vividly depicted life in the bleak ghettos of inner-city America and how such a life can make you cry out in frustration: "Make me wanna holler, the way they do my life, This ain't livin,' this ain't livin'."
If You're Out There, John Legend
The politically active John Legend premiered this song at the 2008 Democratic National Convention: "The song is a rallying cry," he said. "When I was writing it I knew I didn’t want to temper it with cynicism. I wanted to be unabashedly hopeful. I think people’s expectations of (President Barack) Obama are very high, which is great, but they also need to understand how Washington works and the push and pull the president always has with Congress."
Everyday People, Sly & The Family Stone
A funky anti-racism sing-along. The song is one of Sly Stone's pleas for peace and equality between differing races and social groups, which was a major theme and focus for the band.
You Haven't Done Nothin,' Stevie Wonder
Stevie gets righteously indignant - and in a very funky way - on this 1974 song which features the Jackson 5 on background vocals. Even today, this frank condemnation of then-President Richard Nixon's lack of attention to the inner-city packs a powerful wallop: "Why do you keep on making us hear your song, Telling us how you are changing right from wrong, 'Cause if you really want to hear our views, You haven't done nothing."
Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud), James Brown
The title says it all. A funky, funky racial pride - and anti-racism - anthem by the Godfather of Soul.
What's Goin' On, Marvin Gaye
Released in 1971 on the album of the same name, "What's Goin' On" is a firm, yet gentle protest against the Vietnam War and other societal and global ills of the time.
Respect, Aretha Franklin
A demand for - well, respect - that is strongly associated with the Queen of Soul and has become an anthem for women's rights. Ironically, the song was written and originally recorded by Otis Redding as a plea for respect from a woman.
Big Black Buck, Donnie
With a title like this, you might expect the song to be about slavery or racism. But actually, "Big Black Buck," released by Donnie in 2002, sends a strong message against blind consumerism: "On your town look around it's the first of the month, U.S. economy will get its usual jump, We're creatures of habit, modern slaves, Guaranteed to spend it all in just one place." Ouch.
My People, Angie Stone feat. James Ingram
"My People" is on Angie's 2007 album The Art of Love & War. On the song, Angie and co-singer James Ingram basically gives a pep talk to African-Americans. Various successful and inspirational blacks are name-checked here and held up as positive examples, including Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and Spike Lee.