To celebrate the 4th of July this year, amidst a global coronavirus pandemic as well as national civil rest in the face of systemic injustice, we've hand-picked seven soul anthems and uplifting performances that critically reflect on the great, complicated country of ours - from the righteous frustration in The Impressions' "This Is My Country," to Chuck Berry's overwhelming gratitude in "Back in the USA."
7. "Back In the USA" - Chuck Berry, 1959
Key "America" Lyric: "Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café/ Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day/ Yeah, and a juke-box jumping with records like in the U.S.A."
Though life wasn't always a cakewalk for a black musician traveling the world in the late ’50s, Berry returned home to the states after an international trip, heart bursting with gratitude as he declares, "I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the U.S.A.!”
6. "This Is My Country" - The Impressions, 1968
Key "America" Lyric: "Shall we perish unjust or live equal as a nation/
This is my country"
During the early years of the Black Power movement, the Impressions' influential and articulate frontman Curtis Mayfield expressed both righteous anger and hope with this anthem. Mayfield questioned the reality of racial inequality as he reflected, “Some people think we don’t have the right to say it’s my country,” a national diagnosis still plaguing the country today.
5. "America the Beautiful" - Ray Charles, 1972
Key "America" Lyric: "My God he done shed his grace on thee/ And you oughta love him for it/ Cause he, he, he, he, crowned thy good/ He told me he would, with brotherhood/ (From sea to shining sea). Oh Lord, oh Lord, I thank you Lord."
In the wake of 9/11, Ray Charles nourished the American spirit with a glorious gospel rendition of "America The Beautiful" in late 2001.
Released within his 1972 album, A Message From the People, Brother Ray gave the symbolic standard a moving, blues feel that touched Americans to their core when he performed his version at Super Bowl XXXV with heart-filled patriotism. Throughout his career, the Genius had fused rock, country, rhythm and blues, soul, blues, jazz and gospel in such powerful, energetic combinations that he invited fans of one culture to taste the flavors of another.
So in spite of the debris and destruction of the Twin Towers, Charles delivered his gospel take of the tune to unite everyone's hearts in shared pain and hope.
4. "Living in America" - James Brown, 1985
Key "America" Lyric: "Living in America - hand to hand, across the nation/ Living in America - Got to have a celebration/ You may not be looking for the promised land, but you might find it anyway."
"Living In America" was James Brown's comeback to pop music prominence in the mid-1980s. Featured in the Rocky IV soundtrack, the song was written by Dan Hartman to channel the US vs USSR mood of the film and elevate the American feeling of freedom.
“Living In America" was intended to reassure listeners that peace, hope and tolerance were within reach in America - in comparison to the lives of those in the former Soviet Union. While the question remains how much closer we are to truly grasping those values, Brown received a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for the celebratory song.
3. The Star-Spangled Banner - Whitney Houston, 1991
Key "America" Lyric: "O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"
We would be remiss to exclude this revolutionary performance from our 4th of July list. While scores of artists have sung the national anthem, Whitney Houston remade the tune as she delivered one of the most influential performances of the national song. Houston changed what it sounded like to be American that day - so much so that after 9/11, Arista Records re-released Houston's version of "The Star Spangled Banner" and she became the first artist to carry the national anthem to Top Ten on the charts.
2. "My Shot: - Hamilton cast, 2015
Key "America" Lyric: "I'm a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal/ Tryin' to reach my goal my power of speech, unimpeachable"
In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, "I think the notion of 'I'm not throwing away my shot’ has a sort of universal appeal,” he explained to Billboard. “There is something about that line and that hook that got beyond the Arts & Leisure page."
1. "This Is America: - Childish Gambino
Key "America" Lyric: "This is America (skrrt, skrrt, woo)/ Don't catch you slippin' now (ayy)/ Look at how I'm livin' now/ Police be trippin' now (woo)/ Yeah, this is America (woo, ayy)"
Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, released a 4 minute opus that critically questions the connection between carnage, chaos and capitalism. With a music video that spotlights Glover shooting a guitarist point blank less than a minute in, the song iconically juxtaposes happy-go-lucky cheer to malicious aggressiveness. He reminds his listeners that in a world, and especially industry, fueled by black culture, one must not forget that the continual oppression and struggle of black communities.