In the wake of nationwide heartache following the news of George Floyd's death, there is a growing urgency to support the Black Lives Matter cause. Generations of soul artists have contributed to the movement through anthemic songs of protest and statement albums that have begun and furthered the conversations addressing racism, violence and disillusionment.
In this ongoing series, we highlight the songs of the Black Lives Matter movement that launched and empowered people's pleas for a brighter future. Check back in weekly to listen and learn about the songs that have unified people throughout history to stand up for racial equality.
Nina Simone, "Backlash Blues"
When Nina Simone passed away, she left behind a fearless legacy that continues to bear fruit today. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee was a rare spirit. The classically trained Simone married blues, politics, gospel, soul and jazz as she led an unflinching career of authority and complexity.
"Nina Simone was more rock & roll than a bunch of people who have already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” as folk singer Rhiannon Giddens shared with Rolling Stone.
In the turbulent times of the civil rights era, filled with rampant protests against the Vietnam War and the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, Simone defiantly stood up as a freedom fighter. With a calling to use her voice to ignite feeling in others, the High Priestess of Soul took the poem that her friend Langston Hughes had mailed her and channeled her righteous anger into the form of a song.
Hughes had spotlighted the oppression black Americans faced ("You give me second-class houses/ And second-class schools/ Do you think that all colored folks/ Are just second-class fools") and held a mirror to the ugly face of "Mr. Backlash."
In turn, Simone delivered his indictment with her confident and measured tones, taking on the mission to use her voice to politicize audiences and empower black consciousness. Filling the song with both grudge and glee, pain and power, Simone released her take of "Backlash Blues" in her 1967 album Nina Simone Sings the Blues.
Overlaying an innocent piano arrangement, Simone sang directly to each listener with brooding warning and raw rebuke, leaving her audience with an prophetic message of conviction that one day, the score would be settled.
ON THE SONG'S INSPIRATION:
When John Legend and Common accepted the Oscar for Best Original Song for "Glory," featured in the movie Selma in 2015, they referenced the mantra of Simone: “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live."
She continued, "Our painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I'm concerned, it's their choice. But I choose to reflect the times and the situation in which I find myself. At this crucial times in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when everyday is a matter of survival, I don't think you can help but be involved." Watch the moving clip below.
KEY LYRIC: "But the world is big/ Big and bright and round/ And it's full of folks like me/ Who are black, yellow, beige and brown/ Mr. Backlash, I'm gonna leave you/ With the backlash blues"
When the backlash emerged, it didn't bleed blue, but rather red, with rage.
There are many ways people can support the movement against police violence and provide relief to the communities who have been impacted by police racism. Help the family of George Floyd HERE. Fight for Breonna Taylor HERE. Help the family of Ahmaud Arbery HERE.
Want to help protesters? Donate to one or more community bail funds HERE. Visit Movement For Black Lives for additional ways you can help the cause. Want to connect with leaders building grass roots campaigns? Click HERE. Are you an ally and want to learn more? Here are some anti-racism resources.