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Celebrating Black History Month 2024 – “The Art of Resistance”: Protesting Through Song

A graphic that reads: "Celebrating Black History Month Part 6: Protesting Through Song," with an image of a vinyl record

Throughout the month of February, we are sharing posts written by Imagine Institute training program assistant Lourdes Flores about Black History Month. This series will follow the long history of Black History Month, Black History in the United States, and how we can all celebrate Black History Month in a way that is supportive, healthy, and, most importantly, empowering.

Song writing and performance has been a marker of protest and resistance for Black Americans for centuries. It is also a marker of celebration, joy, exaltation, and worship, among others. The National Museum of African American History and Culture created a comprehensive list of music. We also wanted to share some categories of music for you to listen to: visit this site from the Smithsonian.

Age-appropriate music for children:

Different genres in African American music:

African American is a diverse term, but for the purposes of this section, we will cover African-Americans who are descendants of the African diaspora of the 1700s-1900s.

Sacred Music

This includes spirituals and gospel music. When we think of Black Christianity, it is important to note that the celebration of God is very unique.

The Black Church and the role of music

 One thing that is important to note is that Sacred music was often used to hide messages of resistance in enslaved populations. Plantation bosses and owners encouraged Christianity, and singing was popularly encouraged. Songs like “Wade in the Water” had messages about the underground railroad and helped spread messages in the fight for freedom.

For example, it is popularly believed the Harriet Tubman used “Wade in the Water” to warn enslaved peoples to get off trails and into the water to hide scents and lose tracking dogs.

Sacred music was also used to help retain humanity under the inhumane conditions of the Antebellum South.

Now, sacred music is a celebration of Black culture and resistance, and a tool for unity through the church. Sacred music transcends generations and unifies the Black community. Two Examples: “I’ve Got The Victory” Summer Jam Praise Break 2018! and “I’m yet holding on praise break.”

Folk Music

African American folk music links back to African cultural traditions. Popular folk music was used in the 1960s Black Power protest movement and its influence can be found in Hip Hop today.

The history of African American folk music is rich and demands separate reading. A great article by Black Music Scholar can be found here, which details the key aspects, performers, the commodification of it, as well as its influence and impact:

Influence in Hip-Hop modernly

African American folk music has historically been used as a symbol of resistance. It is not surprising that with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and another wave of Black activism, we would see the rise and incorporation of it into more popular modern genres.

The Blues

The blues is considered contemporary American music. However, it was created by and for African-Americans in the south. With roots in the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, Chicago, Georgia, Southern Texas, etc., the music was originally used for protest of widespread poverty in the area while celebrating the natural and cultural richness of the culture.

Songs also detailed the Great Migration Northward, where 6 million African Americans moved out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West (1910-1970)

  • Edith Wilson – [What did I do To Be So] Black and Blue 
  • Leadbelly – Bourgeois Blues  – This song was used to spread the message to warn African Americans against moving to the north and detailed that the promise of equity in the north was an illusion. The lyrics include:
    “Me and my wife went all over town
    And where we go, the colored people turn us down
    Lord, in a bourgeois town
    It’s a bourgeois town
    I got the bourgeois blues, I’m
    Gonna spread the news all around” … “I tell all the colored folks to listen to me
    Don’t try to find you no home in Washington, DC”
  • Tampa Red – Things ‘Bout Coming My Way (1931 version) 


Jazz evolved from ragtime and was first materialized in New Orleans. Inherently based on improvisation, it has evolved into many different subgenres, from big band to avant-garde jazz.

Rhythm and Blues

The predecessor to soul music, R&B has roots in jazz, the blues, and gospel. The popularity and easy commercialization of R&B helped spread African American culture and popularized racial integration during the late stages of the Great Migration.

Hip-Hop and Rap

Hip-hop and rap have become a global phenomenon and spawned an entire cultural form. The roots of rap are in protest and continue to be an avenue for artists to voice opinions about social and political issues.

Caribbean Music

The Caribbean population, while diverse and sometimes multi-ethnic and multi-racial, is largely Black, and the African influence has trickled through generations. Often, we refer to Caribbean music as having “Afro-beats”, but there are many genres, varying by countries and regions. Here are some.

African Music – The Diaspora

As we mentioned above, almost 50% of the Black immigrant population in the United States today is made up of African Immigrants from countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

  • 1970s and 1980s Somali Music Playlist: Here.
  • Niaja Music 2024, Nigerian Songs Playlist 2024: Here.