Reminder: Songs About Racism Can Actually Be Quite Good
Listen to these 10 tracks instead of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's "Accidental Racist."
By now you've likely heard Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's thoroughly bewildering "Accidental Racist," or at least heard of the controversy over whether the song itself is racist. Regardless of where you fall in that debate, we can probably all agree that the song is a) weird and b) plain-old bad. In the spirit of the song's arguably good intentions, though, here are a bunch of songs about racism that actually make for vaguely pleasurable (if often sad and chastening) listening experiences.
Nina Simone—"Mississippi Goddam"
A howl of exasperation and frustration at the state of the South in the mid-1960s, written as a response to the firebombing of a church and the murder of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers. The song was hugely controversial, and the fact that its release led to a boycott of Simone's records was at least part of the reason why she left the USA for Europe and Africa in 1974.
En Vogue—"Free Your Mind"
A clever subversion of the "Free your mind and your ass will follow" idea, the chorus of this song rather speaks for itself: "Free your mind and the rest will follow/ Be color blind, don't be so shallow."
Mos Def—"Mr. Nigga"
Hip hop tunes about racism are as old as the genre itself, of course. Everyone's familiar with "Changes" and "Fight the Power," etc., so we thought we'd go with this track, a song that catalogs its author's continuing struggle with being stereotyped and mistreated despite his burgeoning career. It's supremely catty, too: "Late night, I'm on a first class flight/ The only brother in sight the flight attendant catch fright... An hour later here she comes by walking past/ 'I hate to be a pest but my son would love your autograph.'"
They Might Be Giants—"Your Racist Friend"
The band's best known for lighthearted and quirky lyricism, but this uncharacteristically serious song does a pretty fine job of capturing just how uncomfortable it is being at a party or social gathering where someone you don't really know starts spouting racist horseshit. Do you tell them to shut up? Tell your friend to tell them to shut up? Or edge toward the door?
Sly and the Family Stone —"Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey"
The call-and-response chorus here acknowledges that racism can be a two-way street—a point that it seems "Accidental Racist" was trying to make in its own ignorant way. In citing this song as an anti-racist anthem, though, people tend to forget its sole verse, which presents a rather pessimistic view of the possibility of racial reconciliation: "I went down across the country, and I heard some voices rang/ They was talkin' softly to each other, and not a word could change a thing."
Depeche Mode—"People Are People"
Surely the only high-camp synthpop anti-racism plea ever committed to tape! The lyricism may be somewhat clay-footed—"We're different colors and different creeds/ And different people have different needs"—but the sentiment is laudable. RuPaul covered it, too.
Midnight Oil—"Beds Are Burning"
A song about Australian aborigines' struggle for land rights, and specifically the Pintupi people of Western Australia, who left their ancestral lands after British missile tests in the 1960s. The song was curiously successful outside Australia—I've come across it in record stores and record collections throughout Europe and North America.
Neil Young—"Southern Man"
Young's portrait of Southern racism dates from a generation before Paisley's song, and there's nothing accidental about the racism it depicts: "I saw cotton, and I saw black/ Tall white mansions and little shacks/ Southern man, when will you pay them back?" The song went down pretty poorly in the South, predictably enough, and continues to inspire debate (look no further than SongMeanings, for instance).
Taking its lyrics from a speech by Haile Selassie, this is one of music's most eloquent and powerful statements about racism. As far as a distillation of anti-racist sentiment goes, you can't really do a whole lot better than this: "Until the philosophy which hold one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war."
Billie Holiday—"Strange Fruit"
And finally, the classic, as hauntingly desolate as ever, some 75 years after it was first recorded. There's nothing accidental about the racism depicted here.
This post also appears on Flavorpill, an Atlantic partner site.