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10 Classic Songs About Racism and Civil Rights

Racism in oldies music has been a recurring theme ever since the blues was born. Found as a means for expression for their anguish and strife, musicians took to their craft to pen powerful ballads about the real devastation experienced because of racism in 20th century America.

The R&B and pop songs about racism in the following list actually did quite a bit of integrating on their own, spreading to white audiences while spreading their message, educating the masses on the vast history of the struggle for African-Americans to assimilate and also to thrive. This struggle has been a long, hard, often angry but sometimes hopeful one, culminating in the inauguration of Barack Obama as America"s first black President, a watershed moment for a country whose history is interwoven with white-on-black racism. 

Billie Holiday"s "Strange Fruit" began as a poem written (and later set to music) by a Jewish man horrified at photos of lynchings in the American South. So moving that listeners often broke down in tears after hearing it — including the famed jazz herself — the ballad version took Holiday leaving her record label to get it produced. 

The original version had been used in protests in New York City in the early 1930s, but In 1939, Holiday released her version to great critical acclaim (and many, many tears). It went on to become her show-closer and her signature song.

The lyrical metaphor, while powerful, did not filter the ugliness of the images it conjured. With vivid descriptions of "blood on the leaves and blood at the root" and "black bodies swinging in the southern breeze" in the lyrics, it was as unforgiving as it was accurate of conditions for African-Americans at the turn of the century. 

Stevie Wonder is known for his positivity, but his epic 1973 soul single "Living For The City" — featuring at least four different documentary-sized slices of black urban life tied together by Wonder"s narration and a gospel chorus — sounded like the revolution was just at the nation"s doorstep.

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