This Hair is Mine: A Black Empowerment Playlist

After working through the fatigue of being a Black body seeing reposts of uncensored Black death, I decided to manage the exhaustion by consuming Black art. I started with watching Anifa Mvuemba’s revolutionary runway display, re-watching Beyoncé’s Homecoming, re-reading Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth and giving Nina Simone’s entire discography a fresh listen, and I realised that I needed to make a Black Lives Matter playlist to condense that healing into two hours. 

Here is a list of the songs in the playlist, in carefully curated order (available on Apple Music):

  1. 1. Roll Jordan Roll by Topsy Chapman (feat. Chiwetel Ejiofor)

    This classic Negro spiritual re-imagined for '12 Years a Slave' hauntingly describes the day-to-day pains and optimisms of enslaved African Americans.

    Highlighted lyric: “Went down to the River Jordan/Where John Baptizd three/Well I woke the Devil in hell/Saying John ain’t baptize me”

  2. 2. Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday

    A song with many renditions – from Diana Ross to Nina Simone – Strange Fruit is the embodiment of blues: setting the sombre poem to music. The lyrics use trees and fruit as an allegory for the lynching of African Americans.

    Highlighted lyric: “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”

  3. 3. Four Women by Nina Simone

    Nina Simone's almost bare ballad details the lives of four different African American women. Known for her advocacy for the fair treatment of Black lives, Nina Simone uses her lyrics to contrast and make equal the different yet similar experiences of African American women.

    Highlighted lyric: “My skin is black/My arms are long/My hair is woolly/My back is strong/Strong enough to take the pain/inflicted again and again”

  4. 4. The Story of O.J. by Jay-Z

    In this rap-ballad made from a sample of Nina Simone’s Four Women, Jay-Z similarly calls on the different titles African Americans give themselves and are given by other people, then finalises that they are still Black at the end of the day. This powerful statement is followed by his observation that not much has changed in the treatment of Black people.

    Highlighted lyric: “Light n***a, dark n***a, faux n***a, real n***a/Rich n***a, poor n***a, house n***a, field n***a/Still n***a.”

  5. 5. Don’t Touch My Hair by Solange (feat. Sampha)

    In Solange’s contemporary-soul statement piece, she calls out the habit of people touching Black womens’ hair without our permission, before proclaiming its meaning to us. Simply, Solange checks everyone who may have (inadvertently) treated Black hair like something strange and abnormal instead of beautiful and magical.

    Highlighted lyric: “Don't touch my hair/When it's the feelings I wear/Don't touch my soul/When it's the rhythm I know/Don't touch my crown/They say the vision I've found”

  6. 6. Interlude: This Moment by Solange (feat. Master P, Kelsey Lu, Sampha and Devonte Hynes)

    In a perfect segway from Don’t Touch My Hair, Master P breathes life into Spoken Word’s words and finalises Solange’s thoughts on Black hair and pride.

    Highlighted lyric: “If you don't understand us and understand what we've been through, then you probably wouldn't understand what this moment is about”

  7. 7. Forward by Beyoncé (feat. James Blake)

    The lull in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, this song takes a break from Black anger and betrayal and explores forgiveness and silent protest, moved only slightly by the bare piano accompaniment. The song is arguably also about the Carter’s marital issues, though the message remains.

    Highlighted lyric: “Best foot first just in case/When we made our way til now/It's time to listen, it's time to fight”

  8. 8. Freedom by Beyoncé (feat. Kendrick Lamar)

    The anger-charged revolution anthem speaks volumes today just as it did when it debuted in 2016. Beyoncé samples Kaleidoscope’s Let Me Try, Stewball’s Prisoner 22, Reverend RC Crenshaw’s (Unidentified) Lining Hymn; all of which are African American protest songs and hymns. (see: www.whosampled.com)

    Highlighted lyric: “Imma wade, Imma wave through the waters/Tell the tide, "Don't move"/Imma riot, Imma riot through your borders/Call me bulletproof”

  9. 9. Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing by Beyoncé

    During her monumental Homecoming performance, Beyoncé recalls the first verse of the ‘Black National Anthem’, originally written by James Weldon Johnson.

    Highlighted lyrics: “Let us march on 'til victory is won”

  10. 10. Formation by Beyoncé

    In closing of Miss Yoncé’s call for Black power, Formation calls on her successes while the video depicts anti-police brutality. This refreshing parallel is similar to Childish Gambino's, This is America, in which he dances casually while the real message of the song plays out in the action behind him in the music video.

    Highlighted lyric: “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”

  11. 11. Vana Vevhu (Funk Afrika) by Thandiswa Mazwai

    Moving closer to home, Thandiswa Mazwai turns this soulful bassline into a call for the better treatment of “maAfrika”. Taking a break to address rape culture and violence, Mazwai returns to her mournful cries for Africa.

    Highlighted lyric (Xhosa): “lafa elihle ilizwe”

    Translated lyric: "Our beautiful nation died"

  12. 12. Not Yet Uhuru by Letta Mbulu

    Set to a simple instrumental and backed by a Black choir, Letta Mbulu vocalises the harsh realities of Apartheid-era South Africa and the dehumanization of black South Africans, some of which ring true till today. Meaning “not yet free", this black anthem is a must-listen.

    Highlighted lyric (Xhosa): “Ah thin'asina voti (thin'asina voti)/Silal'emikhukhwini (Silal'emikhukhwini)/Akukhi mehluko kulelizwe/Qhawul'amakhamandela (Qhawul'amakhamandela)”

    Translated lyric: "Ah we don't have the right to vote/We sleep in shacks/There is no change in the country/Break the chains

  13. 13. Black President by Brenda Fassie

    One of the most famous voices of our Nation, MaBrr set alight the Black movement in music, advocating for the late President Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela.

    Highlighted lyric: “The people's president/Was taken away by security men/All dressed in a uniform/The brutality, brutality/Oh no, my, my black president”

  14. 14. Zabalaza by Thandiswa Mazwai

    Coming back to songstress and poet Thandiswa Mazwai, Zabalaza, meaning ‘struggle’ is a Xhosa struggle ballad. Weaving between English and Xhosa, Mazwai laments the age-old and continuing struggle of black people, from HIV/AIDS to poverty.

    Highlighted lyric: “For the blood sweat and tears/For the struggle and pain/Cause they gave up their lives for this/And it makes me wanna scream/When I see things this way.”

  15. 15. Almeda by Solange

    Solange sounds of on Almeda, simply listing all things brown and beautiful.

    Highlighted lyric: “brown liquor/Brown skin, brown face/Brown leather, brown sugar/Brown leaves, brown keys/Brown zippers, brown face/Black skin, black braids/Black waves, black days/Black baes, black days/These are black-owned things/Black faith still can't be washed away/Not even in that Florida water”

  16. 16. Redbone by Childish Gambino

    In Gambino’s eerie warning originally penned for the film Get Out, the listener is both enamoured by the soulful instrumental and alerted by the sharp, callous singing and warning from the lyrics.

    Highlighted lyric: “But stay woke/N***as creepin'/They gon' find you/Gon' catch you sleepin”

  17. 17. To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Nina Simone

    Falling back into the soft blues rhythm, Nina Simone makes brash proclamations both about herself and Black youth, seemingly to the unyielding message from white governments and populations that proposed and ‘proved’ the mental inferiority of the Black child.

    Highlighted lyric: “To be young, gifted and black/Open your heart to what I mean”

  18. 18. BLACK EFFECT by The Carters

    In a warm and hard ode to Black history and black beauty, the Carters once again serve us black excellence and black love against a well-chosen sample (see: www.whosampled.com) of Flower Travellin’ Bands’ Broken Strings.

    Highlighted lyric: “Now hands where I can see them, fuck a false arrest”

  19. 19. Soweto Blues by Miriam Makeba

    MaMiriam writes about Black pain surrounding Group Areas Act and forced removals with haunting vocals. Makeba recounts how the distance between homelands and mines led to fatherless households and inequalities.

    Highlighted by: “That's when the policemen came to the rescue/Children were flying bullets dying/The mothers screaming and crying/The fathers were working in the cities”

  20. 20. A Luta Continua by Miriam Makeba

    In a similar vein as Not Yet Uhuru, Makeba reflects on how much is still the same for Africans after democracy. The title means ‘The Struggle continues’.

    Highlighted lyric: “In South Africa a luta continua/A luta continua, continua, continua”

  21. 21. Glory by John Legend and Common

    Written and performed for Civil Rights biopic, Selma, John Legend and Common bring a new voice to old African American cries and burdens.

    Highlighted lyric: “Saw the face of Jim Crow under a bald eagle/The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful/We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through/Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany/Now we right the wrongs in history”

  22. 22. Black Woman by Danielle Brooks

    Written about Black women to other women, Brooks calls out how cultural appropriation and blackfishing have made profits and trends popular off black women while leaving us behind/policing us. Brooks also takes a long-overdue swing at the under-representation of Black women in leading roles and calls out fetishization.

    Highlighted lyrics: “Would you take the pain that came/With all the parts you wanna claim for you? /You want my thighs, you want my stride, but not this melanin”

  23. 23. Brown Skin by India.Arie

    India.Arie pens a love letter to brown skin, replacing the harmful stereotypes of Black skin/features.

    Highlighted lyric: “Apparently your skin has been kissed by the sun”

  24. 24. BROWN SKIN GIRL by Beyoncé, SAINt JHN, Wizkid and Blue Ivy Carter

    This collab of Black magic brings us melanin love in the highest form, praising brown skin from start to finish.

    Highlighted lyric: “Melanin too dark to throw her shade/She minds her business and wines her waist/Gold like 24k, okay”

  25. 25. They Don’t Care About Us by Michael Jackson

    The King of Pop vocalised police brutality long before the coining of the Black Lives Matter movement. In a critique of racism and brutality in the police force, Jackson calls out his home country.

    Highlighted lyric: “Tell me what has become of my life/I have a wife and two children who love me/I am the victim of police brutality, now/I'm tired of bein' the victim of hate”

  26. 26. Alright by Kendrick Lamar

    After opening Alright with a rant on the trials of an African American man, Lamar reassures us that after the dust settles, there will be room to heal (or at least be alright).

    Highlighted lyrics: “We been hurt, been down before, nigga/When our pride was low/Lookin' at the world like, "Where do we go, n***a?"/And we hate po-po/Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure”

  27. 27. C.R.E.A.M by Wu-Tang Clan

    In a (confirmed) classic, Wu-Tang Clan raps about the woes of the power of racism, hustling and mass incarceration. C.R.E.A.M, standing for Cash Rules Everything Around Me, reduces these issues to their root evil: Money.

    Highlighted lyric: “Life as a shorty shouldn't be so rough/But as the world turns I learned life is hell/Living in the world no different from a cell”

  28. 28. Keep Ya Head Up by 2Pac

    The late Tupac Shakur criticises racism, rape culture, femicide, Black poverty, government and father absenteeism all in four minutes. Reflecting on his life and surroundings, Shakur closes each punching verse with optimism.

    Highlighted lyric: “Dying inside, but outside you're looking fearless/While the tears, is rollin' down your cheeks/Ya steady hopin' things don't all down this week”

This is far from a comprehensive playlist, but it takes you from the lows, the anger, the pleading and the optimism to the introspection and the unity that is Black Lives Matter. If you are looking to action your privilege or contribute to the cause: