Were you one of the 112 million people who saw Beyonce’s show-stealing guest-spot during Coldplay’s Super Bowl halftime show? If so, you witnessed Beyonce command Levi Stadium with her new song “Formation” as she was flanked by Black Panther-inspired back-up dancers. And whether she meant to or not, she blew Coldplay out of the water, issuing a bold, brave statement on race relations to boot.
Not surprisingly, the performance drew ire from conservatives, with former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani calling it “outrageous.” To some, Beyonce had clearly crossed a line into overt politics… but that was the point. After all, Black artists have a long, storied history of disrupting the status quo in order to be heard; in this regard, Beyonce is just the latest in a long line of visionary revolutionists.
And since February is Black History Month, what better time to look back at some of the most pivotal moments in music history, where Black artists led a righteous revolution against inequality?
Perhaps surprisingly, these landmark achievements occur regularly, with acts ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Rihanna smashing down barriers to re-calibrate the barometer of success for future generations. As such, this article should not be viewed as definitive; we’re merely illuminating some of the more noteworthy examples.
1. “My Prayer” Scores the First Number One Single by a Black Artist (1956)
Sometimes revolutions don’t sound all that revolutionary. Case in point: “My Prayer,” by the Platters. Written by Irish lyricist Jimmy Kennedy in 1939, the song was a number two hit by big-band musician Glenn Miller at the start of World War II. The song got a doo-wop makeover by vocal-group, the Platters and, in 1956, their version soared to the top of what would eventually become the Billboard Hot 100, making them the first Black act to have a number one single.
The Platters were not the first Black act to have hit singles; artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry were already well into their respective, ground-breaking careers. At the time however, most Black artists were viewed as dangerous and untamed; radio programmers preferred white-washed cover versions by Pat Boone and Perry Como. “My Prayer,” therefore, acted as the perfect gateway: stylistically, the song is ridiculously bland by today’s standards. But, symbolically, it was a milestone; without even meaning to, the Platters opened the door for all Black artists to march through.
2. Aretha Franklin Commands R-E-S-P-E-C-T (1967)
After the Platters shattered the glass ceiling at the top of the charts, a bevy of black artists went to number one in the ‘60s. Equally important, a number of these acts were female artists, including seminal girl groups like The Shirelles and The Supremes. But while black female artists were enjoying unprecedented levels of success, they were often just conduits for a strong production team, song-writing franchise and/or record label. That is, Black female artists weren’t taken seriously as artists in their own right… but then Aretha Franklin stormed in, demanding respect.
Franklin grew up in the church, nurturing her legendary voice on gospel songs, before switching to secular music. Success came slowly: she released 10 albums that all failed to crack the top fifty. But when “Respect” came out as a single in 1967, she finally hit her groove.
Although the song was originally written and recorded by a man named Otis Redding, Franklin’s commanding performance instantly became the definitive version, becoming a feminist anthem in the process. It was a turning point for Black female artists everywhere, emboldening future talents like Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys to be strong and independent.
3. Rap Music Gets Real With “The Message” (1982)
Rap music is said to have originated sometime in 1970s New York City as block parties, emceeing, break-dancing and beat-boxing simmered into a delicious gumbo of new culture and sound. The new genre quickly gained traction, with Blondie scoring a number one single in 1981 with the rap-influenced “Rapture” (below). But it was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five that really gave rap music its guts and grit.
“The Message” (below) immediately differentiated itself from feel-good party rap songs like the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” by using its lyrics as a platform for social commentary. While not unprecedented — much of Marvin Gaye’s ‘70s work was also socially-aware — the effect was incendiary and unforgettable when married to the furious flow of a rap emcee. Suddenly rap music expanded beyond novelty and became a manifesto for millions of disenfranchised youths surrounded by crime, dangerous neighborhoods and the threat of drugs and prison.
“The Message” was only a minor hit, peaking at number 62 in the charts. And it sounds almost disco-y today. But its impact was undeniable, as Black artists now had an entire genre to fill with hard-hitting politics.
4. Michael Jackson Breaks Down the Color Barrier at MTV (1982)
The same year that “The Message” dropped, another black artist was about to smash the door down on a new visual medium.
Music videos had their first 24-hour television channel when MTV debuted on August 1, 1981. But sifting through the endless Rod Stewart and REO Speedwagon videos, something became apparent: there was a suspicious lack of Black artists on the channel. MTV used an embarrassingly flimsy excuse, claiming that the channel was envisioned as a rock-and-roll station. It was all but blatant racism, and a standoff ensued…
…until Michael Jackson released his Thriller album.
Jackson was already a huge solo star when MTV debuted, but Thriller launched him into the stratosphere, thanks to an epic run of now-classic music videos. “Billie Jean” got the party started, but MTV was initially slow to get on board. That’s when the president of Jackson’s record label stepped in: he threatened to pull all of his label’s artists from the video channel if MTV would not play “Billie Jean.”
At the time, MTV didn’t have enough clout to balk; “Billie Jean” subsequently went into rotation. Unsurprisingly, the video and song became massive hits. Jackson followed it up with the mini-West–Side–Story gang-fight of “Beat It” and his zombie opus for “Thriller”, enabling him to become one of the biggest pop stars ever.
And what’s more: Jackson managed to turn the music video into a legitimate art form, while also paving the way for other Black artists like Prince, Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston to make their own iconic work. Music videos would never be the same again.
5. Public Enemy Stands Up Against Racial Inequality (1990)
With Black artists and rap music gaining momentum on radio and MTV, conditions were ripe for unapologetic, political rap to take over the mainstream; in 1990, Public Enemy did just that.
The rap collective Public Enemy had already released two well-received albums by the time they dropped Fear of a Black Planet in 1990. The album was led by the call-to-arms single, “Fight the Power,” a Molotov cocktail of brutal samples, loops, and references to black culture.
Notably, the song targeted both Elvis Presley and John Wayne as symbols of White America. The lyrics earned them scorn from conservative critics, but it served notice that Public Enemy were not afraid to take down sacred cows in their plight to expose White America’s hypocrisy.
Their follow-up single, “911 is a Joke” added fuel to the fire, with rap-clown Flava Flav railing against the shamefully slow reaction time of cops and paramedics in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Safe, vocal-harmonies a la the Platters, Public Enemy were not!
Fear of a Black Planet could easily have been dismissed as “angry Black music.” But Public Enemy tapped into a groundswell of indignation that had been waiting to burst. The album hit the top ten and kicked-started a tumultuous decade of politically-charged rap music that would explode into the L.A. race-riots of 1992. Black artists demanded to be heard and this time they were taking no hostages.