10 Songs for Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Back in the '60s, and even into the early '80s, songs about civil rights and Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy were almost a rite of passage for singers and songwriters. And there are plenty of great ones out there from artists as diverse as U2, Stevie Wonder and Public Enemy. We pay tribute to the civil-rights activist and leader -- who was born on Jan. 15, 1929 and assassinated on April 4, 1968 -- with 10 songs that celebrate his life.
Back in 1991, Public Enemy made a poignant response to the state of Arizona after the state voted down making a holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by 17,000 votes. The vote happened following two years after Arizona’s governor at the time, Evan Mecham, canceled the holiday with the explanation, “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday.” The release of “By the Time I Get to Arizona” showed the contempt and disappointment the group had for the state’s decision through hip-hop, pure and simple.
Peace, love and respect were the main goals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s agenda, and through “Just A Little More Love,” David Guetta brought that same sentiment to life. Through joyous dance music, Guetta strives for the idea of bringing more peace and love to humanity. It’s an EDM track for the greater good: “Just a little more love / Just a little more peace / Is all it takes / To live the dream.”
A mix of gospel and folk, “Up to the Mountain” is a tribute to the emotions that surfaced from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic 1968 speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” that was sadly delivered one day before his assassination. Both soulful and cinematic, Patty Griffin’s take on Dr. King’s speech is spiritual in the way that it reminds us to focus on the beautiful things that surround us -- the greater good.
Nina Simone was inspired to write a song dedicated to King right after his assassination in 1968. “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” is both a song of love and heartbreak: it questions if all hope is lost for a future of equality and goodness in the world: “Will my country fall, stand or fall? / Is it too late for us all? / And did Martin Luther King just die in vain?” Solemn and soulful, Simone praises Dr. King right.
Wonder and Public Enemy both lamented that any state or individual would be against a holiday in honor of Dr. King. With “Happy Birthday,” the song is a gift to Dr. King and the fight for a holiday devoted to the civil rights activist. The song explicitly states how problematic not having a holiday for Dr. King is in the grand scheme of things: “I just never understood / How a man who died for good / Could not have a day that would / Be set aside for his recognition.” Thankfully Wonder was one of the biggest crusaders for making Martin Luther King Jr Day possible.
U2's atmospheric fourth album The Unforgettable Fire is all about the band uncovering American roots and connecting them to their own Irish heritage. It leads them to several places, including the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy. The two-and-a-half-minute hymn "MLK" closes the record and serves as its requiem.
Like King, Rage Against the Machine were no strangers to civil disobedience. This ferocious track off their debut album borrows its key closing line from one of King's most famous speeches, "How Long, Not Long." "How long, not long, because what you reap is what you sow," sings Zack de la Rocha in this song about racism in the United States.
Pittsburgh punks Anti-Flag kick off their fourth album with this timeless anthem about "fighting, killing, dying." But the linchpin of "911 for Peace" comes halfway through the song, when King's most famous speech, 1963's "I Have a Dream," shows up as a soundbite, driving home the song's timeless message.
Ben Harper's debut album makes several references to the civil rights struggle and King's legacy (like the closing "I'll Rise," which includes words by poet Maya Angelou), but the most pointed is "Like a King," which ties Martin Luther King to Rodney King, whose 1991 beating by Los Angeles police officers sparked racial unrest throughout the country.
U2 were all over King and his legacy on their fourth album (see "MLK," also on this list). But their breakthrough hit remains one of the best songs ever written about the civil rights leader. It's a stirring anthem that captures both the hope and frustration in leading a nation to change. After all these years, it still rings loud and clear.