Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day specifically set aside to honor the life and legacy of one of the single-most influential civil rights leaders in our country’s history. Since its earliest days, the music industry been at the cultural forefront when it comes to honoring political activists through song, and MLK Jr. is no exception. From hip hop to rock, from soul to EDM, here are the 10 most noteworthy samples and shout-outs about the fallen civil rights icon in music history.
1. “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”, U2
“Early morning, April 4 / Shots ring out in the Memphis sky / Free at last, they took your life / But they could not take your pride,” Bono sings in this standout track from 1984. Students looking to write papers on MLK should note that King’s 1968 assassination took place in the evening and not the “early morning,” but a minor historical miscue like that does not rob this tremendous song of its inspirational power.
“Sweet King Martin, sweet Queen Coretta / Sweet Brother Malcolm, sweet Queen Betty / Sweet Mother Mary, sweet Father Joseph, sweet Jesus / We made it in America,” Frank Ocean sweetly sings on the album closing track of Kanye West and Jay Z’s Watch The Throne, paying tribute to those whose actions charted the course for African-Americans to have the kind of success that Jay, Kanye and Frank all enjoy today.
3. “By The Time I Get To Arizona,” Public Enemy
The observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into national law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, but it wasn’t until the year 2000 (!) that all fifty states actually acknowledged the day as a holiday. P.E.’s 1991 revolutionary track was specifically targeted at Arizona’s then-governor, Evan Mecham, who canceled MLK Day in his state. The controversial video that you see above, which concludes with Chuck D setting off a car bomb that assassinates the governor, aired only once on MTV. (See also: SPIN’s excellent article Public Enemy Look Back at 20 Years of ’By the Time I Get to Arizona’.)
4. “We Shall Overcome,” Bruce Springsteen
This protest song took its roots from an old gospel track, and has been covered over the years by everyone from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez to Roger Waters. Springsteen’s version appeared on his 2006 album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, and remains our favorite version of the song to this day.
5. “Love’s Gonna Get’cha (Material Love),” Boogie Down Productions
BDP’s harrowing tale of a family trying to make it in the Bronx during the crack epidemic of the ’80s is one of the most brilliant tracks in hip hop history. KRS-One narrates a twisted take on the American dream, one that samples Martin Luther King’s famous “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech in a manner that seems both reverential and ironic at the same time.
6. “American Dream,” Bobby Womack
“America is, essentially, a dream, a dream yet unfulfilled” Martin Luther King Jr. states early on in his 1968 speech “The American Dream.” Womack’s 1984 emotional funk-soul hybrid builds off of this idea (and this sample), as Womack uses romantic love as a metaphor for the way that he feels about the idealized notion of the America that King dreamed of.
7. “A Dream,” Common featuring Will.I.Am
This 2006 song from the Freedom Writers soundtrack samples the most famous King speech of all, “I Have A Dream.” It’s a song that’s rife with struggle and pain but, most importantly, also hope.
8. “Happy Birthday,” Stevie Wonder
Back in 1981, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was not yet a national holiday. It seems almost shocking in retrospect, but back then, there was a significant amount of political pushback to dedicating a national holiday to an African-American. Stevie Wonder used his musical abilities to push his line of thought forward, essentially making an argument that no one could argue with. “I just never understood / How a man who died for good / Could not have a day that would / Be set aside for his recognition,” Wonder sang and, just two years later, President Reagan would ultimately find himself agreeing with this statement.
9. “I Have A Dream,” DJ Quicksilver
You normally don’t think of MLK and raves in the same sentence … that is, if you haven’t heard DJ Quicksilver’s pulsating techno song that samples the “I Have A Dream” speech.
10. “HIStory,” Michael Jackson
“HIStory” appeared on Jackson’s 1995 greatest hits album of the same name, and it is built around a number of samples of speeches from important historical figures from the realms of politics (Ted Kennedy), sports (Hank Aaron) and civil rights (MLK), among others. It was never released as a single, but that has not stopped the legions of MJ fans from memorizing its every lyric.