On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when we reflect on the great, late, slain Civil Rights leader, let’s pair it with justice music and peace songs in his honor. Born on January 15, 1929, he was the movement’s most important figure who, at a seminal moment in the fight for racial justice, was murdered by a gunman on April 4, 1968. He was the eloquent man who left us with poetic truths such as this: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Since his death a wide array of music artists such as Stevie Wonder, The Rascals, U2 and Public Enemy, and many others, have dedicated songs to his legacy. Here are 10 worthy albums that capture the spirit of justice music for this very special yearly memorial celebration.
1. Stevie Wonder’s Hotter than July
This deceptively upbeat track “Happy Birthday” was actually written by Wonder to contribute to the campaign to have Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday become a national holiday. “I just never understood, how a man who died for good/could not have a day that would be set aside for his recognition,” say the lyrics.
Read Related: 10 Songs Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.
2. Public Enemy’s Apocalypse 91
The legendary rap group´s “By The Time I Get to Arizona” dramatized the governor’s assassination and was a direct reply to Arizona officials for rejecting the federal holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.
3. Nina Simone’s Nuff Said
As USA Today reports, this Simone album features the tribute song Why (The King of Love Is Dead), which was performed live to a New York audience three days after King was assassinated. It´s remembered for Simone’s intense sermon that stretches on for 15 minutes!
4. U2’s Unforgettable Fire
“Pride” actually began as a song condemning President Ronald Reagan for an arrogant pride that led to nuclear escalation. After seeing the Chicago Peace Museum´s powerful MLK exhibit, the band re-worked the song lyrics to honor King instead.
5. Marvin Gaye’s That´s the Way Love Is
The song ¨Abraham, Martin and John” is a soulful lament for King, Abraham Lincoln and both John and Robert F. Kennedy is a must-listen-to. Especially for Gaye’s impressive high voice range when he sings: ¨He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young.”
6. James Brown´s A Soulful Christmas
This funk album features the great self-empowerment anthem “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” a classic by the Godfather of Soul himself proclaims “We demands a chance to do things for ourself/we’re tired of beating our head against the wall/and workin’ for someone else.”
7. Otis Spann’s Rare Chicago Blues
In the beloved Chicago blues pianist´s song “Blues For Martin Luther King,” he sings: “You know there came a mean man pop a bullet through Dr. King’s head/Oh when his wife and kids came down, all they could do is moan/Now the world’s in a revolt.”
8. Selma Movie Soundtrack
The critically acclaimed movie about King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama includes the award-winning protest anthem, “Glory” and features the music by Otis Redding and John Legend.
9. The Rascals’ Freedom Suite
The song “People Got to Be Free” was written in response to King’s murder and this progressive blue-eyed soul group would only perform on bills that included an African-American act. “All the world over, so easy to see! People everywhere, just wanna be free.”
10. Jerry Moore’s Life is a Constant Journey Home
As The New Yorker says, the deeply touching song “The Ballad of Birmingham” was actually a response to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963, before Kings death. “Mother dear, may I go downtown/ Instead of out to play/And march the streets of Birmingham/In a Freedom March today?”