Why Can't We be Friends: Songs about Racism in the wake of the Zimmerman trial

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

My junior year of high school, I took what I still believe to be the best class I have ever taken: America Since 1945.  In that class, we had to memorize many quotes, including the one above.  I daresay Mr. King would probably not have found us to have come as far as he dreamed.

Yesterday the George Zimmerman verdict was delivered in Florida, sparking cries of racism across the country.  I’ll admit to not watching any of the trial and have only followed its progress peripherally.  I’m currently try to catch up and determine whether all of the racist outrage is centered on a) the fact that George Zimmerman, possibly a racist, shot (and killed) Trayvon Martin because he was black, and Zimmerman now been found not guilty; or b) George Zimmerman was found not guilty because he is not black and Trayvon Martin is, thereby delivering what is essentially a racist verdict.

I don’t know whether the prosecution did a crappy job of proving their case, which I’ve read is a possibility.  Or maybe there simply wasn’t enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the facts as we’ve come to accept them in the newspaper and through CNN.   Or perhaps the jurors (all six of whom were women, reportedly five white and one possibly Hispanic) did not like black people and were predisposed to finding in favor of a non-black.  I don’t know whether any or none or a combination of several of these factors played into the not guilty finding.

What I do know is that social issues always find their way into music and can be a very powerful tool for delivering a message.  In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, I have compiled some great songs that deal with racism.  The topic has been covered plentifully for decades, all the way back to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit.”  Some of the songs encourage listeners to ignore skin color and focus on character content, while others decry the racist world in which we still live.  Here are some (relatively) contemporary songs that address skin color in some way.

“People Are People” by Depeche Mode – At the heart of this song are the lyrics “People are people, so why should it be you and I should get along so awfully?” This was a popular song back in the eighties; it’s not specific to race but about differences in general.  Thus, it has become widely used in the LGBT community but translates effectively to issues of race, as well.

“Southern Man” by Neil Young – This song, released in 1970, describes a slave owner with antiquated views about how blacks should be treated.  Interestingly, Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to this song.

“A Wake” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – In this song, Macklemore admits to hesitating to get involved in the race issue, citing “white privilege, white guilt at the same damn time,” his subconscious telling him not to even tweet for Trayvon Martin to rest in peace.  I think Macklemore doesn’t solve any (of his own) problems in this song, but at least he’s honest about his internal conflict.  I’m surprised he’s hesitant to speak out on racial issues since his song “Same Love” is pretty outspoken about his views on gay rights.

“Ridin’” by Chamillionaire – Our friend Chamillionaire is certain the police are targeting blacks, hoping to catch them “riding dirty.”  I get that, but I don’t think blacks have a lock on this type of profiling: people who drive red Corvettes and 17 year old boys seem to also be targets (as my son of that age has learned recently, though not in a red Corvette).  Is it fair?  Maybe not, although I’m in the business of enforcing rules (albeit a completely different arena) I tell my son to follow the rules and he won’t have a problem.  The fact that Trayvon may not have been doing anything wrong when he was killed is a tragedy; the possibility of someone getting pulled over for committing traffic violations—no matter what their skin color—is not.

“Your Racist Friend” by They Might be Giants – I wasn’t familiar with this song before starting to research songs dealing with racism.  The singer has been at a party and can’t stomach the conversation he’s having with an acquaintance and his racist friend.  According to an interview in Rolling Stone, the song represents a composite of experiences.

“Free Your Mind” by En Vogue – Believe it or not, this Grammy nominated song is already 20 years old.  Listeners are encouraged to not make assumptions about someone based on how they’re dressed or the type of music they enjoy (basically don’t succumb to stereotypes).  Fun fact: En Vogue performed this song on “A Different World.”

“Bein’ Green” by (Jim Henson as) Kermit the Frog – You think I jest?  Kermit knows that it’s not easy to look different than everyone else.  The staying power of the message is evidenced by the fact that this song has been covered by everyone from Andrew Bird to Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.  And if Kermit’s sadness doesn’t just melt your heart, then your heart is likely made of stone anyway.  Happily, by the song’s end, Kermit realizes that his greenness has some attributes, as well, and he achieves some acceptance about it.  He may be more mature than some non-frogs.

“Cry Freedom” by Dave Matthews Band – I am a huge DMB fan, but I have always hated this song because it has such a downtrodden and depressing sound to it.  When it popped up amongst the songs about racism while I was researching this post, I learned that the meaning behind Dave’s lyrics was based on South Africa’s apartheid situation (Dave was born in Johannesburg but moved to New York at a young age).  Since my daughter just returned from five months studying in Cape Town and has been able to share her observations, I have a new appreciation for the song’s message.

“Ebony and Ivory” by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney – While the lyrics are about piano keys on the surface, they’re thinly masked to speak to racial similarities and differences, particularly how all must play in harmony.  Whether the song was a number 1 hit because it was a great song by its own merit or because people were open to the idea of racial harmony in 1982 I’m not really sure.

“Why Can’t We Be Friends” by War (and later Smash Mouth) – I absolutely love this song.  While it has an up-tempo and happy feel to it and the words in the title are repeated a good 32 times, it has a simple message, not meant to over complicate anything.  And I’d say it has stood the test of time, still relevant today. (The video is the Smash Mouth version)


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