People would be surprised by how important and inspirational Dr. King is in the music industry. The stories that come from his speeches and his faith live on through music dedicated in his memory. This list of five songs highlights the diversity of the message sent and the attempts that Dr. King made to bring about diversity throughout America.
1. Stevie Wonder-Happy Birthday (1980) - If you hear this song without knowing that this was about the struggle to accept Dr. King's birthday as a national holiday, you'd be surprised by how upbeat it is, but at the same time how angry and pointed it was. Dr. King would be proud of this song because it's every bit as much a protest song as those sang during the actual movement.
Favorite line: Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion
2. U2-Pride (In the Name of Love) (1984) - This song is probably the most recognizable and most commercially successful song related to Dr. King's memory. What makes this song so impressive to me is how this band, a band from Ireland, recognized how important Dr. King's message was not only to the United States, but to the rest of the world. It should come as no surprise that not only is it the most popular song in Dr. King's memory that it is also amongst the greatest songs U2 has made in its 30+ year history. The song has been covered by everyone from John Legend to Richard Patrick of Filter with Lacey Sturm of Flyleaf.
Favorite line: Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride
3. Public Enemy-By the Time I Get To Arizona (1991) - Dr. King's holiday did not become recognized as a national holiday until 1986, but that didn't stop some states from hesitating to recognize it, such as Arizona. In fact, 2008 presidential candidate John McCain originally opposed the holiday back in the 1980s. Arizona's long history of denying the holiday led to this angry Public Enemy song.
Favorite line: They can't understand why he the man
I'm singin' 'bout a king
They don't like it
When I decide to mike it
Wait I'm waitin' for the date
For the man who demands respect
4. Rage Against the Machine-Wake Up (1992) - This song is more of a general song about the Civil Rights movement, but the history mentioned in this song makes it important to recognize in this post. In the fateful year of 1968, in fact, less than a month before Dr. King was assassinated, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made a memo that targeted civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X and Dr. King (for his support to the end of the Vietnam War).
In fact, lead singer Zach de la Rocha read the infamous memo as the bridge of the song and ended the song with one of Dr. King's most famous lines from his 1965 Selma to Montgomery speech How Long, Not Long.
Favorite line: How long? Not long, cause what you reap is what you sow!
5. Anberlin-We Owe This To Ourselves (2010) - Anberlin released this song off of their last album Dark is the Way, Light is a Place and the song's references to Dr. King's assassination and the civil rights movement may not seem as obvious as the other songs, but the lines expressed here are just as intense as songs released closest to the movement that led states to finally recognize Dr. King's holiday. It should also be noted that U2 is one of Anberlin's biggest musical influences so it also comes across as an upbeat tribute to "Pride..."
Favorite line: If every man became a king,
(We could start it all with this)
We could do more than just dream
(We could start it all with this)
I feel, I feel, the change is here...
I hope that musicians continue to express the gratitude and grace that has come with Dr. King's message.
In fact, the 2012 Grammy Awards have recently honored Dr. King's most famous speech, the I Have a Dream speech from the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963 by adding its recording to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Let the dream live on.