Playlist: MLK’s legacy immortalized through song

Vincent Anthony
7 Min Read

Every year, we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Monday closest to his birthday, January 15th. King is a revered Civil Rights icon and one of the most important figures in American history. Still, Dr. King deserves more respect and honor than he receives.

He has a list of achievements that changed America, for good and for the better. His leadership and bravery changed the course of the nation’s Civil Rights Movement and helped it become as successful as it was. And even that is a bit of an understatement. It’s frightening to think where this country would be without his work.

Dr. King’s power and influence, though, lived within his words. He was a gifted and intelligent orator. He was an excellent speaker, but even more so writer. More than anything else, his words changed and shaped minds. His dream changed the world. Through his words, he lives on today.

This year is a special one, though, because of the new feature film Selma, following the story of the march in Selma that ultimately led to voting rights for African Americans. The film is centered around the events, and is not Dr. King’s life story, but at the very center of those events was Dr. King. It has received rave reviews and was even nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Meanwhile, the film’s Golden Globe Award Winning song, “Glory,” was also nominated for Best Original Song by the Academy.

In music, words have tremendous value. So, it’s no surprise that Dr. King’s words have inspired numerous musicians over the years. Some have even sampled his speeches, including his voice in their songs. Others may just reference King or speak of the same ideals of equality as he did. Some logically do both. Below is a list of some of great songs honoring, mentioning and/or sampling Dr. King. Unfortunately, his words are still necessary, 50 years later. Take a listen to the playlist today as you remember Dr. King’s legacy.

Common’s “Glory” with John Legend, and “A Dream” with – Common has honored Dr. King in song on two different occasions, and both for feature films. First, on the soundtrack to the film Freedom Writers, and most recently with “Glory” for Selma.

Gwen Stefani and André 3000’s “Long Way to Go” – The No Doubt and Outkast front runners joined forces on Gwen’s debut solo project to sing a song about interracial love, inspired by and sampling Dr. King.

Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us” and “History”– On Michael’s 1995 album HIStory, he references Dr. King on two separate tracks. On “They Don’t Care About Us,” he addresses racial injustices and states that “If Martin Luther was living, he wouldn’t let this be.” Meanwhile, on “History,” MJ gives a history lesson and memorializes the importance of leaving a legacy. King’s voice and words are an integral part of the track.

Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” – In a mission to help the effort to make Dr. King’s birthday into a national holiday, Stevie Wonder recorded this song in his honor.

Chrisette Michele’s “Let Freedom Reign” with Talib Kweli, and Black Thought – Chrisette shows off her rapping chops on this cut, but whats noticeable is the obvious Dr. King influence as she stresses the importance of freedom.

The Game’s “Life is But a Dream” and “Letter to the King,” with Nas – The Game, like Common, has honored Dr. King on a number of occasions as well. In “Dream” he samples King’s voice, meanwhile joining forces with Nas to remember MLK on “Letter to the King.”

Nina Simone’s “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” – Written days after King’s death by Simone’s bass player and performed in a live performance, this moving reactionary piece captures every freedom fighter’s reaction to the death of a leader.

Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona” – Also inspired by the movement to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday, Public Enemy’s song to Arizona politicians has a tone different to that of Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday.”

Jay-Z, Kanye West and Frank Ocean’s “Made in America” – On this song, about achieving the American Dream, Jay-Z, Kanye and Frank Ocean praise Dr. King and his wife for helping pave the way for their successes and fulfillment.

“HiiiPower” “Backseat Freestyle’ by Kendrick Lamar – Kendrick Lamar too was inspired by King’s Dream and references him in these anthems about overcoming adversity to achieve his dreams.

J. Cole’s “Be Free” and “Sideline Story” – On “Sideline Story,” Cole talks about his own come-up story, like Kendrick and the men on “Made in America.” However, on “Be Free,” a response to the murder of Michael Brown, Cole takes after Dr. King by becoming a modern voice for Civil Rights.

“We Shall Overcome” – This protest song was one that King references in his speeches; it was anthemic for the Civil Rights Movement. It’s been sung by a number of different artists throughout the years, but performances by folk singers Pete Seeger and Joan Baez helped it come to popularity in the 60s.

Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” covered by Kelly Clarkson – This song, inspired by MLK’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, became more well known when Kelly Clarkson performed it at an American Idol charity show in 2007.

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Vincent is the founder of the magazine and has had a strong passion for popular music since, well, 1997! If it's not obvious, his favorite artists include Destiny's Child, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, P!nk, and many more. Vincent lives in New York, where he is a high school English teacher, and currently he is pursuing a Master's in Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.