My playlist of political soul



Nina Simone
  • Nina Simone
The best soul isn’t always about girls, boys, love, longing, hotness, and heartbreak. Though I can’t hear enough versions of “The Tracks of My Tears,” and it’s impossible for me to tire of Solomon Burke singing about when my baby leaves me all alone, or Aretha assuring me she’ll never love another man the way she loves me, or Isaac Hayes hollering at that girl to walk on by, or—I mean, there’s one after another that makes you really feel , even more deeply than you were already feeling, what it means to dig somebody.

Still, soul developed along with the civil rights movement, so it should go without saying that some of the best freaking music ever made on this planet is driven by social and political commentary—a love for the world combined with a prophetic indictment of its evils and a vow to keep on keeping on.

As always, the music really does the talking and the teaching, so let me turn to it. Here’s a playlist of some of my favorite political soul cuts—that is, my favorites at the moment, since tomorrow I may have a whole new list. This one’s skewed toward the 70s, but then again, so am I.

Donny Hathaway, “The Ghetto” (1970): Gospel takes a plunge into the heart of the city, as if to force us to remember the people who live there. It’s all about the rhythm—even Hathaway’s vocals, which just keep reminding us what he’s talking about: the ghetto.

Labelle, “Somebody Somewhere” (1974): This is best known, if it’s known at all, as the track that follows “Lady Marmalade” on the terrific Nightbirds record. I hear it as a funked-up prayer for a time when “no more lies shall be told,” punctuated by horns and belted out by three women in spacesuits. Listen to it here.

D'Angelo, “Devil's Pie” (2000): A great, great headphones song, with layers of sound slicing up shallowness and materialism.

Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues” (1971): Every track on the What’s Going On record remains fresh and on point, but good lord, this one—I mean, good lord. It’s an index of horrors to a bassline and beat that’s doing all it can to transform the mess.

The Dramatics, “The Devil is Dope” (1973): “Don’t you help your pusherman!” The descent into addiction sounds terrifying … but I keep wanting to hear it again.

Sly and the Family Stone, “Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey” (1969): “Everyday People” is Sly’s euphoric celebration of diversity, and as close to perfect as a pop song can get in my world. But this tune, on the A side of the Stand! album, is in many ways more intriguing and honest—a wah-wah-drenched exchange of epithets that heats up to the point of breaking open. You can hear the original album track here, and a video of a live medley that includes it below:

Me'Shell Ndegeocello, “Leviticus: Faggot” (1996): Even more blunt is this tune from Ndegeocello’s fine Peace Beyond Passion record. Listening to the song 16 years after it was released, I simply can’t believe that someone who thinks like the narrator is really considered a serious presidential candidate. On the upside, Ndegeocello plays some serious bass here.

Curtis Mayfield, “Underground” (1971): Nobody did it better than Curtis—and by it I mean soul, rock, gospel, and protest, bundled to a rhythm that shakes your ass for you. An album track off Roots, this cut literally starts off with Curtis preaching, then dives into a strange, dimly lit netherworld that’s meant to warn us of the doom that lies ahead unless we change course.

Nina Simone, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” (1967): This entire list and several more could be made up solely of powerful civil rights anthems by Nina Simone, but for the moment this is the track I can’t shake loose—it starts off hopeful and builds to jubilation. I’ve just got to sing along.

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