6 Songs Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Dream And Legacy
To honor Martin Luther King Jr Day, we've selected six songs from various musicians inspired by Dr. King's dream and legacy music.
by Megan Ambers
January 10, 2022 at 4:33 pm
Its been 27 years since former President Ronald Reagan signed the bill officially acknowledging Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday. A day cemented to honor the life and legacy of Dr. King and to encourage all Americans to volunteer for a better community.
Dr. King became the face of the Civil rights movement, advocating nonviolent sit-ins, marches, and peaceful demonstrations to rid society of racial injustice. Unfortunately, in 1968, Dr. King was assassinated at 39, despite his efforts to bring peace and order to the world. But before he passed away, Dr. King used his communication talents with his speeches and through song. Notably, as one of Dr. King's favorite, "Take my hand, Precious Lord," he was captivated and inspired by the performance of Mahalia Jackson.
Jackson would perform the song with him at demonstrations to inspire civil rights activists and followers as they sought to further their cause. Dr. King's last words were said to be a request for this song. Jackson performed the song at Dr. King's funeral.
Though Dr. King passed away more than 50 years ago, artists continue to pay tribute to the slain activist through their music. From U2 to Young Jeezy, Stevie Wonder, and Public Enemy, here are six tribute songs to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
U2 - "Pride" (In the Name of Love)
U2's "Pride" is one of the greatest songs ever dedicated to Dr. King; however, the song originated with a former president and a different message in mind. "Pride," the first single from the group's 1984 album, The Unforgettable Fire, is said to have been accidentally created during a soundcheck during their War Tour in 1983, according to iHeart Media.
The publication further mentions that the band found inspiration for the song after visiting a Dr. King exhibit at the Chicago Peace Museum the same year. Initially, Bono had the idea of criticizing former President Ronald Reagan's leadership with the song but decided he didn't want to draw attention to the former president, so he chose Dr. King as a better fit for the band's message.
Despite the song's success and powerful message, "Pride" was criticized by listeners as historically inaccurate due to its reference to the time of Dr. King's assassination.
"Early morning, April four, shot rings out in the Memphis sky," the lyrics read.
When in fact, Dr. King died around 6 p.m. According to iHeart, Bono has realized his mistake and now performs "Early evening, April four" live. The song would become U2's first top 40 hits, peaking at number 33 on the Billboard top 40 hit list.
In January, Bono and U2 paid tribute to Dr. King on Sirius XM Radio's U2 X-radio. In a statement from Sirius XM, Bono honored Dr. King in a 10-minute video by reading excerpts from memorable speeches by MLK.
"Dr. King kept us tolerant in a time of terror," Bono said. "Kept us faithful to peace and community. Made us believe in joy and justice. Showed us the way to a shared humanity. Dr. King's voice is louder today than it has ever been. He is one of the true fathers of our American dream."
Stevie Wonder - "Happy Birthday"
One of two birthday songs usually comes to mind when we think of birthday songs. One is the traditional "Happy Birthday" song, and the other is Stevie Wonder's version, also referred to as the "Black Version." This song was written as a part of a campaign to mark Dr. King's birthday as a national holiday in 1981.
Social activist Wonder penned the song in response to the lack of respect for King's legacy.
"I just never understood how a man who died for good / could not have a day that would be set aside for his recognition," he questioned.
Wonder worked with King's widow Coretta Scott King to support the movement. As a result, a petition containing over 6 million signatures urging the national holiday was delivered to the White House by Wonder and Mrs. King in the following year. U.S. former President Ronald Reagan signed a bill in 1983 that established Martin Luther King Jr. Day as the third Monday of every January.
"Happy Birthday" was released as a single in several countries outside the United States. The song became one of Wonder's biggest hits in the U.K., reaching number two in the charts in 1981.
King Dream Chorus and Holiday Crew - "King Holiday"
In 1986, Hip Hop contributed to one of the most memorable Dr. King tributes in music history. "King Holiday" was released on Jan. 13 to commemorate Dr. King's first observation as a national holiday. Hip Hop legends Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Melle Mel co-wrote the six-minute track with music journalist Bill Adler and Phillip Jones, who also served as co-producer. The tribute was executive produced by Dexter Scott King, Dr. King's youngest son, who started the project.
Among the stars on the tribute were El Debarge, Teena Marie, New Edition, the late Whitney Houston, and more. In a statement featured on the U.S. 7-inch vinyl single back cover, Dexter revealed that he was dedicating the song to his father and mother for their work towards equality for Black people.
"This song is dedicated to the memory and legacy of my father's dream for peace, justice, and equality. We pay tribute to he who have paved the way. A man who gave so much and asked for so little while leaving us with a blueprint of righteousness," Dexter said. "It is also dedicated to my mother, whose living work and continued strength through deep support and understanding have helped move toward fulfilling and institutionalizing the dream – manifesting her as the true torchbearer."
As part of the tribute, Dexter mentioned that all proceeds went to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc., and thanked all the artists that contributed to the tribute.
"A very, very special thanks goes out to those people who worked closest to me. To Phil Jones for a job well done, to Michele Clark for being 'motherly' and taking care of the real business at hand, and to Kurtis Blow, the 'King of Rap' for opening the door," Dexter said.
Other notable performers included Fat Boys, Full Force, Stacy Lattisaw, Lisa Lisa, Menudo, Stephanie Mills, Run-D.M.C., James "J.T." Taylor, and Whodini.
"King Holiday" peaked at # 30 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart, now known as Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks.
Nina Simone - "Why?" (The King Of Love Is Dead)
Nina Simone sang the song "Why?" for the first time at the Westbury Music Fair in New York, three days after the death of Dr. King. According to U Discover music, the song was written by Simone's bassist Gene Taylor.
"We want to do a tune written for today, for this hour, for Dr. Martin Luther King," Simone said. "This tune is written about him and for him."
In a report by NPR, Simone performed the song for nearly 15 minutes. Her brother, Samuel Waymon, the organist, revealed that the band learned the song the same day and performed it without preparation.
"We learned that song that (same) day," Waymon said. "We didn't have a chance to have two or three days of rehearsal. But when you're feeling compassion and outrage and wanting to express what you know the world is feeling, we did it because that's what we felt."
In 1968, the same year of the performance and Dr. King's assassination, Simone sat down for an interview for Italian radio. Rolling Stone reports that Simone questioned the fate of the people, now that Dr. King, the King of love, was dead.
"In a narrative way, it is a folk song," Simone said. "Why was he killed? It was bigotry that sealed his fate. Will my country ever learn?' Must it kill at every turn? We have to know what the consequences of these acts will bring."
Simone begins to paraphrase the lyrics to the song.
"Then it says, 'Folks, you'd better stop and think. Because we're all heading for the brink," the singer says. "Which is the truth. 'What will happen now, that the king of love is dead?' So the song is extremely powerful there. There's no conclusion; it just leaves you up in the air."
"Why?" (The King of Love is dead) was featured on Simone's album, Nuff Said! — The album, excluding two tracks, was live recorded during her appearance at the Westbury Music festival.
Public Enemy - "By The Time I Get To Arizona"
Going down in history as one of the music world's best raptivist (rap-activist) groups of all time, it doesn't come as a surprise that Public Enemy's Chuck D's penned one of the most potent MLK tributes.
According to SPIN magazine, Rapper Chuck D wrote the song in protest after the people of Arizona voted down a proposal to create a state holiday for Dr. King in Nov 1990. Two years before the vote, then-Governor Evan Mecham canceled MLK Day in Arizona. The publication reports Mecham was quoted, saying, "I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don't think he deserves a national holiday."
Chuck D aimed harsh lyrics at the citizens of Arizona and the former Governor of Arizona despite the song not being released as a single. Instead, Public Enemy opted to release the song as a music video that MTV only aired one time.
The magazine reports that Public Enemy recreated 60s-era images of civil rights protestors being beaten in the music video and even showed a clip of Chuck D detonating a car bomb that "assassinated" Governor Mecham.
Despite the rap group's best efforts to bring awareness to the cause, the video was met with disapproval from the public, including Mrs. Coretta King. According to Entertainment Weekly, in 1992, Mrs. King condemned the video stating it didn't represent the activist.
"We do not subscribe to violence as a way to achieve any social or economic ends," Mrs. King said. "We condemn violence in any form."
Despite the backlash, it made the change it was looking to make. According to the Washington Post, after the NFL pulled the 1993 Super Bowl from Arizona, the state lost over $350 million in revenue.
MLK Day was reinstated in Arizona in 1993.
Young Jeezy and Nas - "My President"
It was a great day in Hip-Hop when two huge rappers, Young Jeezy and Nas, put aside their differences to pay tribute to then-President-elect Barack Obama. The platinum-selling track, 'My president,' served as a reminder of Black politicians' accomplishments while giving the nod to Dr. King and his legacy.
Young Jeezy shares his views and perspective on politics, and the future former President Obama would bring to the country throughout the song. At the end of Jeezy's second verse, he refers to Dr. King's 'I have a dream,' speech and imagines a conversation with the late rapper Pimp C.
"You know how the Pimp be, that n**** gon' speak his mind. If he could speak down from Heaven, he'd tell me stay on my grind. Tell him I'm doin' fine, Obama for mankind," Jeezy raps. "We ready for damn change, so y'all let the man shine. Stuntin' on Martin Luther, feelin' just like a king. Guess this is what he meant when he said that he had a dream."
In November 2008, the rapper filmed the music video for the tribute in Atlanta, Georgia, where he calls "home." During an interview with MTV, Jeezy paid homage to Dr. King once again walking through his childhood neighborhood.
"This is Martin Luther King's 'hood," Jeezy said. "I don't know if y'all know it or not. Auburn Avenue. A very monumental spot. Probably one of the most monumental, historic spots we've got in Atlanta. It's a monumental video, so I wanted to do it in a monumental spot. Auburn Ave., Ebenezer Baptist Church."
According to MTV News, Ebenezer was the church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, and it's just a few minutes from his childhood home. Rolling Stone ranked "My President" as one of the 100 best songs of 2008; ranked #16.
As we honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we continue to celebrate Dr. King's legacy. Whatever the music may be, whether it's Nina Simone or Young Jeezy, Dr. King's message for equality, his fight for injustice, and his intolerance of racism will live on forever.