Black History Month

19 Songs That Will Have You Walking In Step With Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream

Just the tunes to get you in a righteous mood.

Want to walk to the beat of Martin Luther King Jr.'s drum?

The civil rights movement leader would have turned 88 years old on Sunday. But he didn't have the chance to continue inspiring the masses in real life because of his assassination on April 4, 1968 at the age of 39. Still, his work to create love and unity in this world will never be forgotten. Our children today are familiar with his legacy and timeless "I Have a Dream" speech, which he delivered in 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

We pay homage to Dr. King and celebrate his born day — which this year we observe as a national holiday on Monday, January 16, 2017 — with an uplighting playlist of songs about determination, perseverance, unity, and love ... just the way he would have wanted it. 


1. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" by U2

U2's "Pride" details how "one man come in the name of love." That man was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Irish rock band released the ode to Dr. King in 1984 after rewriting the lyrics that were originally aimed at condemning former President Ronald Regan's pride, which is said to have led to nuclear escalation. A visit to MLK's exhibit at the Chicago Peace Museum in 1983 is what caused the band's change of heart. The hit song is likely the reason Coretta Scott King personally invited U2 to visit the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta the following year. 

2. "Fight Song" by Rachel Platten

Rachel Platten's powerful anthem "Fight Song" is all about believing in yourself first, even if no one else does. Dr. King was a master at persuasion and inspired millions to march with him in the fight for equality and justice. Platten's 2015 track would have been just as uplifting and promising during the civil rights movement of the 1960s as it is today. 

3. "We Are the World" by Various Artists

Years after Dr. King's untimely passing, his tireless work to create love worldwide was still evident in songs like "We Are the World," which benefitted Africa's famine relief efforts. The 1985 song was made by the United Support of Artists For Africa, a collaboration created by Quincy Jones, which included some of the most talented musicians of that time, such as Diana Ross, Willie Nelson, Dionne Warwick, Bruce Springsteen, Cindy Lauper, Stevie Wonder, and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, who co-wrote the song with Lionel Richie, and sang, "We are the world / We are the children / We are the ones to make a brighter day / So let's start giving." 

In 2010, the song was remade as "We Are The World 25 for Haiti" to benefit the Haitian earthquake relief efforts and the rebuilding of the nation. Not only did it celebrate the 25th anniversary of the original song, it was recorded in Henson Recording Studios, formerly A&M Recording Studios, which was where the 1985 track was also cut. 

Dr. King would be proud of these international efforts for human rights and justice, as he once said during his 1967 "Beyond Vietnam" speech that the U.S. cannot "support overseas oppression while supporting equal justice at home." 

4. "Strength, Courage & Wisdom" by India.Arie

Soulful acoustic singer India.Arie released "Strength, Courage & Wisdom" in 2000. The song quickly became an anthem of self-confidence and bravery to incite change where needed. While it may not be a direct reference to Dr. King, it surely mimics the strength, courage, and wisdom he worked to share with the world. Arie sings, "I close my eyes and I think of all the things that I want to see / 'Cause I know, now that I've opened up my heart I know that / Anything I want can be, so let it be, so let it be." 

5. "The King" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

The 1970s-formed hip-hop group, referenced in Netflix's The Get Down, released this direct tribute to Dr. King in 1988 and began the song with "I have a dream." It's said to be one of the first rap songs specifically about the civil rights leader.

6. "Exodus" by Bob Marley

An activist in his own right, Bob Marley released "Exodus" in 1977. In the upbeat, righteous track, Marley asks, "Open your eyes and look within / Are you satisfied with the life you're living?" He wrote and recorded the album by the same name in London after an assassination attempt on his life sent him into exile from Jamaica

It's unclear whether Marley and Dr. King worked together directly or even knew each other very well. But they had a commonality in their admiration for Jamaican political leader, Marcus Garvey. In fact, Dr. King was the recipient of the first Marcus Garvey Prize for Human Rights, which his wife Coretta Scott King accepted on his behalf months after his death. 

7. "Free Your Mind" by En Vogue

Put your marching boots on … stilettos are optional. En Vogue traded in their R&B vibe for more of a rock sound in the demanding song "Free Your Mind" about stereotypes and prejudices. Dr. King worked diligently in the fight for equality despite race, gender, religion, or class. The "Funky Divas" of En Vogue preach just that in their 1992 song, with lyrics such as "Before you can read me you've got to learn how to see me / Free your mind and the rest will follow." 

8. "One Day" by Bakermat

Lodewijk Flatteert kept it simple when paying homage to Dr. King with "One Day." The Dutch DJ, whose known in the music world as Bakermat, produced a dope EDM-esque dance track that is the backdrop of Dr. King's timeless "I Have a Dream" speech. This song is proof that the civil rights leader's legacy still resonates so deeply even with the youth of today, regardless of where they're from.

9. "Inner City Blues" by Marvin Gaye

The atrocities of inner-city poverty and racism made Marvin Gaye wanna holler! He released "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" in 1971 and preached about the ills of the Black man's world. Those injustices were also detailed in many of Dr. King's sermons, speeches, and essays. Verbalizing the dark realities of the world was the first step in change. As Dr. King said on March 8, 1965, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

10. "HIStory" by Michael Jackson

The King of Pop released the song "HIStory" in 1995. As the album it came from's title track, it was a pulpit for Jackson's rant on the injustices of the world. He sampled Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and echoed his sentiments while addressing issues of racism and discrimination. "He say one day you will see / His place in world history / He dares to be recognized / The fires deep in his eyes," Jackson sang.

11. "Where is the Love?" by the Black Eyed Peas

The chart-topping band produced a change-the-world sort of anthem in their fun and catchy track "Where is the Love?" released in 2003. With more than 215 million YouTube views, the song and video aim to break down stereotypes and cultural barriers in order to expose the world to what really matters: L-O-V-E. Dr. King once said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that." The band released a re-recorded version of the song last year.

12. "A Change is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke

This track may have concluded the soundtrack to Spike Lee's 1992 film Malcolm X, but the premise of the song reigns true to Dr. King's legacy as well. Sam Cooke croons about the struggles of the Black experience in America, and strong belief that change for the better will in fact come. The lyrics "There have been times that I thought I couldn't last for long / But now I think I'm able to carry on / It's been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will," could have easily been said by Dr. King instead of sung by Cooke. Same messages of hope, different mediums of delivery. 

13. "Just a Little More Love" by David Guetta

Just a little more love and a little more peace was all the Dr. King was striving for during his prolific life. That mood is captured in David Guetta's dance track "Just a Little More Love," which emulates joy and happiness — positive traits all humans long for.  

14. "Glory" by Common and John Legend

Common and John Legend won an Academy Award for their compelling song "Glory" from the film Selma, which chronicles the three-month period in 1965 when Dr. King led a perilous campaign in the fight for equal voting rights. Common raps, "Every day women and men become legends / Sins that go against our skin become blessings / The movement is a rhythm to us / Freedom is like religion to us / Justice is juxatopositionin' us / Justice for all just ain't specific enough." King's journey ended in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And there was so much glory in that historic victory!  

15. "Long Way to Go" by Gwen Stefani and Andre 3000

"We've got a long way to go / It's beyond Martin Luther," Gwen Stefani and Andre 3000 said the 2004 song "Long Way to Go." The computerized track addresses issues with interracial dating in a modern era, and how love conquers all and stands the test of time. Sounds like a groove Dr. King could get down to.

16. "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)" by Nina Simone

Three days after Dr. King's assassination, Nina Simone performed "Why? (The King of Love is Dead) with her band at the Westbury Music Festival on Long Island, N.Y. They had just learned the song that Simone sang with a heartfelt intensity that enables the listener to share in the pain of losing a great leader way before his time. 

"We learned that song that (same) day," Samuel Waymon, Simone's brother and organist, previously told NPR. "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." 

17. "Happy Birthday" by Stevie Wonder

Few people fought to make Dr. King's birthday a national holiday as hard as Stevie Wonder. The musical genius even wrote a song in dedication to the cause appropriately called, "Happy Birthday." But it's quite different from the traditional tune we all sing at our loved ones' annual celebrations. Still, it's light and upbeat with Dr. King's messages fused in. The crooner gets right to the point he's trying to make by singing the first lines, "You know it doesn't make much sense / There ought to be a law against / Anyone who takes offense / At a day in your celebration." 

18. "Letter to the King" by The Game feat. Nas

If only Dr. King could have been alive to hear The Game and Nas tell him how he impacted their lives. Instead, the rappers put it in the 2008 song "Letter to the King," where The Game raps, "Sometimes I wanna give up / Or at least take a break / That's when I close my eyes / And see Coretta Scott's face." 

19. "Like a King" by Ben Harper

The 1994 song "Like a King" bridges two historical Kings — Martin Luther King Jr. and Rodney King, an African-American taxi driver who sadly became a household name in 1991 after his brutal beating by Los Angeles Police Department was caught on tape. Ben Harper sings, "Well Martin's dream has become Rodney's worst nightmare." As he wishes Dr. King could return to help resolve the civil unrest of that time, Harper sings about how much more we still have to go. 

Cover image: Rena Schild / Shutterstock, Inc.


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