Every year, the birthday and national holiday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is imbued with new meaning in relation to the constant flare-ups of racism against people of color in the United States. From police brutality to consistent institutionalized neglect and disregard for Black bodies in places like Flint, Michigan and Ferguson, Missouri. The list of grievances is nigh endless and though we can trace them back to King Jr.’s time the roots of such hate begin a lot deeper in our country’s history, and they have continued to flourish far too long into our future.
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Stream 10 Songs About Martin Luther King Jr.
The songs compiled below about Martin Luther King don’t just pay tribute to one of the Civil Rights Movement’s (or the 20th century’s for that matter) greatest leaders but also the soul/body brutalizing work that he devoted himself to. Work that remains direly incomplete in 2023, making these timeless reminders of that fact all the more crucial to our age.
This feature was produced by Sandra Burciaga Olinger and written by Steven Ward
Nina Simone – “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)”
Performed at the Westbury Music Fair in New York just a few days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, this tribute to the late civil rights leader is perhaps the one most wracked with emotion. Especially given its proximity to his death. Sung by the indelible Nina Simone over a delicate piano medley, it was written by bass player Calvin Taylor specifically for the event. The live version even has a snippet of the singer addressing the crowd, explaining that they just learned it the day prior, her voice heavy with the unimaginable task of trying to make sense of such a senseless tragedy.
Dion – “Abraham, Martin and John“
This tribute also arrived in the aftermath of MLK’s death and has since been covered by a wide array of landmark artists, from Smokey Robinson & The Miracles to Whitney Houston. Sung as they are by some of the most talented vocalists of the last century, every version of this song adds something different to its sadly lilting and heartbreakingly beautiful melody. The original was actually written and sung by Dion with a country-leaning twang, the title making reference to not just King Jr. but also Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. It’s a song that poignantly weighs the violence constantly exacted upon those who fight for civil rights but also a reminder of the impossible to erase memory they leave behind.
Prince – “We March”
Before the Million Man March arrived in Washington, D.C. in October of 1995 to give the world an image of black men united in a struggle against institutional racism, organizers were sent a song they could choose to use for the event. That song was off Prince’s recently released album The Gold Experience and the artist hoped the March would use it as a sort of unofficial anthem and rallying cry. Performed by one of the biggest pop artists of the last fifty years and written with the help of both Marvin and Noya Gaye, the event organizers couldn’t have hoped for a better team or funkier track. The song also spans not just issues of civil rights or racism, but also gender disparities and rampant misogyny.
Rage Against the Machine – “Wake Up”
The variety of musicians who have paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. in the decades since his death is a testament to the resilience of his memory. In the hands of the ever-volatile Rage Against the Machine, their praise of the civil rights leader is delivered via a characteristically explosive anthem that takes aim at the FBI for its racist and dangerous targeting of King Jr. But the song doesn’t stop there, as it even speaks up about the murder of Malcolm X for exactly the same reasons, with lead singer Zach de la Rocha even quoting a memo from J. Edgar Hoover in which he refers to neutralizing members of the civil rights movement.
Public Enemy – “By The Time I Get To Arizona”
When the state of Arizona ended its official recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. day in 1987, it wasn’t long before somebody had something to say about it. With the release of their 1991 Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black, hip-hop raconteurs Public Enemy gave their response with the track “By The Time I Get To Arizona,” a searing condemnation of the decision to rescind the holiday in both Arizona and New Hampshire. The track’s dense lyricism drips with vitriol as Chuck D goes to war against the politicians and people who advocated for the removal of the holiday.
Various Artists – “King Holiday”
This tribute sometimes passes under the radar but was released in 1986 to commemorate the very first celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. day as a national holiday. Performed by the King Dream Chorus and The Holiday Crew, if it’s your first time hearing the song there’s a good chance you’ll be able to pick out some of the famous voices that appear throughout. Whitney Houston, James “J.T.” Taylor (lead singer of Kool & the Gang), boy band Menudo (which included Ricky Martin), Kurtis Blow, and even Run-D.M.C. all appear on the song. Between its synthesizer anthemics and soaring chorus, the song is a fittingly triumphant celebration of an exceptional man’s legacy.
Common and John Legend – “Glory”
Although it was created for the 2014 film “Selma,” which told the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s experiences leading the Selma to Montogomery marches for suffrage, “Glory” doesn’t just look to the past. Written and performed by Common and John Legend, the song speaks to the still unfinished work that King Jr. and so many others first marched for decades ago. Calling out the police brutality that led to civil unrest and frustrations exploding in large-scale protests and riots in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014. The song is a visceral but sobering reminder that the progress MLK fought and endured incredible abuse for is nowhere near complete.
Sam Cooke – “A Change is Gonna Come”
After becoming enamored with Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and hearing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Sam Cooke endeavored to write his own sprawling and poignant comment on racism in America. Drawing on his own experiences as a Black artist, including the time he was turned away from a white-only motel in Louisiana, he described the composition for the song as coming to him in a dream. From its heart-piercing strings and Cooke’s powerful wail, the song overflows with an intense weariness at being judged by the color of his skin. But the song is not without hope, with that constant refrain instilling a belief in the inevitable change that’s coming just over the horizon.
Ben Harper – “Like a King”
Released on his 1994 debut album Welcome to the Cruel World, singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ben Harper gave his own tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. But the song “Like a King” focused more on the tragedy and cruelty with which Black men are silenced by the racist authorities they dare to challenge. Harper draws a significant parallel between King Jr. and Rodney King, whose beating at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department, the outrage at acquittals for three of the four attacking officers sparking the 1992 L.A. riots. Like “Glory,” Harper’s song is a reminder that the racism MLK Jr. spoke out against is still ingrained in all the same institutions (from the courts to the cops) as they were in the 1960s.
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Stevie Wonder – “Happy Birthday“
Stevie Wonder was one of the loudest most ardent voices pushing for recognition of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday, putting on a concert tour in 1980 devoted solely to that fact and even organizing an event on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. that drew thousands of people. It was there he played for the crowd “Happy Birthday,” a funky and uplifting song that served as a soulful thank you to the man who devoted his life (down to the moment he died) to a cause greater than himself. Just a few years later in 1983, President Ronald Regan signed into law a bill that would make the civil rights leader’s birthday a national holiday, something that most likely wouldn’t have happened so expediently without Wonder’s advocating. After all, it was back in 1968 that the proposal was first even made to honor MLK with a day of remembrance. Change comes slowly even with constant vocalization and action but that doesn’t ever make the struggle futile.
Stream even more inspiring song about Martin Luther King Jr. below. The complete playlist features 20 powerful and emotional songs about Martin Luther King Jr.
Visit The King Center for ways you an support Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. mission and legacy.