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I'm looking for albums comparable to Curtis Mayfield's self-titled album, Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On, Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, etc. -- in short, politically-oriented Motown.

More broadly, I'd love to find an entry point into what might be considered "Pre-HipHop Black Protest Music" (a reference to Latin American Protest Music, e.g., Violeta Parra, Victor Jara, Silvio Rodriguez, etc.). The albums mentioned above share the beautiful aesthetics of much Motown, but are worlds beyond the shallow love themes that many albums (even by the same artists) seem to stick to...

Anyway, if anyone has any sources or genres I can search, or even specific albums and artists, all would be greatly appreciated.

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Black protest music in the US has roots that are hundreds of years old. From the early days of slavery, enslaved black Americans created songs, often using religious themes and imagery, but with coded messages of resistance. For example, the pre Civil War era spiritual Oh Mary Don't You Weep contains the repeated refrain "Pharaoh's army got drowned." This is a reference to the defeat of the slaveowning Egyptians in the Biblical book of Exodus, and the subsequent emancipation of the enslaved Israelites --the coded message is clear.

During the Harlem Renaissance, Billie Holiday released the stunning anti-lynching anthem "Strange Fruit," as well as the milder, but still biting "God Bless the Child."

Many of the old slave-era songs were reimagined and re-purposed during the 60's Civil Rights' Movement, and new songs in similar styles were created or adapted. Folk singer Odetta ("Oh Freedom!") and gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson ("We Shall Overcome") were singers who were active in the movement both on and off wax, as was jazz singer Nina Simone ("Mississipi Goddam").

In the later 60's into the 70's, the black power movement coincided with the migration of protest imagery into popular music, and any number of top-selling black artists incorporated social messages into their work. Some of these include:

  • Sam Cooke ("A Change is Gonna Come")
  • Isley Brothers ("Fight the Power")
  • The Temptations ("Ball of Confusion")
  • Sly and the Family Stone ("Everyday People")
  • Edwin Starr ("War")
  • Isaac Hayes ("Soulsville")
  • Solomon Burke ("Maggie's Farm")
  • The Staple Sisters ("Freedom Highway")
  • The Pointer Sisters ("Yes We Can Can")
  • War ("The World is a Ghetto")
  • Smokey Robinson ("Abraham Martin and John")

Most of these artists tended to do protest songs, not protest albums. Even Nina Simone, who did innumerable well-known protest songs, spread them out across many different albums. Your best bet might be compilation albums, like Simone's recent "Protest Anthology," or any of several Civil Rights Movement song compilation albums.

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    Awesome and thorough answer; thanks! One problem that I've been having, though, is that many of these artists seem to "flirt" with protest music (which is totally reasonable, expected and normal, since only the most limited artists stick 100% to one genre). What I'm looking for is a clear way to filter for albums that are heavy on protest and light on love themes. I've found this to be pretty difficult without just buying a ton of albums and hoping for the best.... (Many times, you can't really tell from the snippets they give you as previews.) – kael May 11 '17 at 16:41
  • @kael I expanded my answer and added some specific song names. Google searching under specific artist names and "protest music" also gives good results. As you noted, most of these artists did protest songs, not protest albums, so a bit of wading is inevitable. – Chris Sunami May 11 '17 at 20:06
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100% protest if difficult filtered through the pop idiom. But Gil Scott Heron gets close and the Last Poets are in full protest mode and are what many look to as the originators of hip-hop/rap.

I know you are looking for US centric, but the many forms of Reggae certainly have protest songs and albums. The oppression and enslavement of peoples from Africa have a long history in the Caribbean, and the forms of Reggae often had strong late 50's and early 60's American pop influences.

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    Yes, if you look beyond the US, there has been a strong tradition of protest music since the birth of Reggae. African musicians such as Fela Kuti also did protest music as well. – Chris Sunami May 16 '17 at 22:03

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