Wake Up: 20 Socially Conscious Songs

From Common to Stevie Wonder, these artists' inspirational tunes touch on political topics from racism to AIDS.

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    Common (Charles Norfleet/Getty Images); Lauryn Hill (YouTube); Stevie Wonder (AFP/Getty Images)

    Music has the power to move us, heal us and inspire us. Here’s a list of 20 socially conscious songs, along with their performers, that address everything from civil rights to gang violence to safe sex.

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    Mahalia Jackson, 'We Shall Overcome'

    With roots based in African-American hymns, Jackson’s 1964 performance of “We Shall Overcome” helped make the tune one of the most powerful songs known to man. The songstress originally sang the song for Martin Luther King Jr. at a rally in Chicago. Because of Jackson’s close ties to the civil rights leader, her version of the old spiritual has been dubbed the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement.

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    Louis Armstrong, 'What a Wonderful World'

    Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” released in 1967, painted a vivid picture of the wondrous joys in life. With its slow tempo and positive, visionary lyrics, the classic tune provided a stark contrast to the tumultuous and violent period of the ’60s.

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    James Brown, 'Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud'

    “We’d rather die on our feet than be living on our knees” is a lyric from the Godfather of Soul’s revolutionary call to action. Recorded in 1968, during the height of political and racial turmoil, this song motivated African Americans to proudly declare their racial identity.

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    Billie Holiday, 'Strange Fruit'

    Over a haunting piano melody, Holiday, who first recorded this in 1939 and made it one of her signature tunes, sings of the lynching of black men in the South: “The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.”

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    Marvin Gaye, 'What's Going On'

    Shying away from his usual “ladies’ man” lyrics, Gaye’s 1971 political anthem addresses the concerns of the Vietnam War and the political turbulence of ’60s America.

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    The O'Jays, 'Love Train'

    Over a funky beat, in 1972 the Motown group sang about different races coming together to end racial conflict and promote love.

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    Nina Simone, 'Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)'

    In this song, recorded a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Simone sings about the concerns of African Americans now that their leader is gone: “What’s gonna happen now in all of our cities?”

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    India.Arie, 'Beautiful Flower'

    “This is a song for every girl who’s ever been through something she thought she couldn’t make it through” is the opening lyric to India.Arie’s anthem about self-love and acceptance for women.

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    John Legend, 'Wake Up Everybody'

    Much like the original, recorded in 1975 by Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, Legend’s version of the socially conscious song calls for an awakening of our minds to create a new way for our world.

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    Nas, 'I Can'

    Nas’ love of children is apparent in this hip-hop anthem, released in 2003, which calls for saving our youths from the perils of today’s society. He touches on relevant topics such as sex, the way the media portrays black people and illiteracy. “Read more/Learn more/Change the globe,” declares the rapper.

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    Sam Cooke, 'A Change Is Gonna Come'

    In this legendary song, Cooke presents racism and discrimination in the United States through the personal experiences of a black man trying to survive in America. Played at Malcolm X’s funeral as well as the first inauguration of President Barack Obama, Cooke’s poignant recording, which was released after his death in 1964, has become a part of the soundtrack for key moments in black history.

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    2Pac, 'Keep Ya Head Up'

    In a 1993 song dedicated to his godson and “a little girl named Corinne,” the rapper stresses the lows of being black in America. From welfare to deadbeat men and life in the ghetto, the rapper reminds us to just “keep ya head up/oooh child things are going to get easier.”

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    Stevie Wonder, 'Higher Ground'

    Wonder penned this tune after nearly dying in a car crash on the way to a concert. Recorded in three hours, the 1973 song focuses on sustaining spirituality through all the tribulations in life: “God is gonna show you higher ground/He’s the only friend you have around.”

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    Lupe Fiasco, 'Bitch Bad'

    Known for his socially conscious lyrics and controversial political statements, Lupe takes on misogyny in hip-hop and how the use of the word “bitch” affects children psychologically and society overall.

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    Common, 'Faithful'

    In the final song on his 2005 album Be, Common questions how men treat women and how he would treat a woman “if God was a her.”

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    Lauryn Hill, 'Everything Is Everything'

    One of the songstress’s most critically acclaimed hits, “Everything Is Everything” stresses the injustices that youths in communities of color face.

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    Prince, 'Sign o' the Times'

    This 1987 funk-rock classic tackles AIDS, gang violence, poverty, abuse and other social ills.

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    Jermaine Stewart, 'We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off'

    In response to the AIDS crisis, Stewart, who contracted the disease himself, released this song — about other ways to have fun while still being intimate — in 1986.

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    Michael Jackson, 'They Don't Really Care About Us'

    In this song attacking America’s treatment of minorities, the King of Pop puts the spotlight on how black men are thrown in jail simply for the color of their skin.

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    Curtis Mayfield, 'Move on Up'

    Known for his activism as well as his musical brilliance, Mayfield penned “Move on Up” to inspire his people to overcome oppression and move toward a brighter future: “Take nothing less than the supreme best/Do not obey for most people say ’cause you pass the test.”

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