Aux Cord Chronicles XXI: Your Election Day soundtrack
The emotions we carry with us in the voting booth have always been in the music
We’re all going to be a nervous wreck when we wake up on the morning of Nov. 3. For those who haven’t done early voting, we’ll stand in line, masked up, waiting to cast our ballot. You might need some music to pass the time.
The 21st installment of our flagship playlist series, Aux Cord Chronicles, isn’t telling you who to vote for. But with records from artists such as Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Tupac Shakur and more, it captures the historical voyage of angst, aggression and hope that we’ve always had once we step into the voting booth. This is a soundtrack to take with you on Election Day.
Billie Holiday — “Strange Fruit” (1939)
The title refers to two Black men who were lynched in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. Asked why he wrote the song, Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish schoolteacher from New York, said, “because I hate lynching, I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it.” Everything about “Strange Fruit” is haunting, from its horns to Holiday’s piercing vocals. (And check out Jensen McRae’s cover on The Undefeated’s new EP: I Can’t Breathe/Music for the Movement.)
The Staple Singers — “Freedom Highway” (1965)
This landmark record from the group became a definitive ode during the civil rights movement — and helped highlight the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.
Nina Simone — “Backlash Blues” (1967)
This song, in my opinion, is one of the most undermentioned protest songs recorded. Simone’s voice will never not feel ancestral and urgent.
Aretha Franklin — “Respect” (1967)
The song was originally released by Otis Redding in 1965, but Franklin’s version has tattooed itself in musical history as a definitive record that spoke to Black Americans. “It reflected the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher — everyone wanted respect,” Franklin wrote in her book, Aretha: From These Roots. “It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement.”
James Brown — “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968)
In his autobiography, Godfather of Soul, Brown wrote that this song “cost me a lot of my crossover audience.” It became an anthem for the Black community, and his 1968 endorsement of Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey was one of the most valuable at the time. Nevertheless, Brown would soon align himself with Richard Nixon, performing this song at his inauguration and endorsing him for reelection in 1972. Needless to say, many Black folks were not pleased with either decision.
Marvin Gaye — “What’s Going On“ (1971)
Any song from the D.C. native’s watershed project of the same title works. This single held a mirror to an America in transition, a country drowning in conflict at home and abroad and one that desperately needed a tongue-lashing from one of its most beloved wordsmiths.
Bob Marley & The Wailers — “Get Up, Stand Up” (1973)
Marley lived the message behind this record until he literally couldn’t perform anymore. Inspired by the massive oppression he grew up under in his native country Jamaica, “Get Up, Stand Up” is the last song Marley performed. By September 1980, cancer had spread across Marley’s body. Still, the reggae icon delivered a 20-track set with this being his swan song. He died eight months later, and the song has lived on due to its timeless message.
Gloria Gaynor — “I Will Survive” (1978)
The song’s original theme was inspired by Dino Fekaris after he was fired from Motown. Eventually, “I Will Survive” turned into an empowerment anthem for women, and today it’s just as relevant. Earlier this year, Gaynor released a TikTok video teaching her fans how to “survive” the coronavirus with proper hand-washing methods while singing her Grammy-winning classic.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five — “The Message” (1982)
“The Message” humanized the socioeconomic conditions so many Black folks were forced to endure, from rising violence, police brutality and the war on drugs.
Public Enemy — “Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos” (1988)
The obvious choice should be “Fight The Power,” but there’s something so sinister, so graphic, yet so endearing about “Black Steel” and its dissertation on the prison industrial complex that I couldn’t resist. Given the recent news of 774,000 felons in Florida prohibited from registering to vote this year due to unpaid fines and court fees, “Black Steel” is as relevant now as it was in 1988. And that’s a problem.
N.W.A. — “F— Tha Police” (1988)
N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton is the only album the group recorded together. And despite recent harsh criticism of Ice Cube meeting with the Trump administration, “F— Tha Police” is protest spiritual that has stood the test of time. And one that defiantly followed in the linage of social commentators such as Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor and Angela Davis to bring police brutality to America’s doorstep.
Prince and the new power generation — “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” (1991)
“Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” which was featured on his Diamonds and Pearls LP, Prince tells the story of a man trying to provide for his family — and the deep-rooted impact of failing to do so. There are digs at former presidents such as George H.W. Bush while openly critiquing America’s involvement in Operation Desert Storm.
OutKast feat. Goodie Mob — “Git Up, Git Out” (1994)
There aren’t many hooks more motivational than Cee-Lo’s, “You need to git up, git out and get something/Don’t let the days of your life pass by.” This was one of the country’s first introductions to OutKast and the reality rap that would go on to make them, in my eyes, rap’s greatest duo. Ironically, Andre 3000 was highly skeptical of the voting process in his verse. He perceived a lack of governmental concern for the Black community. But it’s the song’s ultimate theme of being the change we want to see that sounds a lot like Nov. 3, if you ask me.
2Pac — “Changes” (1998)
“Changes” is a display of societal, cultural and economic commentary, one of many 2Pac recorded in his short career that has made him a larger-than-life figure in the quarter century since his death. While protests erupted worldwide following the police killing of George Floyd this summer, there was ’Pac’s voice in the streets with the people.
Lauryn Hill — “Everything Is Everything” (1999)
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which captured album of the year at the 1999 Grammys, is as much a societal examination as it is a woman at an emotional crossroads. With a then-unknown pianist named John Legend riding shotgun, L. Boogie brought the plight of inner-city ’hoods to the mountaintop of mainstream pop culture with “Everything.”
Jadakiss feat. Styles P & Eve — “We Gonna Make It” (2001)
Especially during these times, this Jadakiss hook is the vaccine we all need. And also, I love it when Eve boasts “How many times I gotta tell you, silly? Don’t no corny s— come outta Philly.”
Rihanna — “Don’t Stop The Music” (2007)
This song has nothing to do with voting or the current climate — except it does. In 2018, Rihanna responded to a tweet from the Washington Post‘s Philip Rucker, who reported her 2007 hit was being played at a Donald Trump rally. “Not for much longer,” she tweeted. “Me nor my people would ever be at or around one of those tragic rallies, so thanks for the heads up Philip!” Twenty-four hours later, a cease-and-desist letter was immediately sent to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It’d be far from the last time she’d take aim at him.
Kendrick Lamar — “Alright” (2015)
“Alright,” the once-in-a-generation anthem from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, lives in its own universe. The song encompasses an entire palette of the emotions tied to the modern-day Black experience. Rage, despair, pride, hopefulness and, most importantly, a hook so powerful it has taken on religious undertones. Lamar has released a slew of powerful singles in his career, but it’s hard to imagine a more necessary single than “Alright.”
YG & Nipsey Hussle — “FDT” (2016)
A Trump-led America? YG and Nipsey Hussle tackled the issue head-on with lines such as, “Don’t let Donald Trump win, that n—- a cancer/He too rich, he ain’t got the answers/He can’t make decisions for this country, he gon’ crash us.” Four years later, unfortunately, only one of them still walks among us. Adding to the many gut-wrenching realities in the wake of Hussle’s 2019 killing is imagining how active the King of Crenshaw likely would’ve been in this current election cycle. The Marathon will always continue, but running the race will never be the same without the man born Ermias Asghedom.
Joey Bada$$ — “Land of the Free” (2017)
As Trump was being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2017, Joey Bada$$ dropped his own State of the Union from his All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ album. “Sorry America, but I will not be your soldier/Obama just wasn’t enough, I need some more closure,” he rhymed. “And Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over/Let’s face facts ’cause we know what’s the real motives.” Joey told CNN: “[Trump] revealed that [racism] is still alive and well …”
Miguel — “NOW” (2017)
Three years ago, Miguel addressed the issue of immigration, challenging the country to not only acknowledge the horrors at the border, but present actionable change in the process. Of the record itself, Miguel told Rolling Stone in 2017, “To see innocent people being ripped from their way of life to essentially be incarcerated and used as cheap labor is really crazy to me.”
Janelle Monae — “Americans” (2018)
With “Americans,” Monae ignites a protest that serves as a voice box for all Americans. “Humanity says that we are full of bugs and viruses because of our very existence, whether it be you being part of the LGBTQIA community, being a Black woman, being a minority, an immigrant, the marginalized,” she told Stephen Colbert. “It speaks to what it means to say our bugs and viruses are attributes, we don’t need to be reprogrammed or deprogrammed — we’re fine how we are. We too are American.”
Wale — “Sue Me” (2019)
The intro track to his 2019 album Wow… That’s Crazy was already deeply resonant when he took Issa Rae’s hot line and made it a song. “Sue Me” is undeniably the most important song in Wale’s career.
Lil Baby — “The Bigger Picture” (2020)
While protests erupted across the world following Floyd’s killing, Lil Baby delivered a record few saw coming. There’s external analysis: “I find it crazy the police’ll shoot you and know that you dead, but still tell you to freeze/F—d up, I see what I see/I guess that mean hold him down if he say he can’t breathe.” Likewise, he doesn’t hold himself above reproach: “I can’t lie like I don’t rap about killing and dope, but I’m telling my youngins to vote/I did what I did ’cause I didn’t have no choice or no hope, I was forced to just jump in and go.” Just days after protesting in Atlanta himself, his vicious critique of police brutality and the environment that raised him, “Bigger Picture” became the highest-charting song of his career. The most compelling, too.
Young Dolph — “Sunshine” (2020)
I never thought I’d see the day when Nina Simone and Young Dolph lived on the same playlist, but I’m honored to be the one to do it. When it comes to quality street music, Dolph has been amongst the top dogs. There’s an authenticity that’s evident from the moment his Memphis, Tennessee, drawl smothers a track like syrup. Dolph just doesn’t rap about a life. He raps about his life. Dropping at the height of quarantine earlier this year, “Sunshine” is his blistering, introspective and always honest take on the world around him.