“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy is defined by his pursuit of equal rights for Black Americans through unity and peace.
He is canonized in American history as the patron saint of change through passive measures.
His infamous "I Have A Dream" speech was a rallying cry for this country to live up to its promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. King urged us to be a nation that advocates for the inclusion of all of its citizens in the American Dream, no matter their race.
But Dr. King's message of non-violence and civil disobedience is often misinterpreted. For some in the Black community, it means doing absolutely nothing in the face of physical harm from white people. In the hands of many conservatives and racists, his beliefs are a gag order against racial injustice. They have distorted King's dream in an attempt to make us docile.
The marches and protests during the Civil Rights Movement were peaceful acts of civil disorder. King implored members of the movement not to engage in chaos and destruction. Unfortunately, these non-threatening gatherings became violent due to agitation from law enforcement, despite honoring King's wishes of peaceful resistance.
At the time, King's call for unity and equal rights was considered radical and unpatriotic. The FBI had him under surveillance, and he was the recipient of death threats from white extremists. King was a beacon of peace; but, his cause made him a target for hate.
The narrative surrounding King's death has been warped, as well. Revisionist history paints him as a martyr when, in reality, he was a victim of white supremacy. His assassination in 1968 was a cruel irony. He preached peace only for its antithesis to be his demise.
Today, civil unrest is at an all-time high. Innocent Black lives are taken by police almost daily, and the election of President Trump brought to light how much America hasn't changed since Jim Crow. We've applied the same tactics that King advised his followers to use, only to receive the same treatment decades later.
When highlighting the level of violence against non-aggressive demonstrations, many on the Right feel that Black people's right to protest is a justification for police brutality. In their eyes, the need to peacefully assemble to combat racism is excessive and unnecessary, as if any non-violent uprising is a threat and has to be silenced to preserve law and order.
Even Black entertainers and athletes have faced public backlash for speaking against racial inequality. NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was blackballed for kneeling in protest against police brutality. Kendrick Lamar's "Alright", a song about Black people overcoming struggle, was deemed an anti-police anthem. White America demonized them and others for using their platforms to bring awareness.
Meanwhile, white nationalism doesn't face the same level of persecution that Black liberation receives. Racists and fascists that subscribe to Trumpism are considered "patriots." But Black people seeking a level playing field are labeled as treasonous. One side has resorted to rioting as a last resort. The other looked at insurrection as a first solution.
Over 50 years after his death, Dr. King's message of peaceful resistance is a patronizing jab at the Black community. His philosophy isn't a factor when barbaric bigots are looking to harm us. Instead, it's as a pseudo restraining order to thwart our attempts at seeking change and potential retaliation.
For many Americans, Dr. King was a Civil Rights Superman. Unfortunately, his stance has become the movement's kryptonite.
From Cardi B to Hamilton to Queen Bey herself, here are ten songs that have inspired and soundtracked the ascensions of female politicians and powerful women of the modern world.
If it wasn't clear from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's recent Twitter battle with Cardi B and Tomi Lahren, we're living in an era where politicians and musicians have the ability to influence each other on huge scales.
But music has long been a source of inspiration and power, especially for women or other people whose voices have been subjugated or silenced.
In honor of the newest class of women in Congress, and in celebration of women in politics in general, here's a list of ten songs that we think would make the perfect soundtrack to their ascensions, and might even inspire you to follow suit.
1. Cardi B – Best Life
Cardi B - Best Life feat. Chance The Rapper [Official Audio]www.youtube.com
I never had a problem showin' y'all the real me/ Hair when it's messed up, crib when it's filthy/ Way-before-the-de… https://t.co/SdojcZ9olh— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) 1542740838.0
The song's lyrics seem to align with Ocasio-Cortez's approach to communicating with her supporters, which has been radically honest and personal, as she frequently shares developments at work and at home via her Instagram stories. Though she was met with backlash from users who told her to "write intelligibly," Ocasio-Cortez's supporters cheered the reference.
Unabashedly outspoken and proud of their stratospheric rise to the top of their respective fields, Ocasio-Cortez and Cardi B are two women who seem to be on unstoppable paths—while determined to keep it real all the while.
2. Anaïs Mitchell – Why We Build the Wall
Anaïs Mitchell ft. Greg Brown - Why We Build the Wallwww.youtube.com
When folk singer Anaïs Mitchell penned "Why We Build the Wall" in 2006 for her concept album Hadestown, she never imagined that its lyrics—which retell the story of the Greek god of death Hades and his quasi-American capitalist hellscape—would become so relevant.
The song is a call-and-response narrative between Hades and his citizens, who work ceaselessly on a wall in exchange for the economic security that living in Hadestown provides. It contains lyrics like, "The wall keeps out the enemy / and the enemy is poverty / and we build the wall to keep us free / that's why we build the wall." Hadestown, which also tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, is coming to Broadway in the spring of 2019.
This song seems like it would make the perfect satirical rallying cry for Nancy Pelosi, who denounced Donald Trump's request for $5.7 billion to build his wall between the U.S. and Mexico after his speech on January 8th, two weeks in to what would become the longest government shutdown ever.
3. Aretha Franklin – Respect
Aretha Franklin - Respect  (Original Version)www.youtube.com
Aretha Franklin passed away in August of 2018, but her legacy lives on within every woman who ever wanted to be treated with honor and—as perhaps her most iconic song repeats—R - E - S - P - E - C - T. (Hint: that's all of us).
Aretha's unforgettable voice soars above the song's infectious musical backdrop, coalescing to form a track that is alternatingly prideful and enraged, hopeful and world-weary. This song's message seems too vast to be contained to one politician or time period. It's a timeless sentiment that could change the world, if we'd only listen.
4. Ms. Lauryn Hill – Everything is Everything
Lauryn Hill - Everything Is Everythingwww.youtube.com
In June, recently-announced 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris posted a Spotify playlist as a homage to important black musicians of the 20th century. The third song on the playlist, "Everything is Everything" from the iconic The Miseducation of Ms. Lauryn Hill, echoes sentiments that Harris has proclaimed in her own speeches.
Its powerful lyrics, "Sometimes it seems / We'll touch that dream. But things come slow or not at all / And the ones on top, won't make it stop / So convinced that they might fall," seem like they could be a rallying cry for Harris, a politician campaigning on promises of "American values" and "not putting people in boxes."
Hill's message of everything is everything is a beautiful sentiment about the way that all people and all issues are interconnected and cannot be addressed independently, and she has long been a powerful voice for women of color.
Kamala Harris's work as a prosecutor is under scrutiny from leftists everywhere, but judging by her playlist, at least her music taste is up to par.
5. Lin-Manuel Miranda – Satisfied
Female characters take the backseat to the titular protagonist of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, but Angelica Schuyler's Satisfied is a show-stopper in a class of its own. Sung by the sister of Eliza, Alexander Hamilton's wife, it is a flashback to the night that they all met, when Angelica developed feelings for Alexander but decided she needed to set her sights on marrying someone richer.
Angelica, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry in the musical, spits some of the show's fastest bars and hits some of its highest notes in this virtuosic performance, which reveals the extent of her brilliance as well as the extent of her regret at not taking a chance on love.
It might be easy to dedicate this song to Hillary Clinton, whose tenacious determination to win the presidency and refusal to be satisfied with a mere first-ladyship (or Secretary of State position) does belie a similar ambition to Angelica's.
But Angelica, with her razor-sharp wit and social sensibilities, seems similar to some of Congress's outspoken freshmen members, such Ayanna Pressley, who has been an outspoken critic of Trump and many of his policies from her first moments on the House floor, running on the message "Change can't wait" with an urgency evocative of Angelica's intense drive.
6. Taylor Swift – Bad Blood
Taylor Swift - Bad Blood ft. Kendrick Lamarwww.youtube.com
Taylor Swift has had her fair share of beef with other artists, but until 2018 remained staunchly apolitical. But after Swift announced in an Instagram post that she "could not support Marsha Blackburn," the politician lashed out—provoking serious flashbacks to the time that Taylor Swift allegedly attacked Katy Perry over a feud involving backup dancers through her video, Bad Blood.
The stakes were slightly higher in this situation, and Blackburn still snagged the Senate seat in spite of the star's opposition.
"Of course I support women and I want violence to end against women," said Blackburn in response to Swift, who had also written that the politician's "voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies" her. Blackburn has been a supporter of Trump's border wall as well as his efforts to end Obamacare.
7. Questlove's Entire Michelle Obama Playlist
Michelle Obama's Musiaqualogy Vol 1 1964-1979 by Questlove
Michelle Obama's Musiaqualogy Vol 2. 1980-1997 by Questlove
Michelle Obama's Musiaqualogy Vol 3. 1997-2018 by Questlove
The musician Questlove of the band The Roots has created three 100-song playlists for Michelle Obama's Becoming book tour, and every song is worth putting on repeat. Entitled The Michelle Obama Musiaquology, it is a journey through time (and occasionally, space) filled with mournful, fierce, and empowering tracks—much like the biography it was designed to soundtrack.
Obama's Becoming is more about hope and unity than it is about politics and division, and so are most of the songs in this playlist. An exuberant melding of jazz, pop, and the occasional stylistic outlier, Questlove's compilation elevates voices of joy, pride, black power, and solidarity in an era in desperate need of them. Featuring icons ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Kendrick Lamar, it's a survey of music throughout history that has given hope to those who need it most.
8. MILCK – I Can't Keep Quiet
MILCK - Quietwww.youtube.com
Newcomer MILCK's powerful composition became the anthem of the first Women's March, and since then, the artist has continued to release waves of meaningful music while maintaining a confessional and motivational social media presence.
The vulnerable and passionate song that made her famous could be an anthem for kids like Emma Gonzalez, speaking out against gun violence, and for all the other women who have spoken and will continue to reach out and fight for their beliefs.
9. Against Me! — True Trans Soul Rebel
Against Me! - True Trans Soul Rebel [ALBUM VERSION]www.youtube.com
In the shadows of the Trump administration's ban against transgender people in the military, this song is a reminder that trans people not only exist but will continue to fight.
Transgender politician Christine Hallquist did not win in the general Vermont elections for governor, but she did secure a spot in the 2018 Democratic primaries, the first time a transgender person has been nominated by a major party. And more transgender and LGBTQ people ran and won races in November 2018 than ever before, signaling an upswing of pride in spite of the Trump administration's anti-trans policies.
Against Me!'s True Trans Soul Rebel has long been an anthem for the transgender community, an outcry of pain against a world that constantly threatens them with erasure.
10. Beyoncé – Who Run the World (Girls)
Beyoncé - Run the World (Girls) (Video - Main Version)www.youtube.com
No list of songs for female politicians would be complete without Queen Bey's presence. This song is one of the crown jewels of feminist anthems, with its infectious beat pounding underneath Beyonce's velvety vocals and its iconic refrain. This one goes out to all the future female politicians, including the hopefully soon-to-be first female commander-in-chief.
With that, we welcome the 42 new female congresswomen, celebrate the women who came before them, and encourage all the women and trans people coming after to rise up and sing out. Listen to these songs enough and internalize their messages, and it could be you in those seats someday.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City.