In 1939, Billie Holiday started performing the song “Strange Fruit“*, telling the horrendous reality of lynchings of Black people and making the song one of the most famous fight songs of the American civil rights movement. Twenty-five years later, in 1964, Sam Cooke wrote “A change is gonna come” (covered by Otis Redding in the video below), inspired by the overt peace message in Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the wind“, and he created a crucial testimony of racism and racial segregation following the Jim Crow laws in the USA. The year after, in 1965, Nina Simone released her version of “Feeling Good“, describing the euphoric feeling of liberation from oppression. It made it to history as an important statement against inequality. Along the lines of speaking up against inequality, Aretha Franklin covered Otis Redding’s “Respect” in 1967, but with specific tweaks in the lyrics that made it an anthem for the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s and is used as one to this day. Three years later, in 1970, Edwin Starr recorded “War“, strongly condemning and protesting against the Vietnam War.
These songs made a substantial societal impact by the time of their release. They worked as a driving force for necessary change and offered direction and unity in the struggle to achieve that change. They were testimonies of an unacknowledged reality. They provided hope amid hopelessness and shed light on the pain and suffering shared by many but suppressed in darkness through the oppression of silence and denial. These were also songs that were all written and recorded at the time of the formation of soul music as a genre, which truly manifests societal engagement and strives for societal change as intrinsic and essential parts of the soul’s core. This can be traced back to gospel music, which soul music stems from, and its message of inclusion and fellowship.
Unfortunately, the soul songs mentioned above by legends of the developing soul era are still as relevant. They are needed in a world of increasing socioeconomic inequality, hate crime and segregation, war, patriarchal structures and “alternative facts”. They are necessary for a world where individualism triumphs over solidarity, monetary value triumphs over human value, and systemic discrimination triumphs over equality. They are still required to create the world human rights fighters wanted to form all those years ago. Now, just as much as then, voices for humanity and humane values are so much needed.
Because the world still is tainted by injustice in many ways, it is easy to subside in hopelessness. However, it gives us hope when artists of the modern age follow in the footsteps of their predecessors who used their voices for change. We have a few wonderful examples in the Scandinavian Soul family. These are not only showing that soul music and its message of equality has made its way to Scandinavia. They also show that despite many not having close to the same reach or impact as former soul legends, they make an active decision to do what they can and use their platform as artists to take a stand.
In 2015, Jonas released “Hvor Dit Hjerte Bor“, translated as “Where your heart lives”, taking a stand for humane treatment and reception of Syrian refugees fleeing their homes as a consequence of the atrocious war. The music collective People on the Hill released “We Want to Be Free” with an accompanying video in 2018, lyrically and visually showing the world’s injustices, anger and division. To shed light on the suffering and stigmatisation of homelessness, Mensahighlife released “Glöd – En sång för de hemlösa” directly translated as “A song for the homeless” in 2020. The year after, in 2021, Coco O. released “Soldier“, expressing frustration over toxic masculinity and women’s struggles in a male-dominated world. This year, Flores released “Brown” (see below), acknowledging historic and contemporary abuse of Mexican indigenous people while honouring and celebrating her roots and complexion.
Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing“. Even though the world is hardly ever as binary and simple as being dividable in “good” and “evil”, and even though Edmund Burke advocated a conservative ideology that arguably does not stimulate societal evolvement, this quote captures what is required from all of us who want to see equality, who wants to see justice, who wants to see peace.
We need to raise our voices. And looking at the legacy of former soul founders, such as Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Edwin Starr, we see that soul music is a compelling way to do so. A change can come, but it will not do so by itself. It is up to all of us to make that change come.
*Although Billie Holiday is classified as a jazz and blues singer rather than a soul singer, and the song “Strange Fruit” is hard to classify at all, this is an important one to include. The soul genre was born out of blues and jazz, amongst others, and “Strange Fruit” had a monumental impact on the use of music to voice inequality struggles.