William Ketchum III chronicles the different events in music history where artists placed themselves on a limb to honor the life + memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was taken away from us and the world on the evening of April 4, 1968. Shot in a hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, the news reverberated throughout the country, sobering the hopes and feelings of many who yearned to see change in their lifetime. Anger, vitriol and disdain for authority began to rule the streets and ghettos across America, as people expressed themselves by rioting and venting their frustrations.
Thankfully, even though the insult from that assassin’s bullet stopped a man, music helped to keep the dream together and moving forward.
According to history, on April 7, the city of Boston was threatening to become the next place to be torched by the heat and anger of a people injured deeply. As Dart Adams wrote in his wonderfully detailed piece, Mayor Kevin White and city councilman Tom Atkins feared the onset of riots in the wake of King’s murder. To squelch the animosity, James Brown was called in to calm the city with his infectious groove.
Taking place at the historical Boston Garden, which was last minute notice to say the lest, Brown’s concert saved the city and possibly the country. “James Brown at Boston Garden” was immediately aired live over public television station WGBH in an attempt to keep people home, which worked and prevented a lot of calamity from happening. Meanwhile, on stage, the Godfather of Funk pleaded for people to protest peacefully, to be proud of King and their blackness and for the police to ease up.
Both parties obliged.
As we witness another year without King, amongst the racial tensions that still reside within state and party lines — William Ketchum III chronicles the different events in music history where artists placed themselves on a limb to honor the life + memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nina Simone – “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)”
One of the most well-known odes to King is “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” a song by Nina Simone. According to NPR Music, Simone and her band performed the song at the Westbury Music Festival three days after King was assassinated, after learning the song on the same day. While many odes to King these days only pay homage to his life, the lyrics of “Why?”, written by the band’s bass player Gene Taylor, convey the pain that was still fresh in mourners’ hearts, and Simone’s voice did the song justice. “With his bible at his side, from his foes he did not hide, it’s hard to think this great man is dead,” she sang.
B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Al Kooper, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin – King Tribute
The night that Dr. King was killed, many of the greats in music played in an impromptu jam session in New York City. Different accounts have Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, B.B. King (who was in MLK’s hotel during the murder) and others at the venue. Guy remembers thinking the same thing that Nina Simone. And her band were thinking. “‘Why?’ You know. That’s what the time was, man,” he said in an interview with CBC. “My thinking was don’t nobody want to hear the truth.”
Public Enemy – “By the Time I Get to Arizona”
Public Enemy created “By the Time I Get to Arizona” as a response to New Hampshire and Arizona government officials who campaigned against making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday. “I’m singing about a King…for the man who demands respect cause he was great,” Chuck D insisted. Twenty plus years later and Arizona is back at the center of a civil rights issue in the form of Senate Bill 1070. A group of 12 Arizona rappers would go on to record a song in the vein of “By the Time I Get to Arizona” with “Back To Arizona,” a millennial protest anthem that would surely make King proud.
Stevie Wonder – “Happy Birthday”
Stevie Wonder‘s birthday song is regularly used by black families to celebrate with loved ones, but the musical icon created the song to push for the national celebration of MLK Day. “There ought to be a law against anyone who takes offense at a day in your celebration,” Stevie sang, “cause we all know in our minds that there ought to be a time that we can set aside to show just how much we love you.”
Common and John Legend – “Glory”
The award-winning 2014 film Selma told the story of the Martin Luther King-led fight for voting equality, and held added significance with racialized violence that flooded headlines and social media images in the mid-2010s. Common and John Legend understood the magnitude of the moment, and delivered with “Glory.” The combination of Common’s inspirational rhymes and John Legend’s stirring vocals earned the duo an Oscar for the best song on a soundtrack.
is a journalist who covers music, pop culture, film/TV, race, culture and social justice. He is an editor at Okayplayer, and his work has appeared in Complex, Billboard, Guardian, NPR, MTV, Ebony, HipHopDX, The Flint Journal-MLive, and other publications.