Today (Jan. 20), we remember the life and legacy of late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose contributions to the social and political sphere of the United States are innumerable. And over the years, the global musical sphere has become filled with songs inspired by or dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Billboard staff has picked our 10 favorites among those songs, from the sobriety of U2's "MLK" to the unfettered optimism of Springsteen's "We Shall Overcome."
Pride In The Name Of Love
If listeners have any doubt that Martin Luther King Jr. is the subject of "Pride (In the Name of Love)," Bono's lyrics three minutes in drive the point home: "Early morning, April 4/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky/Free at last, they took your life/They could not take your pride." However, history buffs will note that the song, which was the lead single off U2's 1984 album "The Unforgettable Fire," contains a factual error -- MLK's assassination took place in the early evening, rather than the early morning. But that didn't matter to music fans -- the Edge's guitar jangle at the beginning of "Pride (In the Name of Love)" is one of the most recognizable riffs of the era.
By The Time I Get To Arizona
Public Enemy (1991)
"By The Time I Get To Arizona" was written by Public Enemy's Chuck D in 1991 as a direct reply to Arizona officials, including John McCain and Fife Symington, for rejecting the federal holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Just last year, the song's sentiments resurfaced when the same state's governor, Jan Brewer, decided to sign into law the Arizona immigration bill, which gave police the power to detain people they suspect to be undocumented, proving that the same politics written about in "By The Time I Get To Arizona" are alive and well in Arizona today.
Stevie Wonder (1981)
Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" track was written in 1981 by the pianist/social activist as part of the campaign to have the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. become a national holiday. The song's lyrics, above keyboard synthesizers, find Wonder questioning why anyone would oppose to commemorating King's legacy by setting aside a day for him. "I just never understood, how a man who died for good/could not have a day that would be set aside for his recognition," he sings. Preach, Stevie!
We Shall Overcome
Bruce Springsteen (2006)
The Boss' 2006 " Seeger Sessions" disc featured this protest tune as its centerpiece. "We Shall Overcome" could conceivably be applied to most instances of widespread oppression, but its origins lie within the U.S. civil rights movement in the middle of the century. The song soars, gaining momentum (and instruments) until the tune is brimming with the encouraging spirit of MLK's hopeful mantra.
"Look what they've done to my dream," sings Freddie Mercury over a Stones-esque guitar lick in this 1985 single off "A Kind of Magic." Mercury sounds altogether vibrant, singing positive verses of a hope for unity against vivacious instrumentation. Oh, and those masked vocals at the beginning of the tune? "God works in mysterious ways... mysterious ways..." Indeed, Queen, indeed.