(Photo by Jeff Kamen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

This one’s for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or any day for that matter: 6 MLK songs from years past that celebrate the icon.

 

Here in Boston, back in 2023, we unveiled our own tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. On January 13 of that year, Bostonians gathered on Newbury St. to form a procession to Boston Common where The Embrace now resides. The sculpture has become a source of celebration, discussion, and critique over the last year and will continue to inspire for years to come.

 

That’s the legacy of Dr. King, truly. Timeless inspiration. And there’s so much of his history and teachings to draw from besides his “I Have a Dream” speech. I learned a bit about that from the musicians of The Folk Collective at their concert and discussion in Melrose to celebrate MLK Day this year. It was all part of the Opening Doors project, which I encourage you to check out.

 

MLK Songs: 6 Tunes That Honor the Civil Rights Icon

To be honest, I was already planning on putting this list together before attending the Opening Doors MLK event. But the words and the music of The Folk Collective inspired me to take a different approach. Yes, a few of these songs are ones you’ll actually hear on ROCK 92.9. In fact, I’m going to use a couple of them to build the MLK Day edition of my 3 Way @ 3 as I do each year.

 

But the rest are either songs I hadn’t considered or versions of songs that I think should be shared. In any event, I hope you’ll listen and I hope the music will inspire you to think on Dr. King’s legacy more than just the holiday and the speech. His teachings are deeper and more radical than you might remember and could do a lot to move things forward in America today, tomorrow, and into the future.

  • Public Enemy "By The Time I Get To Arizona"

    From 1991’s Apocalypse ’91… The Enemy Strikes Black. I know this P.E. album inside and out. This and Fear of a Black Planet were both a revelation to me growing up. We didn’t learn in school about AZ Gov. Mecham trying to shut down MLK Day. In fact, there’s a lot that Chuck D taught me that I didn’t learn in school. Wonder why that is?

  • Living Colour "Cult of Personality"

    From their 1989 debut Vivid. While the song doesn’t mention MLK by name or use a sample of his speech (the song opens with a clip of King’s contemporary Malcolm X), guitarist Vernon Reid has referenced the Reverend as an inspiration for the song’s main theme of moving past the duality of good people vs. bad people.

  • Queen "One Vision"

    This was released as a one-off single in November of 1985, then included on Queen’s 1986 album A Kind of Magic. Drummer Roger Taylor came up with the concept, inspired by King’s life, even going so far as to using his “I Have a Dream” speech as lyrical inspiration.

  • U2 "Pride (In the Name of Love)"

    From 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. “Early morning, April 4 / Shot rings out in the Memphis sky / Free at last, they took your life / They could not take your pride…” Hasn’t lost an ounce of its impact, 40 years on.

  • Stevie Wonder "Happy Birthday"

    Released in June of 1981. Thanks to The Folk Collective, I now know that this song was written by Wonder specifically to campaign for the birthday of Dr. King to be made a federal holiday. It was one of the factors that forced President Reagan’s hand to sign the holiday into law in 1983; it was first celebrated in 1986.

  • Marvin Gaye "Abraham, Martin and John"

    Written in the wake of both King’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations in 1968 by Dick Holler. It was first recorded by Dion that summer, but I feel that the Marvin Gaye version is more impactful and appropriate to wrap up this list.

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