Photo: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Despite the polar vortex treating a majority of America like its own personal winter wonderland there are plenty of reasons to celebrate what’s been a relatively dreary February. And no we’re not talking about Valentine’s Day – that’s another albatross altogether – what were talking about is Black History Month.

Taking a moment to reflect on the contributions Black America’s had on the world and the many struggles that came along with it, it’s important to acknowledge all aspects, good and bad – some of it political, some of it spiritual, all meaningful and important. To think that we’re only a few generations removed from the slave trade is pretty staggering, so what can we do?

A lot actually. But we’ve decided that putting on our headphones, digging through our music library and finding the jams that help us put it all into perspective is a good start. Saturday Night Live offered their tribute (although it may not be a good idea just to give any old body a random hug – black, white or otherwise), and we’ve done the same, pulling five songs that deserve a little bit of shine.

Count Basie – ‘Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?

An honorary song from Buddy Johnson and Count Basie celebrating one of the most important figures in the civil rights movement: Jackie Robinson. Jackie was a five tool player and did things on the field that no one else had ever seen or imagined at the time, including stealing home base. He’s made iconic plays his whole career, but none bigger than when he broke the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947. To put it into perspective that’s eight years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. He’s the epitome of grace under fire and without him baseball and America what not be what it is today:

"Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?"

Juggaknots – ‘Clear Blue Skies

This is a certified underground classic, and a five star exchange between two criminally slept-on lyricists. The way Buddy Slim dances over the beat is enough to warrant several dozen repeats, and that’s not even mentioning the type of schooling Breeze Brewin’ is doing himself. But what makes this a relevant piece of writing is the exchange they’re reenacting between a racist father (played by Slim) and his son (Breeze Brewin’) who’s dating a black woman. There are multiple layers to analyze and it shows just how insular and discreet racism can be – a reminder of what civil rights is fighting against:

"Clear Blue Skies"

Death – ‘Politicians in My Eyes

There’s an unheralded punk band out there called Death, a trio of brothers from Detroit who went completely against the grain. Their sound predates Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and there was nothing like it at the time. People looked at them like they were crazy. Why? Because not only were they a little off their rocker, but they had the guts to be righteous in a time when the squeaky clean image of Motown was the prevailing sound. Nothing stood in their way, and they’re a perfect example of what a little perseverance and perspective can accomplish:

"Politicians in My Eyes"

Bob Dylan – ‘Hurricane

The story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter is a textbook example of how the justice system failed. There’s plenty to be upset about here, the fact that Carter was wrongly accused and imprisoned despite overwhelming evidence is dumbfounding. The song stands as an example of some of the injustices African Americans have and continue to experience at the hands of the law. Hurricane Carter could have been champion of the world instead he spent a better part of his life in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Bob Dylan was a voice to his plight and it enlightened an entire generation:


Nina Simone – ‘To Be Young Gifted and Black

A notable collaboration between the iconoclastic Nina Simone and the legendary songwriter Weldon Irvine. Nina had the melody as well as the famous lines already in mind, all she needed was for Irvine to help fill in the rest. He wrestled with it for weeks until it came to him while he was in his car picking up his girlfriend from the airport. He penned it while at a red light on a matchbook and napkins. According to Irvine, “[Nina] wanted it to be a song that would be inspirational to young black children from then till the end of time.” Mission accomplished:

"To Be Young Gifted and Black"