A short, but sweet Kwanzaa jams playlist for me and you, yo’ mama and yo’ cousin, too
OPINION: While there are plenty of Kwanzaa-specific bops out there at your disposal, here are some jams in the spirit of Kwanzaa to keep you moving.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
If you’re reading this, that means Christmas just passed, and Kwanzaa is upon us. What is Kwanzaa? I’m glad you asked. Kwanzaa is the seven-day, post-Christmas celebration of Blackness that celebrates principles for daily living that are of positive impact on our community. While gathering around a kinara, each day a candle representing one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa — umoja (unity); kujichagulia (self-determination); ujima (collective work and responsibility); ujamaa (cooperative economics); nia (purpose); kuumba (creativity); imani (faith) — is lit, sparking conversations and celebrations intending to uplift and empower those in attendance. It’s Black excellence in a most Black excellent fashion.
Since there is no Blackness without music, any perusal of streaming services will display a litany of songs that go along with any Kwanzaa celebration. A simple search of “Kwanzaa” on Spotify, for instance, yields the Kwanzaa Gospel Choir, the Kwanzaa Posse, the Kwanzaa Project, etc. Point is, you can find songs titled as each of the principles and songs in the immediate spirit of the principles and everywhere in between. I’m sure it’s like that on any other streaming musical platform.
Well, not to try to outshine Kwanzaa or any of the artists or individuals who have created music and/or playlists to celebrate the season, I decided to try to go in a slightly different direction. Instead of songs called “Umoja” or directly about the principle intended to celebrate Kwanzaa, I decided to peruse the canons of hip-hop and R&B, in particular, to find songs that I felt were done in the spirit of the celebration, even if they didn’t realize it. I am going to pick 14 songs — two per principle. Let’s go.
“U.N.I.T.Y.,” Queen Latifah
The first layup of the game. I mean it’s a song about coming together as Black men and Black women. Sign me up.
“Rhythm Nation,” Janet Jackson
“Rhythm Nation” is more about coming together under the banner of the rhythm to create a better world, but let’s just pretend the world she was talking about was a Black one, mmkay? Plus she wore all black in the video, which was shot in black-and-white so we’ll just make this about the community and culture.
“Optimistic,” Sounds of Blackness
“As long as you keep your head to the sky, you can win…” I mean the song is a whole mood and a lesson in self-determination and deciding for oneself where you can go. There’s a reason why this song, which came out in 1991, is as popular today as it was then.
“I Can,” Nas
In a movie of self-determinative genius, God’s son used children to spit the hook of this kind of terrible in a gospel-rap manner jam to chart success. The hook of, “I know I can, be what I wanna be/if I work hard at it, be who I wanna be/I know I can…” You get the point. The whole song is about knowledge of self AND using that to determine the heights for which you will reach.
Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
“We’re All in the Same Gang,” The West Coast Rap All-Stars
Ironic, of course, since several rappers on this song made songs about killing many people, presumably those NOT on this song, but the point of the song was to get the gang members in Los Angeles to realize that they’re the only ones who could stop the violence in the community. They needed to come together for the common interest of everybody. Even more ironic is that Dee Barnes, who Dr. Dre famously punched is ALSO on this song as part of the duo Body & Soul.
“Umi Says,” Mos Def
Perhaps a bit of a reach, but this song was going to have to make it on this list somewhere. This album opens up with the idea that hip-hop goes where the people go. And “Umi Says” is a song about freedom and uniting as people to make the world a better place for Black folks. You know, as a responsible collective. Let’s move on.
Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
“9th Wonder (Blackitolism),” Digable Planets
I mean, one of the Blackest songs on one of the absolute Blackest albums is loosely about Black folks getting money as a collective. At least that’s what the hook is about; the lyrics, eh…they run the gamut. But let’s run with it.
“The Story of O.J.,” Jay-Z
As Jay has gotten longer in the truth, he’s gotten more into his Black community bag though still every bit as a capitalist. “The Story of O.J.,” though, spends a lot of time talking about how the community could stack wealth with continued investment in itself. We all win when we look within, so to speak. OK!
Blackalicious is one of my favorite hip-hop groups of all time and hands down my favorite rap group name ever. Their song “Passion” is about the love for the art of hip-hop and what you’ll do to succeed and make it in the rap game. That’s purpose. Blackalicious had a purpose.
“To Zion,” Lauryn Hill
I mean, from the first time I heard this song I felt a sense of purpose. Now, my purpose wasn’t the same as Lauryn’s — Zion was her new baby — but if I could find anything to sing that beautifully about would mean that I had found my nia.
“Elevators (Me & U),” Outkast
Songs about creativity must include some of my favorite creative songs. When “Elevators” dropped, NOBODY had heard a song like this before. It’s a song about Outkast’s growth, just with one of the coolest wormhole hooks ever.
“The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” Missy Elliott
One of the most creative to literally EVER do it in any genre, as far as I’m concerned. Missy Elliott could probably be every creative song ever.
“Alright,” Kendrick Lamar
I mean, is any song MORE tied to the belief in the power and potential of the Black community at this point? I think not. This song is both an anthem and a rallying cry to all Black folks that we got this, and we just have to believe it.
“I Believe,” Sounds of Blackness
The idea is in the title; I believe.
Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).
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