Learn Black history with kids through these 12 important songs

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Most Americans grew up with history lessons that were dominated by the white, European point of view. Black History Month is a yearly reminder to focus on Black roots, contributions, and brilliance to better understand how we got to where we are today. But of course Black History Month isn’t the only time we should be filling in the gaps in our history knowledge — every day is a great time to learn Black history with kids!

Kids don’t want to just listen to you talk or read about history, though — plus, you might need a refresher yourself. One way to make Black history easier to absorb is to make it part of another activity that they enjoy. For kids and families who love to listen to music together, music is a welcoming way to introduce and explore historical figures, events, and concepts.

It is impossible to capture all of the important songs that could teach kids about Black history, but here are 12 great places to start, with ideas of how you can use the music to understand history:

Songs for younger kids

The following songs are by artists who have experience performing for young children, so they’re the perfect place to start if you have kids in early elementary school or even preschool.

“Juneteenth” by Fyütch & Alphabet Rockers — Through this thoughtful hip hop song, kids can learn more about the story of enslaved people, emancipation, and the origin of Juneteenth — plus, reflect on the meaning of freedom. Be sure to see Fyütch’s activity sheets and coloring pages too!

“Black Women in History” by Fyütch, Rissi Palmer & Snooknuk — Learn about many important historical figures such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Claudette Colvin, and Ida B. Wells in this joyful song. Then choose one person to research further!

“Alma’s Art” by Miss Katie Sings — This sweet song and video can help young kids learn about the inspiring painter, educator, and activist Alma Thomas. After listening, you can browse an online gallery of Thomas’s paintings and ask kids for their thoughts.

“THE GOAT (The Muhammad Ali Story)” by DJ Willy Wow — This track by popular children’s performer DJ Willy Wow explains who Muhammad Ali was, from his boxing career to his political activism. For older kids who want to know more about anti-Vietnam War sentiments, also see Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” below.

“M.L.K. That Way!” by DJ Willy Wow & Chuck D — This catchy song is a hip hop history lesson made for young kids. It includes recordings of Martin Luther King Jr. and talks about different aspects of the Civil Rights Movement!

“Racing with the Sun” as performed by Ella Jenkins — Introduce kids to the importance of call-and-response music sung by enslaved Africans working on plantations. This is just one of many lovely and meaningful songs performed by children’s folk music legend Ella Jenkins — who, at 99 years old, is a part of Black history herself. Be sure to listen to some of her other songs too, including “You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song,” “Wade in the Water,” “Did You Feed My Cow?” and “Black Royalty.”

Songs for older kids

While the content of these songs is fine for kids of any age, it may take a longer attention span or deeper thinking skills to understand their significance. They can help start great conversations with older elementary students, tweens, and teens.

“Glory” by Common & John Legend — The movie Selma is recommended for ages 13 and up, but this song from the movie can be introduced to kids a few years earlier as a way to discuss the Civil Rights Movement. Just preview the video yourself first before you decide whether or not to show it to kids, as it includes some violent moments from history.

“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone — Listeners may not be aware that this uplifting anthem by Nina Simone was a tribute to her friend Lorraine Hansberry, the young playwright who wrote A Raisin in the Sun and was the first Black woman to have a play performed on Broadway. Talk to kids about why this song was so empowering in the 1960s, and why it still holds power today.

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye — This was a chart-topping pop song of the 1970s, but you may not know that it takes on social issues of the time. The story behind the song is that Marvin Gaye’s brother Frankie had just returned home as a veteran of the Vietnam War. In the smooth-sounding song, Gaye questions the war and uplifts the protests against it. Discuss with kids how the popularity of the song helped open up conversations across the country about social issues.

“Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder — This song has become a popular birthday party tune, but Stevie Wonder actually released it in 1981 as part of a campaign to establish a holiday on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Read the lyrics and discuss what they mean (see the comments for Wonder’s album liner notes about the song).

“Ladies First” by Queen Latifah & Monie Love — There are plenty of female rappers in the spotlight today, but there were also plenty of women and girls who paved the way throughout hip hop history. Queen Latifah is one iconic old-school rapper who embodies feminism, and this track from 1989 is a reminder of that. Also be sure to check out some other old-school hip hop artists whose lyrics are on the cleaner side.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson  — Often referred to as the Black national anthem, this well-known song composed by a former NAACP leader has been performed by countless artists over the decades, including more recently at the Super Bowl and in Beyoncé’s Homecoming concert/album. This video of students singing the song in a Jacksonville, Florida, classroom captures some of the inspiration the anthem can still deliver today. Look up other versions of the song with kids to see which style resonates with them.

Listen to our playlist here:

There are so many other ways to learn Black history with kids through music. You can listen to Black musical artists from all different eras, and look up the origins of rock and roll, the birth of hip hop, and even the history of the banjo!

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.