How We Got Over: The Case for Hope in Protest Music

Black America’s rich tradition of putting their fears, hopes, and joys to music

(Photo: Clay Banks/Unsplash)

There is hope. Doesn’t that seem like a trite statement to read in the midst of a raging pandemic?

COVID-19 has ruthlessly stolen our sense of normalcy and marches on with its thievery. We have been laid off, terminated, or forced to work less hours. Restrictions have been placed on physical gatherings at churches and beyond. Plans are on pause. Virtual spaces are the new meetup spots. Millions have fallen ill and the virus has taken tens of thousands of lives—claiming Black lives at a higher rate.

Yet, the coronavirus pandemic has left racial injustices untouched. Police violence, racial inequities, and acts of racism have not been interrupted, halted, or furloughed. In some cases, restrictions meant to fight the disease have widened racial divides. Notably, we lost Breonna Taylor and, later, George Floyd as the government declared a national emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in March. The knee of racial injustice remains firmly pressed against our necks.

So, how can we say there is hope? Because Black Christians who persevered through and overcame slavery, Jim Crow, and the violent denial of their civil rights prove there is purpose in remaining hopeful.

These champions of hope were asked the same question in their own contexts that we are faced with today: What gives you hope?

What Is Hope?

First off, hope is not wishful thinking or what I like to call cultural hope. Cultural hope is when we expect a favorable outcome despite only putting in minimal effort, if any effort at all. We may hope God makes us more prayerful although we neglect to find intentional time for prayer. We hope to read the Bible more, yet our Bible continues collecting dust sitting wherever it was we last placed it. Cultural hope is worthless.

Biblical hope, on the other hand, refers to “confident expectation,” according to theologian J. Hampton Keathley III. Despite the injustices, miseries, and challenges of their times, Black Christians have always rested on biblical hope. They had a confident expectation that they, too, like the children of Israel would be delivered from all their troubles and eventually make it to the promised land.

When they couldn’t afford the bare necessities of life, they bought stock in hope. Their spirituals and freedom and protest songs were sung to the tune of hope—in many cases, a subversive hope.

Let the fan of their declarations, affirmations, and convictions feed the flames—or embers—of your hope.

Spirituals and the Slave’s Hope

During slavery, Black people were treated as property and the Bible was used as a tool of oppression. Yet, author and historian Jemar Tibsy states in The Color of Comprise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism: “Christianity, in fact, became a source of strength and survival, bringing hope to thousands of enslaved people.”

Their hope birthed the negro spirituals, like “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” that declares:

Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel
Deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel
Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel 
An’ why not-a every man.”

Harriet Tubman Portrait
A former slave and “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman said that she used spirituals such as “Go Down Moses” to signal slaves that she was in the area, and would help any who wanted to escape.

Enslaved Blacks were worked mercilessly, chained like animals, and fed meals the prodigal son wouldn’t have desired. But they had hope in God’s delivering power. They had hope that God could “make a way out of no way” like He did for Daniel in the lion’s den.

They also sang “Swing, Low Sweet Chariot,” revealing:

I’m sometimes up, I am sometimes down
Coming for to carry me home;
But still my soul feels heavenly bound

This song displays how they had some good days and some bad days. They felt cheerful sometimes and they felt despair at other times. They were optimistic sometimes, and they were pessimistic at other times. Though their feelings waxed and waned, their hope in heaven never wavered.

Freedom Songs and King’s Hope

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most visible driver of the Civil Rights Movement, pressed forward in the fight for Black freedom. King, like the countless others who pressed on right alongside him, turned to freedom songs—remixes of Negro spirituals—to maintain his focus.

King, in his book Why We Can’t Wait, referred to freedom songs as the “soul of the movement.” The freedom songs were the glue that held civil rights activists together when they marched. King said that “the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We Shall Overcome…’”

Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963.
Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963.

In meetings, they would sing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” and affirm:

“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Marchin’ down to freedom land”

Protesters sang this in one moment and by the next, lived it out. They refused to turn around even when Alabama segregationist Bull Connor ordered police dogs and fire hoses to be used on them. The hope of “freedom land” was enough to give them courage to face fierce opposition.

Modern Protest Songs and Hope

Let’s fast forward to 2020, where it seems we are in the midst of a new civil rights movement. The fight may differ in some ways, but hope is still the clarion call. This infectious hope that God will set things right has spread from persevering protesters of the 1950s and ‘60s to activists of today.

Deep-seated feelings of frustration, anger, and desperation are attached to protest songs even as they project hope. Questions are raised and declarations are made.

For example, Trey Songz in his grieving asks : “How many more brothers gotta die? How many more times?” In “I Can’t Breathe,” H.E.R. asks a different and relevant question: “Where is the hope and empathy?”

H.E.R. and Songz echo the concerns of Tye Tribbett, but his conclusion is, “We gon’ be alright.” Borrowing his song title from Kendrick Lamar, Tribbett released “We Gon’ Be Alright” in the midst of the pandemic, the record boldly declaring a message based on the promises in God’s Word.

But Tribbett is not alone in his hope. Tobe Nwigwe laments the toxicity of the world toward Black people in “Make It Home.” Yet the hope of heaven surrounds each sorrowful lyric. “This for the nappy heads in heaven with a nappy head Christ by they side,” he sings.

Protestors March
(Photo: Julian Wan/Unsplash)

YB sets his view on this shared hope by looking to “the Greatest,” his eyes on Jesus as the nation is rocked by the people’s demands for justice. The source of his hope, like many who have gone before him, is resolutely Jesus.

The tune of hope remains ever present in today’s protest and freedom songs. Their loud cries for justice are lifted up and sustained by hope.

Don’t Lose Hope

Black Christians have faced countless trials and tribulations, yet we persevere with hope as our guiding light. Ours is a biblical hope, a living hope (1 Peter 1:3) found in the Savior who defeated even death.

Hope has been there with us through it all and remains with us still. Hope keeps us singing about the power of God to deliver. Hope keeps us singing about our determination to overcome injustices. Hope keeps us boldly proclaiming that, in these uncertain times, “we gon’ be alright.”

We have lost much in this pandemic and to police violence, but don’t lose hope. Rest in the fact that God can “make a way out of no way,” like He did for the great cloud of witnesses who came before us.


Included in the playlist:

  • Keedron Bryant – “I Just Wanna Live”
  • Christopher Alan – “Shine On”
  • YB – “The Greatest”
  • Pastor Chris Harris – “Black Lives Matter (The African American National Anthem)”
  • Tamela Mann – “Touch From You”
  • Tobe Nwigwe – “MAKE IT HOME”
  • Tye Tribbett – “We Gon Be Alright”
  • Dee-1 – “Racist Christians”
  • Y Shadey – “Officer Don’t Shoot”
  • Trey Songz – “2020 Riots: How Many Times”
  • H.E.R. – “I Can’t Breathe”
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    Written by DeAron Washington

    DeAron Washington is pursuing a Ph.D. in Counselor Education from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his family live in New Orleans where he is a provisional licensed counselor.

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