Hive Five: Earnest Hip-Hop Odes to Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Martin Luther King Jr."

Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington D.C., August 1963. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

In the hip-hop world, Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent legacy has largely been overlooked by rappers in favor of embracing the fiery rhetoric and aggressive imagery of Malcolm X. The latter’s “by any means necessary” slogan usually trumps King’s proclamations of non-violence when an artist is looking for a quick-fix political soundbite. Still, if you dig deep into the genre’s vaults you’ll discover some strong and earnest toasts to King’s legacy. In honor of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here are five honorable tributes to soundtrack your holiday with.

1. King Dream Chorus and Holiday Crew, “King Holiday”

Released to coincide with the inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1986, “King Holiday” is a tribute song facilitated by old school hip-hop pioneers Kurtis Blow and Melle Mel, plus one-time Def Jam publicist Bill Adler. Run-DMC, Whodini and the Fat Boys get involved with the rapping duties, while the warbled chorus is handled by an all-star R&B cast that includes Whitney Houston, El DeBarge, Stacy Lattisaw, Teena Marie and members of New Edition. Appropriately, the lyrics remind us that, “Now every January on the third Monday/ We pay homage to the man who paved the way/ For freedom, justice and equality/ To make the world a better place for you and me.” The proceeds from the song were donated to charity. [Listen here.]

2. Common feat. Will.I.Am, “A Dream”

Hooked around a recurring snippet of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, this Will.I.Am-produced track is culled from the soundtrack to the Freedom Writers flick. The beat’s on the low-key tip, while Com recites lyrics that concern a path of self-betterment that travels “from a gangsta to a godlier role.” The key decree soon follows, as the rapper explains, “Hate has no color or age/ Flip the page/ Now my rage became freedom.” [Listen here.]

3. Public Enemy, “By the Time I Get to Arizona”

After discovering the state of Arizona refused to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday, Chuck D channeled his furious righteous rage and penned the brooding “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” From the outset, the Public Enemy frontman holds no punches, threatening, “I’m on the one mission/ To get a politician/ To honor or he’s a goner/ By the time I get to Arizona.” The song’s accompanying video sparked controversy at the time of its 1991 release due to its depiction of an assassination plot on a politician by Chuck and the Enemy’s militant S1W soldiers. [Listen here.]

4. Three Times Dope, “Increase the Peace (What’s Going On)”

Dropping at the peak of hip-hop’s revered late-’80s golden era, Philadelphia’s Three Times Dope harnessed samples from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X speeches to frame this positive ode to uplifting their community. The song is birthed by King’s declaration that “The substance of the dream is expressed in these profound words.” MC EST kicks a batch of lyrics in line with King’s philosophy, before paying overt tribute to him: “Malcolm and Martin got stopped but kept starting/ Physically they were dimmed, the words kept sparking.” Then comes the kicker: “Increase the peace!” [Listen here.]

5. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The King”

1988′s On The Strength was old school DJ Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s attempt to reintroduce themselves to a hip-hop world that had long moved on from their original trail-blazing styles. The album’s far from a total success, but in “The King” it features an all-out salute to Martin Luther King, Jr. with a chunk of his “I Have A Dream” speech recited by Melle Mel in his best booming voice. As with most rapped references to king, the lyrics can’t resist weaving in a nod to liberation, with Melle Mel rapping, “His name is Martin Luther King/ And he marched across the land making freedom ring.” [Listen here.]

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