Droppin’ Knowledge: A 10 Song Hopeful Playlist For A Time That Strains Hope

If you’re feeling a deficit of hope lately, don’t fret. You are not alone, Hope is an intrinsic human attribute that allows us to appreciate the idea that it is often darkest just before the dawn. Mental health experts advise that hope is a powerful, inspiring feeling that is necessary and vital, particularly if you want to see change for the better in life. Dreaming of a world where equality and justice prevail, and the moral arc of the universe bends in the right direction are imperative. Remember, the saying “be the change you want to be in the world” is inspiring because it’s empowering.

The writer Masha Gessen said this about hope: “What gives me hope is distinct from the question of whether I’m optimistic. I can be incredibly pessimistic, but hope is a necessity of survival and a moral imperative. I hope because I have to, because a better future is possible. The foundational requirement for it is hope.” 

In the spirit of these ideas, below you will find ten songs that offer and inspire hope. These recommendations are listed randomly; each is sufficient in its own way to generate hope within the listener and have worked for me. Maybe you will find these songs helpful, too. They can help transform you into a hopeful pessimist.

  1. Pharoah Sanders – “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” from the album Karma.

In 1969, saxophone great Pharoah Sanders released the album Karma, a landmark of spiritual jazz. This record, his third as a leader, contains two songs, “Colors,” and the over thirty minute “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” Sanders, who can play inside and outside with equal urgency, keeps “Creator” mostly within the confines of structure and melody, and it is a spiritual tour de force. Leon Thomas, a long time Sanders collaborator, handles the vocals here, employing his recognizable trills, warbles and ululations. The song embraces the idea that all of life is in accordance with a divine plan, the good, the bad, the incomprehensible and the seemingly unexplainable. Devoutly religious people often find comfort in this idea, and in this song, Sanders asks the listener to surrender to the apparent randomness of life, for better and for worse. Sample lyrics: “The creator has a master plan/peace and happiness for every man.”

2. Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes – “Wake Up Everybody,” from the album Wake Up Everybody.

Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes were one of the great American vocal groups of the 1960s and 1970s, and they dominated Top 40 radio. Led by the movie-star handsome Teddy Pendergrass, “Wake Up Everybody” was the title track of their 1976 album. John Legend and The Roots did their own version of the song, but it is the original that has stood the test of time. Pendergrass has a buttery smooth baritone with just enough grit in it to give his vocals weight. Pendergrass, who died in 2010, struggled with many personal demons in his life, and in 1982, at 31, he crashed his Rolls Royce into a tree and broke his neck. By that time, he had left the Blue Notes and performed as a solo artist. As a result of the accident, Pendergrass was paralyzed from the chest down. “Wake Up Everybody” predated the idea of being “woke,” but the song might as well be its anthem. Pendergrass exhorted his listeners in the song’s chorus to work for a better world. Knowing Pendergrass’s back story makes the song even more poignant. Sample lyrics: “The world won’t get no better/if we just let it be, na, na, na, na, na, na/The world won’t get no better/We gotta change it, yeah/Just you and me.”

3. The Staple Singers – “I’ll Take You There,” from the album The Very Best Of The Staple Singers.

The Staple Singers, another legendary American vocal group, was led by guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and included his children, Cleotha, Pervis, Mavis, and later, Yvonne. The group was based in Chicago and started appearing in local churches, particularly Mount Zion, where Pops’ brother, The Rev. Chester Staples, preached. The Staple Singers were eventually signed to Stax Records, and had several hits for the label. “I’ll Take You There,” from 1972, topped the Billboard record charts in a variety of categories and the song is firmly rooted in gospel and folk music traditions. Mavis Staples sings lead on the song, about an imagined place where equality, justice and peace prevail for all people. The instrumentation on the song is provided by the equally legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Sample lyrics: “No more smiling’ faces/lyin’ to the races.” Salt-N-Pepa sampled this song for their later hit “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

4. Curtis Mayfield – “Move On Up,” from the album Curtis.

Curtis Mayfield began his career as the leader of the Impressions, an influential American vocal group in the 1960s, which also included another star, Jerry Butler. As a solo artist in the 1970s, Mayfield released a string of ground-breaking albums, including two movie soundtracks, Super Fly, in 1972, and Short Eyes, from 1977. In 1990, while performing in Brooklyn, Mayfield was struck by a lighting rig and was subsequently left paralyzed. Mayfield was a gifted songwriter, vocalist and guitar player and remains an important touchstone in popular music today, Throughout his career, he candidly addressed topical issues in his songs, and he didn’t shy away from calling out racism, poverty and injustice. “Move on Up” comes from his first solo set, Curtis!, which was released in 1970. The song contains a horn-driven hook and the driving percussion that he would put to use later on the Super Fly soundtrack. Sample lyrics: “Move open up/And keep on wishing’/Remember your dream is your only scheme/So keep on pushing.” In 2005, Kanye West sampled the song in “Touch the Sky,” from the album Late Registration.

5. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – “Tha Crossroads,” from the album E. 1999 Eternal.

The Cleveland, Ohio hip hop group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony released their first full length album in 1995, E. 1999 Eternal, and it remains their best. “Tha Crossroads,” falls in the middle of the record, and like many of the LP’s songs, it is a somber meditation on death and struggle. At the time of its release, the United States was probably at the height of its fruitless “War on Drugs” and indiscriminantly filling prisons with young Black men and women, to devastating effect. AIDS was also disproportionately affecting people of color. The whole album reflected these events, as well the dangers of the drug game. “Tha Crossroads” imagines a better place, literally and metaphorically, and features all the hallmarks for which the group was known: triplets, rapid fire bars, harmonizing, hypnotic hooks, and grand arrangements. Sample lyrics by member Layzie Bone: “God is who we praise/Even though the devil’s all up in my face/But he keeping’ me safe and in my place/Say grace to the gates we race/Without a chance to see the judge.”

6. A Tribe Called Called Quest – “We The People,” from the album We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service.

If you were a fan of a Tribe Called Quest, you were pleasantly surprised by the release of their 2016 reunion album, We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service. This was also the same year that a certain reality television star became president of the United States. The group kept the record under wraps while they worked on it, and, it was actually good. Damn good. Tribe’s interpersonal acrimony has been well documented, and the fact that a new record existed made its release even more satisfying. Unfortunately, the death of founding member Phife Dawg prior to the drop made the LP’s eventual release bittersweet. The Five Foot Assassin was a beloved figure in hip hop. Nobody could spit better sports metaphors, and Phife also incorporated self-deprecating humor into his bars, making him rap’s everyman, approachable and relatable. “We The People,” track two, is incendiary, and starts with a sound like an air raid siren. Its title cribs the first three words of the United States Constitution and the song provides a rallying cry and a blistering indictment of the aforementioned reality star, without using his name. Sample lyrics from Phife, who slings verse two: “We got your missy smitten/rubbin’ on her little kitten/Dreamin’ of a world that’s equal for women with no division/Boy I tell you that’s a vision/Like Tony Romo when he hitting’ Witten/The Tribe be the best in their division/Shaeed Muhammad cut it with precision.”

7. The O’Jays – “Love Train,” from the album Back Stabbers.

The O’Jays were yet another popular vocal group from the United States, and they were in their creative prime when they released the single “Love Train,” in 1972. The song was featured on the album Back Stabbers, the title cut of which was also a massive hit. “Love Train” is hokey, but the song contained all the attributes that made the O’Jays a hit making machine: impressive vocal harmonies, tight instrumentation and lyrics that were easy to sing along with. And while the song is simple in its outlook, its simplicity is its virtue. Who can argue with a song about a love train, traveling throughout the world, spreading peace and love? And, you can dance to it, too. Sample lyrics: “All of you brothers in Africa/Tell all the folks in Egypt and Israel, too/Please don’t miss this train at the station/Cause if you miss it, I feel sorry, sorry for you.”

8. The Isley Brothers – “Harvest for the World,” from the album Harvest for the World.

The Isley Brothers have been making music, in different incarnations, for seventy years. Ponder this fact for a moment. The group originated in Cincinnati, Ohio, and started out as a vocal group in the 1950s, but, throughout their career, the Isleys were able to master a variety of styles and genres, and produce hit after hit. The group is also a favorite of samplers. One song, “That Lady,” was used to great effect in Kendrick Lamar’s “I,” from 2016’s To Pimp A Butterfly. “Harvest For The World” features a strummed acoustic guitar and handclaps, a simple, memorable chorus and hook, and as its central theme, a “harvest for the world,” an idea that is direct and inspiring, and full of prophetic wisdom. Sample lyrics, sung by Ronald Isley: “All babies together/Everyone a seed/Half of us are satisfied/Half of us in need/Love’s bountiful in us/Tarnished by our greed/When will there be a harvest for the world.”

9. 2Pac – “Thugz Mansion,” from the album Better Dayz.

“Thugz Mansion” shares some of its sentiment with “Tha Crossroads:” the Western World, particularly the United States, is a racist place, where Black people are harassed, arrested and murdered, and, as 2Pac acknowledges, these conditions exact a huge psychic toll. But, accompanied by a simple, plucked acoustic guitar, Pac imagines a better place. It may be heaven, it maybe in his mind, it may be an actual place on earth, but no matter the location, you can feel the anguish in Pac’s bars, a world weariness in his voice that reflected his many real life tribulations. In the song, Pac shouts out prominent Black artists and cultural figures, such as Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and Miles Davis, whom he presumes are kicking back in heaven. The song was released posthumously, in 2002, six years after the artist was murdered in Las Vegas. Sample lyrics: “A place to spend my quiet nights/Time to unwind/So much pressure in this life of mine/I cry at times/I once contemplated suicide/And woulda tried/But when I held that 9 all I could see was my mom’s eyes.”

10. Delroy Wilson – “Better Must Come,” from the album Delroy Wilson Story Vol 1 Platinum Edition.

While he is not so well known outside of Jamaica, the early reggae singer Delroy Wilson possessed one of the greatest voices in pop music. He was adept at all types of songs, lovers rock, struggler anthems, soul chestnuts and fire and brimstone Rasta music. Many Jamaica artists recorded their own versions of “Better Must Come,” but no one was able to surpass this version by Wilson. “Better Must Come” is a kind of Jamaican variation on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a prime example of what Jamaican artists call the sufferer’s song, a tune that recounts the plight of poor and disenfranchised Jamaicans, who lived in “shanty towns” and “tenement yards,” and struggled to survive each day. In some Western countries, especially the United States, poor people are often blamed for their poverty, and this song reflects that sentiment. However, like “Tha Crossroads” and “Thugz Mansion,” “Better Must Come” imagines a world better than the one in which many poor Jamaicans lived, and a future with promise. Sample lyrics: “I’ve been trying a long, long time/Still I can’t make it/Everything I try to do seems to go wrong/It seems like I have done something wrong/But they’re trying to keep me down.

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