To celebrate Juneteenth, as Black Americans have since the inception of the holiday in 1866, is to acknowledge one of the United States’ ugliest legacies while honoring the resilience of the Black American spirit. Juneteenth, also known as “Freedom Day,” takes its name from June 19, 1865, the day that Union Army general Gordon Granger announced to slaves in Texas that they were free—roughly two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order outlawing slavery in the United States. The tradition of celebrating Juneteenth began, of course, in Texas, but today occurs nationwide, and although it isn’t a national holiday—yet—it’s a day that all Americans should be grateful for and rejoice in. In service of that ideal, Apple Music celebrates Juneteenth 2021 with a collection of exclusively commissioned songs from artists like D Smoke, Willie Jones, Kirk Franklin, Kane Brown, Amaarae, and Tobe Nwigwe, just to name a few. Some have contributed original compositions, while others have chosen to cover existing songs that speak to the holiday. Listen to the stories their selections tell as we celebrate Juneteenth and the continued and invaluable contribution of Black artistry to contemporary music.
H.E.R., “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”
“Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ is a timeless song,” H.E.R. says. “First of all, the bassline—that right there is so moody, it didn’t matter what he was saying, it was gonna get you in that vibe.” The standout from Gaye’s 1971 opus What’s Going On does, of course, pack a heavy message, one that H.E.R. thought would work perfectly for her “Inner City Blues.” “The simple hook of ‘Make me wanna holler, the way they do my life’—as if my life is of lesser value than somebody else’s. I just thought there was so much power in that message and that it applies to now. It’s one of those songs that we can play and still relate to today.”
Singer, songwriter, and producer Amaarae first learned about Juneteenth as a child in Atlanta having just emigrated from Accra, Ghana. “I was in third grade and it was a part of our Black history lesson,” she says. “There is a bittersweet feeling that comes with the holiday, knowing that human beings with lives, rights, and families should not have endured this sort of torture to begin with. There is also some joy in their hope and their perseverance to not be defined by the pain.” Amaarae chose to cover Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” a song written by the jazz great’s sister Jean Hancock. “It’s about the sweetness of freedom and the power of transformation and growth,” Amaarae says. “This symbolizes both the plight and pleasure of the Black experience.”
Black Thought, “Approximately Free” (feat. Shavona Antoinette & Ray Angry)
The Roots’ frontman Black Thought delivered “Approximately Free,” a song where he uses the gift of rhyme to educate about Black America’s continually undervalued contributions to contemporary culture. “Every day should be Juneteenth and every month should be Black History and Black Music Month,” he declares.
Hit-Boy, “Back in Traffic”
Fontana, California-hailing producer and MC Hit-Boy created “Back in Traffic,” a song co-written by Kendrick Lamar that speaks to his personal journey as a musician while also confronting the endless distractions young Black men in America face while traveling their own paths.
Chloe x Halle, “Waterfalls”
Sisterly duo Chloe x Halle covered TLC’s “Waterfalls,” a track that conquered the pop charts of its day while staying true to TLC’s signature ’90s R&B-defining “around the way girl” aesthetic with their take on one of the girl group’s signature songs.
Saba, “Black Astronaut”
Chicago MC Saba—who happened to graduate from high school at 16—wrote “Black Astronaut,” where he channels a conspicuously childlike sense of adventure. “‘Black Astronaut’ is a song that deals with the process of going through adulthood but still hanging on to the childlike innocence of living in oblivion,” he says. “Believing in yourself undeniably, having no doubt, not [being] afraid of all the pressures of the world. It’s a song that I would have loved to hear as a kid.”
Jean Dawson, “Ghost*”
Jean Dawson created the original song “Ghost*,” a record he says is “for the people who’ve felt unseen and unheard.” Dawson says he first learned of Juneteenth as a child. “The holiday itself should never have needed to exist,” he tells Apple Music. “My ancestors should have never been slaves and built a country that would show to be a curse to my Black skin. Nevertheless, I live in this version of reality where Black folk were and are seen as beasts, devils, and animals. So the day my beautiful Black ancestors were freed is the greatest cause for celebration and reflection.”
D Smoke, “Kinfolk” (feat. Nephew Ric)
It wasn’t until D Smoke was a fully grown adult that the Inglewood-hailing MC first learned about Juneteenth. “I went to a meeting at the Afrikan Student Union at UCLA and it basically turned everything upside down for me,” he says. “It made me feel like the ‘liberty and justice for all’ that was promised in the Pledge of Allegiance never lived up to that promise.” The MC created “Kinfolk,” an original song inspired by his hair journey as a Black man. “This song is about self-acceptance for Black people,” he says. “A big part of us appreciating ourselves is understanding and recognizing our own beauty. To talk about my journey with my hair and how I viewed myself as a kid was very personal to me—and very Black.”
Terrace Martin and Brandee Younger, “Damage”
“H.E.R. is one of my favorites,” instrumentalist/producer Terrace Martin tells Apple Music. “I’m consistently inspired by her, my children are inspired by her, and we all listen to her often around the crib.” Martin and celebrated harpist Brandee Younger chose to cover the singer’s “Damage,” a song Martin says reminds him of his “relationship as a Black man with the American system.” For Younger’s part, the instrumentalist says the project allowed her to celebrate one of her favorite contemporary musicians by collaborating with another. “H.E.R. is one of the most prolific artists of our time,” Younger says. “So to be able to team up with Terrace Martin—with whom I've wanted to work for many, many years—and approach 'Damage' without any kind of genre in mind, or being boxed into any style, was very liberating.”
Zeal & Ardor, “Calloway”
Swiss metal band Zeal & Ardor delivered “Calloway,” a track rooted in their unique ability to bridge black metal and African American spirituals.
Jimmie Allen, “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’”
Jimmie Allen has the utmost respect for dearly departed collaborator Charley Pride. The country star chose to cover Pride’s “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’”—not coincidentally, the last song they sang together—because it embodies one of the biggest lessons he learned from the OG. “The simplicity in the lyrics, and the uniqueness in the vocal to where it’s a song that people can relate to,” Allen says of Pride’s songwriting ability. “Yet Charley did it in his own way. I take that same concept and I apply it to my artistry. I give people lyrics and a story they can relate to—in a way only Jimmie Allen can.”
Kane Brown, “Worldwide Beautiful (Reimagined)”
“I wish the world would listen more instead of everybody yelling at each other,” Kane Brown tells Apple Music. “That’s how we’ll work this thing out, when everybody can just realize we’re all people deserving of each other’s love and respect.” The country star chose to reimagine his own “Worldwide Beautiful,” a song he first released during the social justice uprising that took place in the United States in 2020. “I wrote this song with Shy Carter, Ryan Hurd, and Jordan Schmidt, and felt compelled to release it last summer,” Brown says. “The inspiration when we wrote it is simply that everybody should love everybody equally.”
Honey Dijon, “Unleash” (feat. Cor.Ece)
Honey Dijon’s “Unleash”—a song inspired by the death of George Floyd—has layers. “It's a metaphor that there is still so much work to be done around the world to ensure that all black- and brown-skin people are free, and not just in the US,” the DJ-producer says. “Slavery may have been abolished in one form, but we are still living in a country where the police have replaced plantation owners and our lives are still not valued in a place that was built on the bodies and souls of Black people.”
Willie Jones, “Redemption Song”
“When I grew up, Juneteenth wasn’t a national recognized holiday, nor was it taught in my school in Shreveport,” Willie Jones says. “But as I got older, and heard about it, I researched it myself and realized the significance for our people.” The country star chose to cover Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” a track Jones says is one of the reggae icon’s most affecting. “‘Redemption Song’ always spoke to me,” Jones says. “This the most stripped-down song Bob Marley has, just simple guitar and vocal, so I just get lost in the message. The lyric that gets me every time is ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds.’ That’s one of the most powerful lyrics and truest lyrics ever written and is extremely relevant as we celebrate Juneteenth.”
Maverick City Music, “Breathe” (feat. Jonathan McReynolds & DOE)
Like many who had learned the story behind Juneteenth as children, Maverick City’s Jonathan McReynolds was confused. “I had a very basic understanding and assumed at that point that someone could get on their cell phone and just call and tell everybody,” he tells Apple Music. “I remember my first reaction was ‘Why did it take so long?’” While that sort of indignation at the news of the Emancipation Proclamation not reaching some slaves until well over two years after its instatement is hardly uncommon, the faith-driven praise and worship collective is likely well familiar with the biblical directive of “lean not unto thine own understanding.” The group delivered “Breathe,” a song McReynolds says he hopes reminds fans to be grateful in each moment. “Chandler [Moore] was praying in the session and talking about how the events that have taken place in America have a lot of us—especially Black men—waiting for the next shoe to drop,” McReynolds says. “As we began writing our way through it, we just realized this connection to all of the breaths that have been snuffed out over the past years because of racism and discrimination. So the first idea was centered around us bracing ourselves for the next issue, the next trending topic, the next killing, the next trial, and how necessary it is for us as believers—and just people in general—to make sure that we don’t miss out on living, praising, and believing because of worry.”
Sech, “Somos Iguales”
Panamanian singer Sech says he first learned about the Juneteenth holiday when he began traveling to the United States as a musician. “It made me happy to know a country gets together to celebrate liberty and freedom,” he tells Apple Music. The singer says “Somos Iguales” celebrates the holiday in the way that it is a reflection of his heritage. “I am proud of my Afro-Latin decent, of my skin color and culture overall,” Sech says. “And to be able to honor that through music is priceless.”
Tobe Nwigwe, “Passing Through”
Tobe Nwigwe—raised in Houston, in the state where Juneteenth originated—wrote “Passing Through,” a song that reinforces the place Black people hold in his heart and carries a message of continued resilience. “We all here on a temporary mission, everything on this Earth is temporary,” the MC says. “This is not your ‘forever place.’ I want my people to understand that specifically, just because I don’t want them to think that it’s gon’ be like this forever. It ain’t gon’ be like this forever; soon you gon’ be in paradise. Soon you gon’ be way better off than you are now.”
Madison Calley, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
“I think Juneteenth is a perfect time to celebrate Blackness, celebrate freedom, and celebrate all the things that make us feel empowered in this world today,” Madison Calley says. The harpist chose to play a Brandee Younger arrangement of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—also known as the Black National Anthem—a song she says embodies her own professional journey. “‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ was written during a time when Jim Crow was replacing slavery and African Americans were searching for identity,” Calley says. “So this song I resonate with greatly, because it took me a long time as a musician to find my own identity and my own place in the world and in this industry.”
Tems, “Ordinary People”
It wasn’t until 2020 that Nigerian singer and MC Tems first heard about Juneteenth. “I'm sure it has always been a huge moment, but living in Nigeria, I felt like there was an added awareness last year with all the things that went on in the world,” she says. “Freedom is important both as individuals and also as a people; learning there was a day that marked the freedom of Black people in the US shows how far we've come and also points to the work still to be done.” Tems covered John Legend’s “Ordinary People,” a song that she says “speaks to me through its simplicity yet also its potency. The message cuts really clear because of it.”
Kirk Franklin, “Overcome 2021”
“The Black experience in America is just so multilayered,” gospel legend Kirk Franklin tells Apple Music. “The things we celebrate are also things birthed out of tragedy. We are a group of people who have historically always taken lemons and made lemonade. I think [Juneteenth] is more than the acknowledgment of the day because we still have the issues of Reconstruction, we have Jim Crow, we still have segregation. Juneteenth was not this ‘Meet us in the promised land’ moment, because we still had to deal with and address so many other issues. And there is a myriad of systemic issues that people of color continue to have when it comes to the political history of the Americas.” Franklin recorded an exclusive-to-Apple Music cover of gospel turned civil rights protest anthem “We Shall Overcome.” “To be able to take this historic chant that has meant so much to so many people of African descent and to be able to find a tone and a narrative and to be able to reimagine the different verses and reimagine the DNA of the song is humbling,” he says. “I hope that it’s something special for people.”