Shine Your Light on the World: Sonic Visionaries in African American Music

This post was written by Zandria F. Robinson, Assistant Professor of Sociology, The University of Memphis; Blogger, New South Negress; and author of This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South (University of North Carolina Press, 2014)


March participants sing during a Deacons of Defense march through Bogalusa. Song was the glue that helped hold the civil rights community together. It fostered courage in times of danger, solidarity in times of stress. Matt Herron Bogalusa, Louisiana, 1965

this little light of mine

i’m gonna let it shine

shine bright like a diamond

umi says shine your light on the world

shine your light for the world to see.

turn on the lights in here baby

extra bright i wan’t y’all to see this

turn on the lights in here baby

you know what i need

want you to see everything

want you to see all of the lights

some people recognize the light

but they can’t handle the glare

we feel that we have a responsibility to shine the light

This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement visually chronicles a critical moment in the modern African American struggle for freedom, highlighting how a diverse group of photographers used their lenses to capture the intersection of humanity and struggle. Photography is one of several mediums, along with sculpture, visual art, literature, and music, that African Americans have used to uncover obscured histories and speak back to oppression, holding America accountable for its promises and ideals of freedom and equality. Of these media, music has some of the most flexibility, employing narrative, sonic, and visual strategies to shine the light on inequality. As the soundtrack of protest and a site for theorizing black humanity and freedom, African American music turns on “all of the lights” to provide a vision for action and a more just future.

 In African American music, light is often a metaphor for the labor of black activism, for the articulation of black humanity, and as marginalized people’s primary weapon against oppression. The iconic “This Little Light of Mine,” a black Sunday School staple across the country, is one of the most widespread uses of light as a metaphor for the fullness of black humanity and talent. Its popularity as a children’s song demonstrates its use in the racial socialization of children, instilling pride in one’s gifts even in a society that denies their existence. The narrator in “This Little Light of Mine” resolves to “let” her or his light shine, suggesting that one might turn off, hide, or shield a light; thus, letting it shine is a deliberate and purposeful act. While the song’s original meaning might have been to encourage children to let their light shine in service of God, African Americans added additional layers of meaning. In addition to its relative simplicity, spirited tempo, and major key, the song’s narrative has obvious appeal to people who were compelled to hide their lights—their intelligence, literacy, skill, beauty—lest they suffer terribly or lose their lives at the hands of whites. Thus, as a post-Emancipation theme, the song served as an articulation of resistance, as a refusal to bracket parts of one’s humanity in order to fit into an unjust social order.

Demands to shine one’s light, as well to shine a light on oppression, echo throughout African American music, a constant reminder to embrace and assert one’s humanity in a social context where such humanity is perpetually denied. Often black love is a transgressive space where one is encouraged to shine her or his light, again despite structures and policies that are disruptive to black love. For instance, at first blush, Rihanna’s 2012 song “Diamonds” seems like a typical pop love anthem. Yet, read through the metaphor of light in African American songs, “Diamonds” is an affirmation of black love—“shine bright tonight/you and I/we’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky”—punctuated by the repeated directive refrain: “shine bright like a diamond/shine bright like a diamond/shine bright like a diamond.” Similarly, Common’s “The Light,” which samples a phrase from Bobby Caldwell’s “Open Your Eyes,” insists that, “there is a light that shines, special for you and me.” Common also argues that “some people recognize your light/but they can’t handle the glare,” which is both an assertion about a partner’s inability to appreciate one’s talents and a larger comment on black brightness. Here, the encouragement to shine one’s light does not come from one’s religious racial socialization, but from an intimate, though not necessarily romantic, love from one person to another.

As heir to the protest music of the Civil Rights Movement, hip-hop is replete with references to light as both an assertion of humanity and a weapon against oppression. With a cello introduction and triumphant synthesized trumpet melody, Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” is a call to action that implores us to turn on all lights extra bright—cop lights, flashlights, spotlights, strobe lights, and street lights. “I want y’all to see this,” Rihanna, as guest vocalist, sings, “you know what I need/want you to see everything/want you to see all of the lights.” This demand for the shining of lights is reminiscent of Mamie Till’s decision to shine the light on what had been done to her son Emmett by Roy Bryant, J. W. Milam, and still unknown accomplices in Money, Mississippi in 1955. Emmett Till’s mangled body was displayed in an open casket during his Chicago funeral, and pictures of his mutilation appeared in a September 1995 issues of Jet magazine. Like the disruption and awakening caused by these images, the official video for “All of the Lights” uses a variety of jarring light effects, reflecting the difficulty of shining the light on American inequality. Often maligned for its obscenity and vulgarity, hip-hop endeavors to shine the light on the vulgarity of inequality for everyone to see.

Rapper Yasiin Bey’s (Mos Def) corpus contains some of the most important ruminations on light in hip-hop. In conjunction with rapper Talib Kweli, Bey formed the duo “Black Star,” which in itself is a nod to the intersection of race and light. In the intro to the duo’s only album, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, a male narrator says, “We feel we have the responsibility to shine the light into the darkness.” Remix genius Amerigo Gazaway’s work reads Bey’s corpus as an extended dialogue with Marvin Gaye, whose movement music reflected and galvanized a generation frustrated with persistent economic and racial inequality. In “Modern Marvel,” a song from his album The New Danger, Bey samples Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and declares, “I’m so black I’m bright/I’m so bright I’m black/shine through the darkness night,” equating blackness itself with light.

In one of his most widely popular songs, “Umi Says,” Bey returns to themes voiced a century earlier in “This Little Light of Mine.” His umi and abi, mother and father in Arabic, as well as his elders, have told him to shine his light on the world. “Umi said shine your light on the world/shine your light for the world to see/my abi said shine your light on the world/shine your light for the world to see.” This light shining is punctuated by the repetition of a simple existential desire: “I want my people to be free, to be free, to be free/I want black people to be free, to be free.” Blackness, freedom, love, and active light become the centerpieces of transhistorical black struggles for freedom from the slave trade to present.

Black activists have always endeavored to shine the light on injustice, marshaling various means, from the pen to the camera to the courts, to speak back to systems of inequality. Regardless of the medium, light is the tool for affirming one’s humanity and making visible unjust structures that continue to constrain African American life chances. By marshaling light as a tool, black life becomes both light and freedom. As such, black people are responsible—to their parents, ancestors, themselves, each other, and to God—to shine the(ir) light on the world on the pathway to freedom.

Learn more about This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement