1. "Formation" by Beyoncé
That moment when the police put their hands up and the black child is in charge is prefigurative dreaming of change at its most powerful. Beyoncé dances, dreams, reformulates, digging deep into the past of sorrow and suffering and injustice and pulling us all with her into a future that could be different. Also, I love New Orleans, and this is about the sight, sound, and spirit of New Orleans. She slays. I salute.
2. "Explode" by Big Freedia
I came to New Orleans in 2006 to understand a violent disaster and stayed to learn about the opposite of disaster and violence — deep potent community and its joyous, celebratory music in the streets and the clubs. There’s a lot more than booty-shaking to bounce, and who better than bounce superstar Big Freedia to let us know about that? Even her name is free, and gender doesn’t imprison her either. Note: I learned about bounce from my friend Garnette Cadogan, and his essay and our map on the subject are pretty much the best thing in our New Orleans atlas
3. "We Won’t Bow Down" by Mardi Gras Indian Groups
This is a traditional chant of the Mardi Gras Indians — I wrote about their spirit of resistance in the New Orleans atlas and in an essay in Storming the Gates of Paradise
, and I’ve witnessed it and gotten to shout that phrase in the streets with them.
4. "People Have the Power" by Patti Smith
Some songs feel like hope, power, surging forward, some describe it; this great anthem does both. And it’s Patti Smith. And it’s right about the power we have, which obliges us to act, and which many duck by pretending we’re helpless.
5. "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" by Eurythmics
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You listen to this and you’re reminded what it’s like to be free and powerful and female — and wish it was being reminded what it’s like to sing like the goddess herself, but I can’t carry a tune to save my life.
6. "You Can Make It If You Try" by Sly and the Family Stone
This group is so many kinds of beautiful, from its radical multiethnic inclusive origins in the Bay Area to its lyrics about power, connection, and oh yeah, pleasure and lust. I’m a writer so I get caught up in lyrics, but this is music you feel, not just hear, music that makes you ready to move or start moving. I could’ve put a bunch of others in its place, including “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” another favorite.
7. "No More Heroes" by the Stranglers
Yeah, I was a punk, and maybe I still am, because I believe leaders generate followers, and I’d rather do without them. See “Sisters Are Doing It.”
8. "Raw Power" by Iggy Pop
Because if you listen wholeheartedly, as I did when I was 15, the raw power is you. Even though it was one of a million works of art requiring me to perform that little gender-transcending exercise since powerful women were so rare, though there were the Misfits and the Avengers, and then in the big world the Pretenders, but since I was a punk, I wasn’t taking up with Fleetwood Mac or Heart.
9. "Wild Heart" by Stevie Nicks
Now I’m older; why not Stevie Nicks? Suzuki-Roshi, the zen teacher of my zen teacher, Blanche Hartman, said that zen is doing your very best at every moment. This widely watched scene where she has her makeup being applied backstage but starts to sing, with her whole heart and her amazing voice, is kind of great. My friend the poet Genine Lentine led me to this one, in between Portlandia
clips. “Blame it on my wild heart.”
10. "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
I was reminded by Marshall Berman’s great essay for our forthcoming New York atlas that this song emerged as a message of hope for him and many others while the Bronx was burning and the future looked impossible or unimaginable; let it stand for the world-shaking power of hip-hop from the Arab Spring to Inuit territory and how it all emerged from a place that was supposed to be about destruction, not creation. There are feminist rappers in Tunisia now. They were building something big, those hip-hop founding fathers and mothers.
11. "London Calling" by the Clash
Speaking of anthems and music that surges. And punk. And the songs that embed themselves first, go deepest, and stay longest.
12. "At Last" by Etta James
Because sometimes it takes a while. Movements are long-term relationships and sometimes intergenerational efforts, not just little flings for a season or a year. Patience, faith, and perseverance. Like in Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains
, tracing the half century or so it took to abolish slavery in the British empire.
13. "Rise Above" by Black Flag
Thick-necked white guys from Southern California were the jocks who sort of took punk rock from the nerds, on the dance floor/in the mosh pit, and generally, but this is still a lovely piece of defiance. “Try to stop us / It’s no use."
14. "Steal My Joy" by Lee Williams
A gorgeous gospel song about — well, it’s really Ain’t gonna let nobody steal my joy
. Joystealers are everywhere. Never surrender to them.
15. "Build" by Rupa and the April Fishes
This is a little like “Formation,” a song reaching into the future with what you get from the past, looking at ancestors and looking at the road ahead, and looking beyond revolting to building. And it’s gorgeous, like so much by this dear friend and beloved band.
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is the author of 18 books about environment, landscape, community, art, politics, hope, and memory, including Men Explain Things to Me
, Hope in the Dark
, The Faraway Nearby
, A Paradise Built in Hell
, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
, and River of Shadows
(for which she received a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award); and atlases of San Francisco and New Orleans. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a contributing editor to Harper’s