June is not only Pride Month, but also Black Music Appreciation Month. This formal celebration of Black American influences and continuous contributions across all musical genres began in 1979. Music is a vital element in Black American culture. It’s our form of protest, resistance, and celebrating love, life, and all the aspects of the human experience through a Black lens. One of the most interesting impacts of Black music is through television, specifically Black-led sitcoms. They depict many relatable elements of Black life, often through a humorous lens. A sitcom’s theme song plays a key role in this narrative, capturing the essence of a show in a condensed (and catchy) format.
These tunes have the soul and stylings that only a Black artist can bring forth. They tell a story of Black joy, upward mobility, coming-of-age, and everyday life as a Black American.
Movin’ On Up and Having Good Times
Black sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s often straddle the line of maintaining day-to-day life with the aspirations of upward mobility.
The show’s theme song features Jim Gilstrap and Blinky Williams leading the vocals with a gospel choir backing them. The lyrics speak about the good times of making a payment on time or meeting a new friend. The theme then sarcastically juxtaposes those things with more difficult “good” times of “credit ripoffs” and “temporary layoffs.”
Many Black people can relate to concepts of “keeping your head above water” and “making a wave when you can.” Systemic racism has left Black families like the Evans with less generational wealth than their white counterparts. The Evans essentially live paycheck to paycheck despite the family’s patriarch working several jobs.
They desire more financial security while still managing to meet all of their kids’ needs. Upward mobility feels like a lofty goal for them but they desire it nonetheless. The Evans boys make their proverbial waves in the world: Michael excels at school and heads to college while J.J. creates art and goes into advertising. Thelma also does well for herself, attending college and marrying a soon-to-be NFL player.
They live in an impoverished area, but that’s not the crux of their story and it does not define them. They lean on each other in hard times and curate joy even when life isn’t going their way. And they do eventually move out of project housing by the end of the series. Unfortunately, James dies before he can see this pivotal change.
Interestingly, the lead singer is Janet Du’Bois, who played Wilona on
As the lyrics spell out, George and Weezy Jefferson are a successful Black couple. They have made enough money to live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in their dream “deluxe apartment in the sky.” They are up in the big leagues and no longer have to fry their own fish, but it’s certainly not because of nepotism or privilege.
It truly “took a whole lot of tryin’ just to get up that hill.” This is something that plenty of Black people intimately understand. The cards are often stacked against us and we have to work much harder to obtain our desires. That is, if we ever get them at all. And, if we do, we still have to contend with being proverbial “outsiders” in white spaces, much like George and Weezy.
The Black Teen Experience Through New Eyes
Being the minority in the room, workplace, or neighborhood is another common experience for Black people. Some people are born into wealth/status that puts them in these spaces while others end up there after having starkly different formative years.
The latter’s “fish out of water” scenario is the entire basis for
At this time, rap was on the cusp of becoming a global force with a strong foundation among Black youth. Rap music is all about storytelling, which is exactly what this song does. It takes you through a quick journey of Smith’s life getting “flipped, turned upside down” after “one little fight” prompts his mom to send him to Bel-Air, California to live with rich relatives.
In the song’s extended version, Smith gushes about the luxuries of his first-class flight. He gets a taste of the high life by drinking orange juice out of a champagne glass with women all around him. Still, it is clear that he has his apprehensions about leaving his hometown. In fact, he doesn’t trust a man who’s holding his name on a sign at the airport. Why? Because he fears a police confrontation. So he calls a cab to Bel-Air instead.
That line alone says a lot about his perception of the police as an inner-city kid. This comes up in an episode wherein Will and Carlton are pulled over by the police. Why? Because they are two Black teens driving a fancy car in an upscale neighborhood. Will points out Carlton’s naïveté about the situation. They get locked up for no reason, prompting Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv to come and save them.
The theme sets the stage for an often comedic yet insightful coming-of-age story. Will learns more about himself and gains a new understanding of what it means to be Black. He also teaches the Banks family a few lessons along the way. The theme song remains the same, just like Will’s past; however, his future changes as he learns the ropes of being in the kingdom of Bel-Air through high school and college.
The ’90s included a slate of teen-centric Black sitcoms telling their coming-of-age stories.
In the series, Tia and Tamera are the classic complete opposites. But they are ride-or-die siblings, getting into trouble and learning valuable lessons together. This theme goes through two different intros that show the girls’ lives in a nutshell: birth and separation before reuniting and living together with their parents.
However, the show makes a distinct shift in its fifth season, switching the lyrics up to reflect their growth. Long gone are the girls’ days of curly hair and colorful outfits. Their style is different and they are actually singing the tune of their own lives.
Tia and Tamera let viewers know that they have their own minds and are not the same person. This is the crux of season five, which shows them moving into separate bedrooms and pursuing different interests in school. They have matured significantly, mostly moving past the silly incidences from previous seasons. Now, they have bigger issues like serious dating, love, working, and preparing for college.
Their special bond as twins will never fade; however, they have to make their own decisions and form their own circles. Anyone who grew up with siblings, specifically older ones or a twin, knows it can be challenging to form an identity that isn’t tied to your sibs’. The girls go to the same college but they each remain clearly and confidently their own person.
The theme talks about how Moesha’s friend circle, like many teens’, is a crucial part of her life. It is very “me”-focused, which isn’t surprising. Generally speaking, teenagers tend to be rather absorbed in their own lives and what they want. Later versions of the theme feature Brandy singing in a lower register with a remixed musical accompaniment. She’s no longer the fresh-faced, naïve girl from the first season. She looks and dresses more maturely. It’s like watching both Brandy and Moesha grow up simultaneously.
Living the Single Life in A Different World
Where these shows left off, others like
The lyrics talk about how parents tried to warn them that “it is a different world than where you come from.” It reflects a college student’s chance to “make it” and take whatever is dished their way. This reflects the show’s Black students and their various backgrounds.
Some of them come from low-income neighborhoods; others are now in a place where they are the majority for the first time. Speaking from experience, as a Black college graduate, it’s rather common for our parents to give us those extra talks about how to navigate adult life in this world.
It’s that push and hope for us to have some upward mobility and financial security through getting a higher education. There’s a lot to face: dating, sex, STDs, pregnancy, drugs, abuse, and more on top of the social issues of being Black. But knowing that you have a foundation, a community behind and beside you, means everything.
The song gets an update in season two following Denise’s departure, with Aretha Franklin singing the lyrics. The visual became iconic, showing the facets of Black life with studying, bands, debates, fun, and eventually graduation.
The final season gives the song yet another singer/arrangement update but the lyrics stay the same, even though the characters are out of college and into their careers. They are fully in the real world and taking advantage of their chance to “make it” there.
The song is relatively short but it still packs a powerful punch with lines about friendship and keeping your head up in tough times. Series star Queen Latifah herself raps and sings (because she is the best) about the comfort of having her homegirls standing beside her when life gets tough. They are the type of friends that all women wish to have: “true blue” and “tight like glue,” sticking beside you through ups and downs. The below version is perhaps the most recognized take on the song.
Friendship is a critical part of our human experience but it is even more vital for a Black woman to have Black women friends. There’s this camaraderie and intimate understanding of our place in society as well as within our own communities. We often have to act as advocates for ourselves and everyone else, a role that is frankly exhausting and at times dehumanizing. Our Black women friendships are where we find solace, joy, rest, and encouragement to keep moving forward.
Along the same vein is
It follows four women—Joan, Maya, Toni, and Lynn_with different careers, backgrounds, and experiences who go through myriad changes together. Sometimes, those life updates are crushing, such as miscarriage, cheating, and divorce. Others are celebrations of joyous occasions. They argue and disagree often, but through it all, they are ultimately there for each other.
Theme Songs Fading to Black?
There aren’t a lot of modern Black sitcoms with theme songs that stand out strongly—at least not to me. Some shows do have instrumentals or a short theme, like
Instead, they lean towards infusing the show itself with songs that depict what’s going on. For example, Issa Rae’s
The one exception is
That is the journey she is on as she goes to college, drops out, and discovers what she wants in life. It’s something that you don’t see much anymore: a theme song with lyrics that are specifically written for the series.
Of course, there are countless Black sitcom theme songs that can be a part of this post. Who can forget shows like