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. Good Times (1974-1979) follows James and Florida Evans, a couple living in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects with their three kids.
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.
Good Times certainly focuses on the importance of friendship, showing the interactions between the Evans and several memorable tenants and building employees. Some of these people include Ned the Wino, Bookman the building superintendent, and Wilona, an exuberant neighbor.
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.
Good Times slowly ushers the family into a more financially comfortable life. However, The Jeffersons (1975-1985) jumps right into the concept of upward mobility. There’s nothing that captures their joy of getting “a piece of the (American Dream) pie” like the theme song. Similar to Good Times, it features a powerful female leading vocal with a gospel choir in the background.
Interestingly, the lead singer is Janet Du’Bois, who played Wilona on Good Times. It’s highly unlikely that anyone over 30 doesn’t know at least a portion of this song. “Movin’ On Up” is one of many unofficial Black anthems. But it’s also a theme song for any disenfranchised person who finally gets to climb the social ladder. It is a staple in our culture that plays at sports games and brings a smile to your face.
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 The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996). The show itself is one of the most popular Black sitcoms of all time with an unforgettable theme song by lead actor Will Smith. This was back before he became a blockbuster leading man.
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. Sister, Sister (1994-1999) is a great example of a theme song evolving alongside its protagonists. The original theme song is an upbeat blend of pop and new jack swing, a cute little ditty about the twin sisters shaking up their family trees with “sibling synchronicity.” And, as the lyrics say, now that they’ve found each other, they are determined to never let go.
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.
Moesha’s (1996-2001) theme song “Gotta Move” also changes over the course of the series. The lyrics are the same but the style of the song and Moesha’s looks get a few updates as she matures. It also shows the progression of its real-life star Brandy’s singing voice as she comes into womanhood. “Gotta Move” itself is a reflection of the titular character. Moesha is a carefree teen who is beginning to realize her mounting responsibilities as she encounters more adult situations.
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.
Sister, Sister and Moesha show Black teen girls coming into their womanhood. What made those shows and theme songs great was their exploration of typical teen life. Sure, films and shows set in lower-income and tougher neighborhoods had their place. But that’s certainly not every Black kids’ experience. These girls dealt with serious issues but they also got to just be teens hanging out with friends and giggling in their rooms.
Living the Single Life in A Different World
Where these shows left off, others like A Different World and Living Single pick up. A Different World starts off showing Denise Huxtable’s life as a freshman at Hillman College, an HBCU. The first version of the theme, sung by Phoebe Snow, reflects that transitional time period from being at home with parents to college.
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.
Living Single (1993-1998) moves the timeline needle forward, following an eclectic group of Black women (and men) who are all friends and live in close proximity with writer/editor/magazine owner Khadijah James at the center. As the title suggests, many of the characters are living the single life in a ‘90s kinda world. It was unlike anything that had been on TV before.
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.
On Living Single, Khadijah, Synclaire, Regina, and Maxine are exactly that for each other. They can be their authentic and vulnerable selves together. They support each other, whether it’s career moves or in general hijinks.
Along the same vein is Girlfriends, which has perhaps the simplest theme song ever. “My girlfriends, there through thick and thin. My girlfriends, there for anything. My girlfriends.” That’s it and that’s all it needs to say to encompass everything about this show.
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.
Are 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 Family Reunion. But they are lacking the excellence that older themes gave. Sorry to these shows.
Instead, they lean towards infusing the show itself with songs that depict what’s going on. For example, Issa Rae’s Insecure doesn’t have an official theme song, but Jazmine Sullivan and Bryson Tiller’s “Insecure” is a part of the show’s soundtrack. Insecure is great at curating tunes to fit each episode.
The one exception is grown-ish‘s theme by Chloe X Halle. “Grown” depicts its main character, Zoey, declaring that she is an adult now who is taking it one day at a time and making mistakes. She doesn’t really know what she’s doing but it is all good in the end.
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 Amen, The Proud Family, Family Matters, and Martin‘s theme about him being the man? It doesn’t matter what their premises, triumphs, nor misgivings are. A Black sitcom’s theme song always tells a deeper story about the show and real Black lives too.
Originally published June 18, 2021.