Brooks wrote this social anthem with Nashville songwriter Stephanie Davis in response to the 1992 LA Riots. The country singer was in town for the ACM Awards and witnessed the six-day disturbance unfold on TV, including the savage beating of Rodney King, an African American taxi driver, at the hands of police.
The song finds an ordinary man envisioning a peaceful world, where human beings are free to love each other without the barriers of class, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Brooks' message fell on many deaf ears in the ultraconservative circles in Nashville, who only listened long enough to be offended over the song's championing of gay rights:
'Cause we shall be free
When we're free to love anyone we choose
As a result, many radio stations refused to play it, and Brooks missed the country chart's Top 10 for the first time (it peaked at #12).
"I feel bad any time somebody brings up the Christian aspect against 'We Shall Be Free.'" he recalled the controversy in a 1993 Rolling Stone interview. "Because it was meant to be a gospel song. It was meant to be the truth as I saw it. And being called Brutus and Judas, all kinds of things, really hurts. I do believe that God exists. I do believe in the Bible. But I can't see that loving somebody is a sin."
For his second compilation album, The Hits, Brooks writes: "'We Shall Be Free' is definitely and easily the most controversial song I have ever done. A song of love, a song of tolerance from someone who claims not to be a prophet but just an ordinary man. I never thought there would be any problems with this song. Sometimes the roads we take do not turn out to be the roads we envisioned them to be. All I can say about 'We Shall Be Free" is that I will stand by every line of this song as long as I live. I am very proud of it. And I am very proud of Stephanie Davis, the writer. I hope you enjoy it and see it for what it was meant to be."
This wasn't the first time Brooks faced backlash over his socially conscious views. Two years earlier, The Nashville Network banned his music video for "The Thunder Rolls
," which cast the singer as an abusive, philandering husband who is shot by his battered wife.
Brooks sang this with The Muppets on a 1996 episode of Muppets Tonight.
Brooks performed this as part of the We Are One concert, celebrating President Obama's inauguration, in 2009. He also sang it for Equality Rocks, a gay rights march in Washington, DC, in 2000.
Trisha Yearwood, who would go on to marry Brooks in 2005, performed this at a charity concert shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The music video, directed by Timothy Miller, features scenes of poverty and unrest interspersed with cameos by numerous celebrities, including fellow singers Reba McEntire, Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Julio Iglesias, Paula Abdul, and Michael Bolton. The clip won Video of the Year at the 1993 Academy of Country Music Awards.