The power of protest music

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Image: time.com

As we face a Trump/Brexit society, let’s take a look at some of the protest music that has sparked conversation, change, and feelings of empowerment from the 1930s all the way to the Women’s Marches this past weekend.

Simply put, a protest song is one that is associated with a movement for social change or connected to current events. This connection between music and politics, especially political expression, has been seen in almost every era and genre of music since the 1930s, being especially prevalent in Americana folk music, rap, hip-hop, and r&b. It has been made by little-known singer-songwriters and indie bands as well as stars such as Bob Dylan and Beyoncé. While this article is not intended as a compendium of every protest song that has had an impact or added to a movement, here are just a few of the songs, artists and eras that have had a tremendous effect on societal perspective or social justice activism.

When looking at the history of protest music, we must first address Woody Guthrie’s depression era song about workers’ rights entitled “This Land is Your Land.” The song was written in 1940 and contained lyrics such as “As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if / God Blessed America for you and me.” It remains one of America’s most famous folk songs and inspired generations of other protest music. It was written as a direct reaction to the song “God Bless America,” which was recorded two years earlier and became a national hit. Having witnessed extreme poverty with little government aid, Guthrie angrily claimed that God did not bless his America – the one that struggled to get by on a day to day basis.

Another song, “Deportee” from 1948, was a response to the outrage he felt towards the racist mistreatment of the passengers who died in a plane crash near Los Gatos Canyon in California. Most of them were migrant farm workers who were being deported back to Mexico when they were killed. “Dust Bowl Blues,” written in 1940, is also about migrant workers, although this time it was centered on his own experiences of witnessing the economic hardships that many faced in California. He also had other songs that are considered some of the great protest music of the era, such as “Tom Joad.” His crooning about hardship called out the systems that led to the struggles of those around him, rather than singing about personal troubles. The 1940s also saw the Weavers’ “If I Had a Hammer” which was written in support of the progressive movement. While protest music is sometimes inspired by a specific event that sparks outrage, there are also plenty of songs in which there is a more general alignment of the musician with a movement.

Another piece from the same time period is “Strange Fruit” which was first written as a poem by Abel Meeropol in 1937 and later recorded as a song by Billie Holiday in 1939. It explicitly protested racism in America and the continued lynching of African Americans in the south of the country. Lyrics include the lines, “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” The graphic imagery is perhaps more explicit than those examples found in folk music like that of Guthrie, befitting the violence of the scene it depicts. Rather than a minority group facing deportation or economic hardship, Holiday’s subjects were victims of violent hate crimes stemming from racial tension that had existed for generations.

This song, like a lot of protest music, has since become iconic and has been remastered on many other tracks, including Kanye West’s popular “Blood on the Leaves” from his album Yeezus, proving the relevance and staying-power that these kinds of songs have today. The success and longevity of some of this music proves the persistence of the social problems. For example, songs like “Freedom” by Beyoncé ft. Kendrick Lamar as well as 2pac’s “Changes” and “Soulja’s Revenge” focus on themes surrounding racial oppression. Written in the 2010s and 1990s respectively, these songs work to emphasize the persistence of social problems surrounding race, oppression, and cultural integrity.

In the 1960s, Bob Dylan also entered the scene as a major protest song creator with his now iconic “Blowin’ in the Wind” which poses a series of rhetorical questions about peace, war, and freedom. Another hit, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” is a more deliberate attempt to create an anthem of change for the time. He also wrote such songs as “Masters of War” and “Talking World War III Blues.”

Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Phil Ochs are also prominent figures that rank alongside the many protest song composers. The album 4 Way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young is one of many that features numerous songs with themes of social justice activism. Bob Marley is also known for his songs about peace and anti-violence, shaped especially by his experiences in Jamaica and Haiti, such as his famous song “Get Up, Stand Up.”

More contemporary examples include the hugely popular song “American Idiot” by Green Day which currently has close to 70 million views on YouTube. It was the title track to an album that expressed the disillusionment and dissent of a generation that came of age in a period shaped by events such as the Iraq War. There are also more subtle works such as the Beatles’ “Revolution” or Gossip’s “Standing in the Way of Control,” in which messages are more implicitly stated without calling out specific institutions such as a government or demographic.

Having grown up listening to a lot of these artists, I personally have wondered how the advent of the Trump/Brexit age would continue to influence artistic production. Over the past few months we have seen public displays such as the performance art, sculptures and photography exhibitions centered on examining this social shift and exploring the outrage, anger, and fear it has induced in many.

More recently, the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. saw a rise in protest music being tied to current causes. Even before the march, some were connecting the event to power anthems such as Beyoncé’s “Formation,” a song associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. Others took it upon themselves to start curating playlists and creating music. For example, prominent musician Fiona Apple made a Trump-shaming rallying cry for the Women’s March entitled “Tiny Hands.” While the song includes direct quotes from Trump such as “grab ‘em by the pussy” and “you can do anything” spoken in a low male voice, it then turns into a rhythmic chant of her repeating “we don’t want your tiny hands / anywhere near our underpants.” Not only was it played at some of the marches around the globe, it was also oft-repeated as a chant by the marchers themselves.

This global event-turned-movement has already inspired new works and drawn on previously established pieces that combine well with the energy and themes of the march. However, the musical piece that truly stole the show, which is now being hailed as the “anthem” of the march, is a song called “I Can’t Keep Quiet.” A rising musician, Milck, wrote the song (originally just named “Quiet”) about her triumphs over an eating disorder and depression.

However, making plans to attend the march in Washington, D.C. inspired her to create an a cappella version sung by a choir of women drawn from across the United States to join in a flash mob at the march, creating the movement #ICantKeepQuiet. A video of them at the march has gone viral and attracted media attention. The group has created a comprehensive website, icantkeepquiet.org, which tells their story, offers the sheet music, and encourages women all around the globe to create their own choirs to be able to perform the song. What is perhaps most fitting about this particular song is the grassroots component that mirrors the event and movement it is championing: power to the people. The current scene is empowering people – not just professional artists with a platform – to use music to express their feelings. The accessibility of networks such as these provided by social media also adds a new and exciting dimension.

Ultimately, protest music is important as it has the ability to bring an element of activism to a mass audience using provocative lyrics to draw attention to certain injustices, or spark a conversation surrounding specific goals or events. In the wake of changing times in which certain governments are spouting “alternative facts” and silencing the media, hopefully we can look to art, in all its forms, as a way to in a sense inform the public and inspire genuine change, or at least hope.

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