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Public Enemy—“Fight The Power”
Kendrick Lamar—“The Blacker The Berry”
Nina Simone—“Mississippi Goddam”
Sam Cooke—“A Change Is Gonna Come”
Bob Dylan—“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”
Bright Eyes—“When The President Talks to God”
Bob Marley & The Wailers—“Get Up, Stand Up”
Rage Against The Machine—“Killing In the Name”
System Of A Down—“Fuck the System”
Bikini Kill—“Rebel Girl”
Tom Robinson Band—“Glad to Be Gay”
From feudal English peasant revolts to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, music has been an important medium through which to act out against oppression. In the United States, the 1960s were a golden age for the protest song, and their legacy lives on today through artists who continue to use the genre to address contemporary issues. Though protest songs can share stylistic and thematic similarities, each one has its own specific temporality and the ability to memorialize a particular movement. Decades later, for example, John Lennon’s “Imagine” still arouses vivid images of his and Yoko Ono’s bed-ins, long-haired hippies advocating peace and love, and fervent student demonstrations—a nation in moral crisis. The power of the protest genre lies, then, in this ability to at once evoke a specific moment in history and subsequently transcend it.
Protest songs have been used as a tool to bridge gaps between individuals and groups, and this is perhaps best reflected in the act of sharing them. Creating and listening becomes a mutualistic process in which one expresses emotions and another in turn gleans his or her own personal meaning from the songs. By inserting his or her political opinions into a song, an artist can potentially galvanize a movement or become an advocate for the voiceless. Though some protest songs, particularly in the United States, are launched by prominent musicians into instant success, the most powerful tracks often originate from anonymous activists of less mainstream movements. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” for example, was originally a critique of American exceptionalism and was censored by the U.S. government for alleged Communist associations. However, the song continued to be shared at rallies, around campfires, and in progressive schools, and it eventually became the widely known tune it is today. This grassroots method of dispersion can create a greater sense of camaraderie around the song and heighten its meaning in a movement.
The recent shift toward sharing and discovering music online may have new implications for the role of the protest song in social movements. Protest songs are effective as shared entities because they allow listeners to tap into their own frustrations with society and move them to enter the discussion, yet sites like Pandora serve as a prime example of the sometimes automated, algorithmic way in which new artists are now discovered. While this process does not necessarily diminish the musical experience, such mechanical programs may make it more difficult for protest groups to advance their causes using music. Though these tracks can now reach an exponentially wider global audience, there is the danger that online campaigns may never reach beyond the virtual space. Awareness is significantly more attainable, but it now does not always translate into activism. Sharing a protest song, liking a Facebook post, tweeting about a trending hashtag—all these actions are valuable in showing solidarity, but the convenience with which they can be performed may increase the danger of causes being diminished to passing fads. This may not be what Bob Marley had in mind when he implored the public to “Get Up, Stand Up.”
This gesture of motivating the public to action is carried out by musicians through a variety of approaches. Artists like Rage Against The Machine and Kendrick Lamar jolt their listeners out of complacency with sweeping aggression, questioning authority both lyrically and musically. Musicians also frequently focus on the victims of oppression, and, in doing so, appeal to a listener’s sense of social responsibility. Though Bob Dylan is renowned for this type of social commentary, he rejects being called a spokesman for his generation. In fact, his political works span a short era of his career. On the other hand, in an interview with National Public Radio, M.I.A. confesses to struggling with the inverse dilemma of feeling bound to represent her homeland. “A lot of people were like, ‘Just make music; don’t talk about politics.’ But I was in a very difficult position: I was the only Tamil rapper [on the international stage], so when a whole bunch of Tamil people were dying, I had to tell you about it.” Though Dylan and M.I.A. may differ in how they define their roles, both evidently feel compelled to use their art to comment on the social and political issues of their times. This intention to disrupt a morally unacceptable status quo is ultimately what can unite protest songs across time and musical style.
Despite the specificity of protest songs, such tracks have the potential eventually to go beyond their specific eras. While they continue to represent the causes they were written to promulgate, many of these songs, from “Imagine” to “Get Up, Stand Up,” have become so deeply embedded in mainstream culture that they are reused for later movements. A protest song may even become a general symbol of freedom outside of the political domain. Ultimately, these songs act as a foundation off of which others may build—an archive to which the disenchanted may return.
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