Protest Music: A History Lesson
The question whether the grand jury should have indicted former police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown remains prevalent. Turn on the TV; search the most used hashtag on Twitter; or scroll down your Facebook newsfeed for proof that this trial has generated a wave of protest nation-wide. News sources like CNN and Vice are not the only platforms covering this nation-wide uproar and your Facebook feed doesn’t offer the only opinions around. The music world had been taking a stance on the current situation prior to the grand jury’s verdict reached on November 24 (check out Marcus’ article from early October).
The music world’s presence is easily accessible with a simple Google search. But, what I present to you now is a history lesson on the major impact of protest music. For decades – even centuries – musicians have literally vocalized their discontent at unfair social structures, among other injustices, that have and still are plaguing our nation.
In America, protest songs date all the way back to the colonial period. The songs dealt with the immense upheaval of the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. Later, in the 19th century, protest songs dealt mostly with issues over the Civil War, abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage.
The Hutchinson Family Singers were one of the most famous voices of protest in America at the time. In 1839 the group began writing and performing songs in support of abolition, even singing at the White House for President John Tyler and befriending Abraham Lincoln in their fight against slavery. The Hutchinson Family Singers, often consider the forerunners of the musical protest movement, epitomize just how politically charged music can be.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” originally written as a poem and later set to music, was a well-known African Spiritual containing strong appeals to the ideals of justice and equality. Its performance was an act of self assertion by a group barred from speaking out too overtly against the social constructs of the time. Protest, in the form of music, allowed for the assertion of these ideas, even within the constraints of rigid racial system standing in opposition.
As musicians entered the 20th century, their protest songs began to deal increasingly with issues such as the union movement, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and the war in Vietnam.
From 1900-1920 the vast majority of protest music in America was based on the struggle for better working conditions. Many reformists of the time attempted to unionize the American workforce and facilitate the protest movement through the use of music.
During the 1920s and 1930s poverty due to the Great Depression began to see major coverage through song. Musicians strummed and belted tunes that reflected the harsh realities of indigence. Folk singer Aunt Molly Jackson became popular during this time as she sang and wrote protest songs about the Depression-ravaged America. This time also marked the major rise in protest music fighting against racial discrimination.
The 1940’s and 1950’s continued to see the rise of music protesting labor, race and class issues. The movement faced major opposition from McCarthyism. Some folk groups like The Weavers, who sang in protest of war and racial systems, were even placed on FBI surveillance and blacklisted by the entertainment industry during this era. But the movement persisted, even growing in strength, despite this resistance.
With the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam and the dominance of counter culture groups like the Hippies, the protest song movement gained new potency in the 1960’s. The music had relatively simple instrumental accompaniment, often including acoustic guitar and harmonica. Spirituals were also used often as a source of protest, changing religious lyrics to fit the political and social agendas of the artists. Music became indispensable to protestors during this time because it was persuasive yet stressed the peaceful nature of activists.
Soul music dominated the early part of the 1970’s protest scene, taking over from the folk music of the previous decade. Marvin Gaye’s album, What’s Going On? and Gil Scott-Heron’s Small Talk dealt with many themes protesting superficiality of mass consumerism, white middle class ignorance, homosexuality and the difficulties faced by inner-city residents.
The 1980’s protest songs often addressed The Reagan Administration. Many mainstream songs like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” and The Ramone’s “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down” attacked his policies, while Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the USA” praised them.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s rap gained notoriety. Public Enemy, N.W.A., and Grandmaster Flash fervently argued against the discrimination and poverty faced by the black community, focusing especially on police discrimination. In 1988 rapper KRS-One responded to the violence in black communities by forming the Stop The Violence Movement.
With the grand jury’s recent decision at the forefront of classroom discussions and twitter accounts, it seems inevitable that the prevalence of protest songs will continue to dominate our society. These songs are powerful, meaningful, and purposeful. But, as potent as they are, the never-ending call for their continued production suggests that protest music has a long journey ahead in order to achieve its goals.