When you think about protest song what comes to mind?
I’m no mind reader but I suspect, for the most part, when the idea of a tune regarding revolution and time for change is thrown at us, we hark back to the sixties and the summer of love. Or we start thinking of the seventies with Lennon’s Imagine and the mental picture of John and Yoko protesting by bed-in. When this happens, it’s easy to see why many believe there’s nothing left to protest. But in truth, the most famous songs we relate to counterculture and civil rights are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s plenty and most are not even about the Vietnam War.
There’s something about the historical narrative that makes us overlook the different civil rights movements that have happened. Why is it that in our collective memory it’s easier to remember the hippie protest where they placed flowers on shotguns than the moments when people were shot, arrested, or killed because they were asking for human rights and equality?
The truth is that sometimes protests are not pretty. They don’t give us that warm feeling of watching a movie where the protagonists are doing what they believe in their hearts; the whole world is against them, but in the end they succeed in melting the ice cold heart of their oppressors. This is why some films about civil rights movements are extremely hard to watch. Most of the times, we’re talking life and death situations. You might not even want to keep hearing the facts because it’s too much. But that’s what makes speaking up important. If nobody chooses to stand and do something about it, no one else will.
Of the following songs, some of them are protesting through their lyrics; some retell the tale of a brave soul; some wonder why this is even happening, and some hope for a better time. They’re not politically correct nor should they be. At times it’s about posing a question or an idea in the listener’s mind. A powerful message isn’t supposed to give you a comforting feeling; it should make you angry, it’s meant to get you to act. The purpose of these lyrics is that you stop hiding behind your illusion of a perfect world, so you can actually make it one that’s trying to be.
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (1939)
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” has been quoted recently given how Rebecca Ferguson said she would only sing at the 2017 US Presidential Inauguration if she did this song. As the tune's haunting imagery has been repeated in the headlines, people have started to make this song part of the current conversation. The lyrics began as a poem by Abel Meeropol under the pen name of Lewis Allan. The words are pretty explicit regarding the themes of racism and lynchings of African Americans. As haunting as the story is, what's sad is how this song continues to be controversial and plenty of places refuse to play it or even allow artists to perform it.
Pete Seeger’s “We shall overcome” is said to have been written around 1948. But it’s origins hark back to a hymn written by Reverend Charles Tindley from 1900.
Bob Dylan’s “Only a pawn in their game” from 1964.
Marvin Gaye, “What’s going on” from 1971.
Gil Scott-Heron, “The revolution will not be televised” (1971)
Gil Scott-Heron, “The revolution will not be televised,” is a call to arms to stand up for what's right despite all that obstacles, fear, and despair. He was inspired after being part of several college movements that occurred both at his school, Lincoln University, as well as in the wake of tragedies such as Kent State University and Jackson State University. He was constantly worried about peaceful protests turning into violent riots, however searched for a way to bring awareness in a nonviolent way.
Sex Pistols, “God Save The Queen” from 1977.
Tom Robinson, “Glad to be Gay” from 1978.
Peter Gabriel, “Biko” from 1980.
Elvis Costello “Shipbuilding” (1982)
Did you know Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” from 1982 was written in response to the Falklands War? In 1982 after Argentinean forces took over the Falkland Islands to claim it as their territory they came to a head with Margaret Thatcher's government. The resulting casualties on both sides, yet thrice as much from Argentina, proved that at times the people fighting on the ground have more in common than the heads of state who put them there.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood, “Two Tribes” from 1984.
The Special AKA, “Free Nelson Mandela” from 1984.
The Smiths, “Panic” from 1985.
NWA, “Fuck tha police” from 1988.
"Do The Right Thing" Public Enemy
When Spike Lee approached Public Enemy to write a song for the film "Do The Right Thing", perhaps the filmmaker predicted how both the song and the movie would become emblems of the environment of the time. As racial tensions continued to be part of the everyday issues reaching boiling points, “Fight the Power” came out in 1989. Hank Shocklee said that they wanted to create a call to action reminiscent of Black Panther rallies and African war drums. "...Instead of us going to war, it had to be like we were already winning the war."
Midnight oil, “Beds are Burning” from 1989.
In 2008 M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” became a controversial worldwide hit. Some found the lyrics to be too much but, according to the artist, she was trying to present and break the stereotypes the first world has on developing nations and their fight for freedom and free expression. In her words, “You can’t separate the world into two parts like that, good and evil. Terrorism is a method. But America has successfully tied all these pockets of independence struggles, revolutions and extremists into one big notion of terrorism.”
In the summer of 2011 England was ablaze with protests following several situations, including austerity measures, population discontent, and a police shooting that further poisoned the well of youth already in a state of unrest. In August, the protests turned into full-blown riots. While those who watched tried to pin the blame on someone: education, family, media, or society, Hip-hop artist Plan B wrote "Ill Manors", a song from the perspective of the rioters. In his eyes, this was the result of a society that had failed its young people. The song then led to an entire opera of the same title that presented different issues occurring in the East End of London around the time of the Olympic preparations.
The most recent musical representation of speaking up has emerged from the Women’s March on Washington that happened on January 21st, 2017. Emerging artist Milck wrote the song “Quiet” in 2016 as a coping mechanism to an abusive relationship, societal and cultural expectations on women, as well as body image issues. She never thought about releasing it, until she found out about the march. Through the wonders of the digital age and social media, the Los Angeles based artist recruited two DC acapella groups, Capital Blend and GW Sirens, as well as other women from diverse backgrounds. The choir rehearsed remotely until meeting two days prior to the march. The hashtag #ICantKeepQuiet and the video that’s making its rounds on the web has turned this into the anthem of this movement.
So now that you’ve gone through a retelling of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, what do you think makes a protest song? Is it the emotional aspect? The lyrical context? The musical arrangements? Or, just maybe, there’s a possibility that what makes them amazing are how they demonstrate the way we feel while also showing us why we need to speak for ourselves, as well as for those who cannot do it themselves.