This is America: Protest music through the ages

Billie Holiday elegantly walks onto stage, takes one diaphragm-engaging breath, and begins her song. Soft jazz plays behind her, making a haunting feeling creep over the audience. “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees,” her bell-like voice sings. 

A young Bob Dylan quickly strums his acoustic guitar, his raspy voice working like a bird call to the audience. “You fasten all the triggers / For the others to fire / Then you set back and watch / When the death count gets higher,” he sings. 

Zach de la Rocha of the band Rage Against the Machine wipes his brow, the pulsing of crunchy electric guitar and pounding drums filling his ears. He raises the microphone and screams the chorus, “You justify those that died / By wearing the badge / They’re the chosen whites.”

Childish Gambino smiles into the camera as he dances to a light and cheery tune before he absentmindedly shoots a blindfolded bystander. He looks back to the camera. “This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ now,” he sings. 

Political, or protest, music has been a part of American culture since the country’s origin. From “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to Tyler Childers’ 2020 release, “Long Violent History,” this subgenre of art has stood the tests of time. With the death of George Floyd, OLU of the group EARTHGANG released a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” demonstrating its relevance.

During election season, politics seem to surround prospective voters at every turn. Political ads clog YouTube videos and television and every class discussion eventually devolves into this or that about a candidate. Yet, many find solace within political music. Why is that?

American author John Steinbeck once wrote of political songwriter Woody Guthrie, “[He represented the] will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”

That’s exactly what it is: the birdsong of the people. 

Nobody wants to sit down and pen a political song. The way artists often see it is they carry the weight and deep hurting that are in turn much harder to perform and write than a poppy love song. After writing one of the most famous protest songs of all time (“Blowin’ in the Wind”), Bob Dylan said, “This here ain’t a protest song or anything like that, ‘cause I don’t write protest songs…I’m just writing it as something to be said, for somebody, by somebody.”

Much of 2020’s protest music was born out of the death of George Floyd and the worldwide resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Hip-hop artists Terrence Martin and Denzel Curry quickly got to work on their 2020 single “Pig Feet.” The song is haunting, as it opens with the sounds of gunfire and a woman screaming, “They shot him! He didn’t even have a gun!” A screaming saxophone plays throughout the song, making it feel reminiscent of the aforementioned “What’s Going On.”

On the song’s Soundcloud listing, Martin says, “Someone asked, how do I feel? I told them hurt, fearless, angry, aware and fully ready to protect me, my family & my people at all cost. I got together with Black men that felt the same way and created a work of truth.”

A common point of criticism with political or protest music is the dislike for the notion of “politicizing everything.” People don’t want their music to be political, they just want it to be music. However, political art should be seen less as an artist forcing their views upon their fanbase and radio listeners, but more as an artistic obligation. 

Just as Sylvia Plath felt compelled to pen poetry about her experiences with depression, many musical artists feel the need to grieve and process their emotions through their songs. The very act of creating art is vulnerable and honest. 

Even the most fickle-seeming, surface level pop songs have emotional depth. It’s where art stems from, whether the artist means it or not. 

Lyrics like that from Michael Kiwanuka’s “Hero” aren’t written to persuade audiences of one political view over another. Some would argue that the safety of citizens and the pursuit of human rights and equality is not a political thing in the slightest. 

In the song, he sings, “Please don’t shoot me down / I love you like a brother / It’s on the news again / I guess they killed another. Am I a hero? / Am I a hero now? / To die a hero / Is all that we know now.” 

These lyrics are written out of the deepest kinds of emotion. Not out of the pursuit of political or social gain, but out of a feeling of necessity. 

As this election comes to a head in the coming weeks, it is perfectly acceptable to turn to art for a helping hand: be it a song of solidarity, a warm and loving tune or a passionate ballad. For you artists out there: make art when it calls to you and don’t feel pressured to write the next call to arms anthem. 

Katy Smith (‘23) is a communications major, theatre and writing minor at Hope. Her passions lie in the arts, specifically playwriting, poetry, performing, and any music that makes you feel wanderlust. She is so honored to be the Anchor’s Arts Editor! She strives to give Hope’s wonderful arts programs the platform they deserve.

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