Music has the power to move souls and change lives. I can remember significant moments in my own life marked by a distinct song. Music is like a living breathing testimony describing our lives and the time we live in. They showcase what we are often feeling but fail to express. In its highest forms, music and art can change everything – they can influence our culture, politics, and actions. They can be the very catalyst that ignites actions toward positive social change.
History teaches us that the blues was a response, a form of social activism that African abductees used to respond to their American enslavement. It was a way for a community that was deeply in pain and under enslavement to bind together and to socially persevere. As time went by, the tones and songs became complex and embodied social challenges that the African American communities were undergoing. Eventually, the blues were a powerful tool to speak out to the injustices, and the struggles during the Jim Crow South era of racial segregation. The blues came to be widely recognized as a distinct African American contribution to music, and a tool that helped shaped the political and social consciousness of African American communities.
Similarly, protest songs of folk music have a long history with social justice and messaging on human rights and slavery. The tradition goes as far back as America’s founding with the song “Free America”, a call to action song by the minuteman Joseph Warren. Or the widely known protest song from the first American slaves, “Go Down, Moses” based on the old testament about freeing the Israelites from Egypt. In the early 20th century, music continued to evolve and so did music with social activism elements. This was apparent in Billie Holiday’s 1939 song “Strange Fruit”. This song acted as a social commentary on the state of the country and caused people to pause and listen. The song infiltrated the cultural psyche and caused strong reactions of both hate and approval. Some people even sent recordings of “Strange Fruit” to congress hoping to heighten the moral outrage at the lynching’s of Black Americans in the South. Popular folk music boomed and artists such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie continued to protest through their popular music.
Contemporary protest came through rap, rock, and hip hop. The Vietnam War kept us busy with songs like Bob Dylan’s famous “Blowing in the wind” or Phil Och’s What are you fighting for? The 70s and 80s gave rise to songs like “Holiday in Cambodia” to protest the dictatorship in Cambodia. In the 80’s, rap spoke out against police brutality, and the 90’s introduced us to feminist rock music. Post 9/11, in response to Bush’s war on terror, bands such as Green Day and Bright Eyes made us reflect on why we were going to war.
In modern day society, we still have songs speaking out on the injustices faced by our country and beyond. Lady Gaga highlighted queer acceptance in her song “Born this Way” and Beyonce’s Formation referenced police brutality, Black Lives Matters, and post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
Music forces us to listen, to reflect, and question. It helps us synthesize our surroundings and provokes a reaction, good or bad. Protesting, and social activism are not new components to the arts, but they are more relevant than ever. Song’s like Donald Glover’s “This is America”, singer-songwriter MILCK’s “Quiet”, and Nyukyung’s “Modern Day Activism” highlight issues of race, sexual assault, homelessness that need to be heard. Because only once we are aware, can we stand up for our friends, our communities, and stand together for a brighter future.