When protests erupted across the nation following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, protesters could be heard in the streets shouting the lyrics of N.W.A.’s confrontational anthem “F**k tha Police” and demanding people say his name. Streaming numbers for the song boomed in the following weeks and signs made by protest organizers bore the song title’s combative message. Clearly, music drives protest during our country’s most contentious moments, but where do the roots of American protest music really lie? And how do artists use music as a means of conveying a strong message?
According to a study conducted by the National Women’s History Museum, Americans have used music as a vehicle for collective action since the days of the Revolutionary War, with soldiers singing tunes such as “Yankee Doodle” to defy British rule. Simultaneously, enslaved Africans created songs later dubbed “spirituals,” combining European hymns and elements of sub-Saharan African culture to detail their struggles and at times relay secret messages.
Whether it be the spirituals that guided slaves to freedom or the resistant tunes that motivated soldiers during war, early American protest music often used a repetitive song structure to drive home the message.
Joe Rapolla, the chair of the Music and Theater Arts program and the director of the Music Industry program at Monmouth University, argues that the sonic repetition present in protest music serves a practical purpose in the creation of a wider social movement.
“Repetitive patterns make songs easier to learn and remember. Social movement and protest or topical music writers utilized [sonic repetition]. In many cases, lyrics were merely added to existing melodies for familiarity,” said Rapolla. “The easier songs are to sing along to, the more likely they will be more adopted by a larger audience or community.”
The advent of the modern American music industry in the 1920s granted musicians the ability to reach audiences of previously unimaginable scale. At the same time, radio sets became accessible to the middle class and created another avenue for musical acts to distribute their work. The stage was set for the birth of protest music that would truly change and divide the nation.
The 20th and 21st Centuries
As the nation struggled through the Great Depression, a young jazz singer known as Billie Holiday or “Lady Day” burst onto the scene in 1939 with the controversial protest song “Strange Fruit.” She immediately received backlash from white audiences who could not stomach the song’s grim account of lynchings in the American South. However, despite attempts to suppress her voice, Holiday’s song inspired other blues and jazz musicians to confront the issues of the day in their music.
Decades later, Nina Simone released the protest anthem “Mississippi Goddam” as a single in 1964, and civil rights activists adopted the song as an anthem of the movement for racial equality. After performing the song at the monumental march in Alabama — from Montgomery to Selma — several southern states banned Simone’s tune.
Emily Danzinger, a sophomore majoring in international relations and political science and intern at the university’s George P. Hanley Democracy Center, believes Holiday and Simone suffered commercially due to their decisions to confront racism and other systems of oppression through their music.
“Holiday and Simone faced both public backlash and blackmail for their protests, especially since the two were Black women,” said Danzinger. “White record label executives couldn’t deal with the idea that these artists had their own ideas and beliefs and were more than just puppets for them to control.”
In the face of an FBI investigation into Holiday and the commercial blackballing of Simone, the people continued supporting their endeavors into music with elements of social justice commentary and demands for more than second-class treatment. Rapolla maintains that “Strange Fruit” and “Mississippi Goddam” opened the door for budding artists in other genres to comment on sociopolitical issues.
“I believe [Billie Holiday and Nina Simone] played a big role in raising the profile of topical music and set the stage for folk protest songwriters to follow,” said Rapolla. “They were willing to take the chances necessary to break down the walls between popular music and important social issues.”
With the establishment of hip-hop in the Bronx during the 1970s, the genre became another vehicle for artists to reflect on their experiences and critique their relation to society and its institutions. Danzinger accredits hip-hop’s cemented place in the history of protest music to its grassroots origins.
“What makes hip-hop especially important in protest music is that hip-hop was invented in the very communities from which many major protests originated,” said Danzinger. “Hip-hop was invented in urban Black communities, many of which were affected by the trademark socioeconomic and racial inequalities that were protested against in the mid-to-late 20th century.”
Presently, digital streaming services and social media platforms have transformed the ways in which the people consume and interact with artists and their music. Danzinger holds that the accessibility of the internet and its virtual communities allows for artists to garner traction and use their platforms for change.
“Virality, especially on apps like TikTok or Instagram, has provided new opportunities to smaller artists who aren’t picked up by major record labels,” said Danzinger. “Now, the public can access any form of music they want, not just the music that major executives and companies want them to see.”
Our nation’s history reveals that musical artists hold the power to bring social, political or economic issues to the forefront of the American imagination. As fame brings musicians acclaim and wealth, they run the risk of losing touch with the cause they set out to fight. Danzinger acknowledges the out of touch stances of some creatives.
“It is absolutely possible for artists to be able to express the plight of the people,” said Danzinger. “However, when an artist begins to garner wealth, they may potentially become further removed from their audiences, since wealth presents a whole new level of opportunity and privilege.”
For a moment, to better understand the role of an artist in society, one must look back at the intention and the process behind the art itself. Musicians do not exist in a bubble, despite what the glitz and glamor of Hollywood may lead you to believe, and they react to the cultural, political and societal developments around them.
Rapolla uses an analogy to conceptualize what exactly artists do when creating music.
“Artists dress the store windows of society,” said Rapolla. “They express what they see, in creative mediums so that audiences might be attracted to the art and engaged by the message.”
Simultaneously, it is critical to understand how the music alone impacts us and shapes our worldviews. When listening to music, listeners find ways to understand and relate to the stories of the musical acts they admire. Rapolla believes music owes its power to the inherently human nature of the art.
“The sole reason to create art is to engage and move an audience. Music is embedded in our DNA,” said Rapolla. “Using music to convey messages about culture, society and current issues has been the practice since the early days of recorded history.”
In an exclusive interview clip that was later released through a documentary on Simone’s life, she declared, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” This sentiment has sparked generations of musicians that have followed in the footsteps of our nation’s protest music pioneers and dedicated their creative pursuits to creating the future of tomorrow. However, as Rapolla notes, authenticism must remain central to artists who want to truly leave their mark.
“An artist needs to remain true if they’re going to use music as a vehicle,” said Rapolla. “When this is done sincerely and with genuine intentions, artists can not only reflect the times, but their music can also impact history.”
Writer’s Picks: Protest Music
- “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday (1939)
- “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke (1963)
- “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone (1964)
- “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye (1971)
- “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton (1980)
- “F**k tha Police” by N.W.A (1988)
- “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga (2011)
words_andrew mccleskey. photo_ethan dosa. design_melanie bergunker & lizzie kristal
Thia article was published in Distraction’s Summer 2023 print issue.