Donald Glover, or as he is better known in the music industry, Childish Gambino, shocked America and the rest of the world with his latest single ‘This is America’ . Its juxtaposition of melodious gospel music and lyrical rap is the perfect metaphor for how society is quick to cover up anything with meaning and replace it with something that is easier on the senses. The music video accompanying the song is perhaps the most important signifier of what Glover is trying to say. It is a depiction of aspects of American society that Glover believes is hindering its progression and portrays the lack of attention and regard people have for these issues. This song and video are being seen as a political mouthpiece for many movements, including Black Lives Matter, Impeach Trump Campaign and the Fight for Gun Control. The song has received its fair share of praise, but is far from being the first of its kind.
The protest song is a form of music associated with a desire for social change. There have been a plethora of movements with protest songs attached to them spanning as far back as the fight for abolition. Other movements include the labour movement, the women’s suffrage, the gay liberation and the civil rights movement. Alicia Keys in a 2016 interview with CNN stated that the use of activism in music was important because “music makes people relate to one another”, and it has the ability to make people empathise with one another “whether they’re a gay man, a black man,a woman or a Muslim, we all have our own problems but music helps us relate and understand.”
A Timeline of the American Protest Song
The American protest song, is perhaps the most famous, with its evolution starting with songs like Yankee Doodle Dandy a song used by the American army to slander the British during the revolutionary war and was sung most notably after the British defeat at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. The 19th century saw a rise in activism through music, with the increased popularity of the Hutchinson Family Singers. They sang about three key issues of the time, the American Civil War, the abolition of slavery and the women’s suffrage. They sang at the White House for President John Tyler and made close ties to Abraham Lincoln, and were hailed “the protest voices of America". Like Yankee Doodle Dandy, while being a form of protest their songs were considered to still be patriotic, yet still focused on idealism, social reform and equal rights and would go on to inspire another protest singer songwriter Woody Guthrie. The music was more of a rallying call than a critique, which is perhaps the most significant way that protest music has changed over time.
By the 20th Century, the themes of protest music had changed. The early half of the century was centred around the Great Depression and the struggle for fair pay and working hours for the working class. Perhaps one of the most well known protest songs to come out of this period was ‘Bread and Roses’ which was sung first in mass protest in 1912 as part of a textiles strike in Massachusetts, but since has been used by many other movements including the British Miners Strike through the 1980s.
As the 20th century unravelled there became more and more desire to fight the system; the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement perhaps the most famous. In 1939 Billie Holiday used her platform to sing about the lynchings in the American South in ‘Strange Fruit’ ;and prior to that the Harlem renaissance found African Americans demonstrating their excellence and highlighting the inequality in society all across the arts. Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam critiqued the treatment of people of colour in Mississippi and Alabama. This was just the beginning in a large sea of work that would be created around the civil rights movement.
Civil Rights and the Fight for Equality
The 1960s was a decade that saw the ascendancy of the American protest song. As said above, the Civil Rights movement was using music to outline the problems of society and tracks like Pete Seeger’s ‘We Shall Overcome’ made the genre go back to its roots in being a rallying call. Martin Luther King famously said of music:
“God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.”
Music had the ability to create a firm belief that progress would be made, it allowed for an atmosphere of hatred, oppression and fear, to find sanctuary in sound. Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ is a perfect example of this. The title itself is a statement rather than a hope, suggesting that while it has been a long time coming, change will undoubtedly arrive. Other soul singers like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and James Brown all joined Cooke and produced many songs that became anthems for the Civil Rights movement. As well as Black singers, the rise of ‘Hippie’ counterculture in the 1960s allowed for a new group to create music centred around equal rights and unity.
With the 60s and the 70’s came the ongoing Cold War and the escalation of Vietnam. The New Left singer songwriters began writing against the war as opposed to the struggle of workers and the disparity between the rich and poor. One of the key artists in the 60s was Bob Dylan who wrote a multitude of songs centred around injustices and the war, including ‘The Death of Emmett Till’, ‘Masters of War’ and ‘The Times are a Changin’.
Soul was no longer the sound of protest with Jimi Hendrix and his band at the time ‘Band of Gypsys’ rolling into the scene in the early 70s. Their song ‘Machine Gun’ was a protest of the Vietnam War. Stevie Wonder too wrote a song simply disagreeing with Nixon’s Vietnam policies ( ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin’) and Dylan’s old music partner Joan Baez dedicated an entire B-Side to her views on the war ‘Where Are You Now, My Son’. Irish group U2 a made an entrance in the early 80s, as outsiders living in America they bought a new perspective and were unafraid to overtly disagree with American politics. Tracks like Bullet the Blue Sky channelled lead singer Bono’s anger after seeing the local peasants in El Salvador affected by USA military intervention, and live performances of the song are known to be heavily critical of political conflict.
The Birth of Rap and the New Age of Protest Music
By the late 80s, American protest music came in an entirely new form. Groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A were formed. The birth of rap and hip hop gave a voice to angry, young African American men who, inspired by icons like Mohammed Ali, used their words to bring to light their problems with society. They were emphatic in their protesting of discrimination and the poverty that Black communities were facing. Tracks like ‘Fight the Power’ and ‘F*** tha Police’ made overt statements and the artists who were writing and performing them were fuelled by passion and a desire for change. The next two decades would see hip hop and rap change from being about social reform to materialism and an indicator of status.
In 2015 Kendrick Lamar released ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, an album believed to ‘make rap political again’ according to Vox. It was sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement with the track ‘Alright’ becoming an anthem for the cause. It ignited a chain of rappers to go back to the roots of the genre, and the last three years has given us a plethora of engaged political rap and hip hop that has spoken to young people and made them aware of current affairs.
In 2016 Beyonce released the single ‘Formation’ and just like Gambino’s ‘This is America’ it shocked the country. Here Beyonce was embracing aspects of ‘Black Culture’ that were perceived as “ratchet” and “ghetto” and being proud of them. While not being an obvious protest song, it is arguing against cultural imperialism and stating that one culture is not better than the other despite differences in class, race and perceptions from the outside world. Most recently we saw Lamar on the scene once more winning the Pulitzer prize for his 2017 album ‘Damn’. His album serves as a critique to society, the rise of white nationalism, the glorification of gang culture in rap/drill music, gun violence and yet amongst all this seeks to empower and encourage young African Americans to be proud of who they are.
Protest music has been an important element in society for the last century and I believe it will continue to be. Outside of America it has been central for many countries including Algeria, Egypt, Palestine and Britain to simply name a few. Music has the ability to evoke emotion and empathy and allows people to see things from beyond their own point of view.
Protest music is also indispensable as it allows us to channel negativity into something beautiful in a sense. It brings like minded people together and helps build bridges for communities facing similar issues.