The Evolution of American Protest Music

Right now, American protest music sounds like this.

…we don’t believe you, cuz we the people… …a million dollar loan…

…If I don’t say something should I just lie still…

But it wasn’t always this way.

While today’s protest music serves the same purpose as music like this, the way it reaches the audience has reshaped the genre time and time again.

Early American protest songs like Yankee Doodle and John Brown’s Body were pretty simple.

The melodies came from songs people already knew.

The lyrics were repetitive and easy to remember and that made it easier for the songs to spread through the oral tradition.

But the rise of electrical sound recording in the 1920s changed the way music was created.

It allowed artists to use complex tunes and lyrics.

A famous example of that is Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit from 1939.

It was a powerful take on lynchings in the South.

People had a really strong response to the song — they either loved it or they hated it.

It was almost completely banned on the radio, which meant that most Americans heard about it, if they heard about it at all, through word of mouth.

But its omission from the radio didn’t take the song out of history.

After World War two, protest music changed again when folk music became popular through the radio.

Woodie Guthrie is probably one of the most famous folk music protest writers.

one of his most famous songs is This Land is Your Land, which he wrote as a protest song in response to this super popular song the time called god bless America Guthrie’s music became popular with the working class and went on to inspire musicians like Bob Dylan.

The times, they are a changin But Dylan himself edged away from the suggestion that he was a protest movement leader.

I got nothing to say about these things I write.

I just write em.

I don’t have to say anything about them.

I don’t write them for any reason.

There’s no great message.

If you want to tell other people about that, go ahead and tell em.

People turned to Dylan’s music for its unifying message despite his reluctance to be a part of any sort of movement.

But there were other artists, who were less coy than him.

And everybody knows about Mississippi / god damn Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi.

Mississippi goddam In it, she also sings about the bombing of the 16th street baptist church in Alabama that same year.

Alabama’s got me so upset The civil rights movement produced several notable pieces of protest music.

But the late 60s and early 70s also saw a lot of political unrest in the states.

So this is Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit What’s Going On.

brother brother brother / there’s far too many of you dying… It was a part of the famous wave of protest music that followed the Kent State massacre when the National Guard opened fire and killed four unarmed students protesting the Vietnam War.

Later as the Vietnam war came to an end, protest songs in America re-focused on issues of class.

The shift coincided with the rise of VH1 and MTV in the 1980s which gave artists a visual medium to express themselves.

Hip-hop quickly gained notoriety, in part thanks to groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A.

Fuck the police / and that’s straight from the underground While hip-hop became a burgeoning space for political thought, a feminist punk rock movement also began to take shape.

the riot grrrl movement was led by all women bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney.

and it was in the early to mid nineties when all these women came together with a focus on making their music try to forward progressive agendas, specifically feminist ones All girls should have A real man Should I buy it? I don’t wanna Our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deadly terrorist attacks.

After 9/11 there was this huge pool of emotion and frustration that helped singers make some really good music.

But the lack of a unifying political movement left a millennial protest song resurgence sort of dead in the water.

But bands like Green Day gave a really good effort and the title track of their 2004 album American Idiot took aim at the war in Iraq Don’t wanna be an American idiot The election of Barack Obama in 2008 brought a different energy to protest music.

With the first black president in the White House, musicians took up the empowerment song.

Kendrick Lamar’s Alright became a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter toward the end of Obama’s presidency.

Do you hear me / Do you feel me / we gon be alright And in this era social media became the biggest tool for sharing music.

That change is even more evident in the face of Donald Trump’s presidency.

A good example of that is Milck’s song called Quiet The songwriter, Connie Lim, used the internet to recruit a choir for the song which became an anthem for the Women’s March.

the purpose of protest music is to bring a movement together.

So as long as people continue to leverage these new tools that we have with social media and with the internet to make these songs, protest music will continue.