Protest songs capture the times, from Black Lives Matter to civil rights and anti-war movements
From Beethoven, Beyoncé and Bob Dylan to Kendrick Lamar, Woody Guthrie and Janelle Monáe, music of protest endures
Get up, stand up, sing out!
A great protest song may not help change the world in the same way the civil rights and anti-war movements did a half century ago, or the way the Black Lives Matters movement has this year. But a great protest song can unify and provide inspiration for people seeking a better world by serving as a vital soundtrack for actions — large and small, personal and universal — designed to promote positive change.
Such songs can be rousing or soothing, provocative or contemplative, strident or understated. They can question the status quo or rail against it, offer a moment for reflection and renewal, or do both simultaneously.
They can be rallying cries against social and racial injustice, or a source of comfort during times of stress, uncertainty and upheaval. And they can endure for decades, whether as inextricable signposts of the causes they mirrored and amplified, or simply as stirring music that stands on its own.
This holds true whether the song comes from Bob Dylan (1964’s"The Times They Are A-Changin’ ”) or Bob Marley (1973’s “Get Up, Stand Up”), Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969’s “Fortunate Son”) or Public Enemy (1989’s “Fight the Power”), Billie Holiday (1939’s “Strange Fruit”) or Janelle Monáe (2015’s “Hell You Talmbout”).
Monáe’s galvanizing song features the chanted names of Black Americans who died at the hands of the police and vigilantes, or while in custody.
The victims include Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner and more. The recitation of each is punctuated the phrase “say his name” or “say her name,” both of which are frequently heard today at Black Lives Matter marches. Sadly, that list of names has grown even larger with this year’s tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others whose names have become synonymous with police violence and vigilantism.
‘Say his name’
The visceral power of “Hell You Talmbout” inspired Rock & Roll Hall of Famer David Byrne, the co-founder of the band Talking Heads, to perform Monáe’s song as the encore at each concert on his 2018 “American Utopia” concert tour, which last year was transformed into a hit Broadway production, “David Byrne’s American Utopia.”
“It’s an incredible song,” said Byrne, speaking in late July from his New York home. “When I first heard ‘Hell You Talmbout,’ I really liked that (it) is a protest song that is not lecturing the listener in a very straightforward way. The song is not telling them exactly what to think. It’s just saying: ‘These are lives that have been taken from us. Don’t forget them.’
“Of course, there is a political message — people have been taken from us — that is very moving and really works. I like protest songs that are not obvious and not preachy. There’s a new song by (Grammy Award-winning former San Diego singer-songwriter) Gregory Porter called ‘Mr. Holland,’ that I think is beautiful and subtle. I really like people who do songs that engage with social issues and take them to a different place.”
“Sometimes, you can do more with subtlety,” said the SDSU alum, whose at least partly autobiographical “Mr. Holland” examines racism from the perspective of interracial dating by high school students.
Woody Guthrie, whose original 1940 version of “This Land is Your Land” decried the social and economic inequities of American life, contended every song could be political, in varying degrees. But songs that are unabashedly political often make the greatest impact.
This holds true whether the song comes from artists protesting oppressive governments in South Africa (1965’s “Beware, Verwoerd” by Miriam Makeba) or Brazil (1973’s “Calice” by Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil), Haiti (1992’s “Nanm Nan Boutey” by Boukman Eksperyans) or Egypt (2011’s “Leave” by now-exiled singer Ramy Essam).
And it holds equally true for songs that come from artists in San Diego (2007’s “When Did Jesus Become a Republican” by Cindy Lee Berryhill and 2020’s “America” by Rebecca Jade, Erik Canzona and Alfred Howard), or from Los Angeles (2015’s “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar).
Pulitzer-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar
Intriguingly, Lamar’s Grammy Award-winning “Alright” was not written as a modern-day protest song, per se, but as a reflection on suffering and a promise of better times to come. It was inspired by the legacy of slavery and by Lamar’s trip to South Africa, where he visited what had been Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island.
Accordingly, “Alright” is alternately ruminative and raw, using the N-word and referring to the police as “po-po.” Its lyrics include such couplets as: Wouldn’t you know, we been hurt, been down before / N----, when our pride was low / Looking at the world like: “Where do we go?”; and N----, and we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’ / N----, I’m at the preacher’s door / My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow.
“Alright’s” recurring refrain — We gon’ be alright — has been embraced in recent years by Black Lives Matter marchers nationwide as a chant of hope in troubled times. It extols resiliency in times of adversity by promising things are going to get better, regardless of how bleak they may be right now.
For demonstrators who are grieving and protesting the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others who have died this year alone, and in previous years, despair and anger should be tempered by a sense of optimism.
“Four hundred years ago, as slaves, we prayed and sang joyful songs to keep our heads level-headed with what was going on,” Lamar noted in a 2015 NPR interview. “Four hundred years later, we still need that music to heal. And I think that ‘Alright’ is definitely one of those records that makes you feel good, no matter what the times are.”
Lamar’s comments underscore the fact that music can help invigorate, uplift and calm politically and socially inspired gatherings of like-minded people. A protest march can be a celebration, as well as a demonstration, a coming together of people with shared concerns, emotions and goals. Singing and dancing are as foundational to protests as speeches and declarations.
In any era, the timing of a protest song is as important as its lyrics, its melody and its beat. Whether offering a call to action or somberly reflecting on a moment of crisis or loss, the best protest songs perfectly capture a moment in time.
In some instances, they capture and transcend that moment — be it Rev. Charles Albert Tindley’s inspirational 1900 hymn, “We Shall Overcome,” the rousing gospel staple “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” or the 1965 Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions’ classic, “People Get Ready.”
And great protest music can be heard in an array of different genres — be it a Beethoven symphony, jazz great Max Roach epic 1961 album, “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” or American composer Frederi Rzewski’s 1975 solo piano opus, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” which is based on the Chilean folk song, "¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!”
Alas, the impact of protest songs and the artists who make them can sometimes have dire consequences for those artists, even for those championing the cause of peace.
In 1968, Brazilian Tropicalia music stars Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were arrested for on trumped-up charges, after having used their songs to express criticism of their country’s government. Their heads were shaved and they spent two months in prison, followed by four months of house arrest. They were then deported, spending three years in exile in England before they could return to Brazil.
In 1971, Chilean playwright and singer-songwriter Victor Jara wrote the song “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz” (“The Right to Live in Peace),” which is sung to this day at protests in Chile. The power of Jara’s work, and his outspoken opposition to his homeland’s brutal dictatorship, led to his being tortured and murdered by Chilean soldiers in 1973.
In Nigeria, Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti was shot at least once and repeatedly jailed. His crime? Being a tireless human-rights activist who used his music and stardom to convey his fierce opposition to his country’s military leaders.
Starting in 1984, he was kept in government detention for almost two years. At one point in the 1990s, Kuti was shown in chains on state television. He died in 1997. In 2009, his life was celebrated in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Fela!”
From ‘Ohio’ to ‘Killing in the Name’
In other instances, songs can resonate even more strongly years after they were made. A key case in point is the fiery music of Rage Against The Machine, which has disbanded and reunited several times since its first album was released 28 years ago.
In early June, the long inactive Los Angeles rap-metal band saw the online streaming of its music surge 62 percent, with more than 11 million online streams of its music in a single week, as a new generation of politically engaged young listeners embraced Rage’s music.
Two of the Rage’s songs in particular — the anti-police brutality “Killing in the Name” and the anti-government oppression “Bulls on Parade,” both from 1992 — have struck a new chord, specifically because they speak to this tumultuous moment so well. So, to varying degrees, do such recent songs as rapper YG’s unabashedly brazen “FTP,” 12-year-old gospel singer Keedron Bryant’s” “I Just Wanna Live” and Minneapolis-based Sudanese-American singer Dua Saleh’s “Body Cast.”
In 1970, 22 years before the release of Rage Against The Machine’s self-titled debut album, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded the anti-war anthem, “Ohio,” which Neil Young wrote barely a week after four student protesters at Ohio’s Kent State University were shot to death by National Guard troops. It was released a week later and remains one of the best-known songs of that tumultuous period.
“Ohio’s” opening verse captured the grief and outrage over the fatal shootings with admirable concision: Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We’re finally on our own / This summer I hear the drumming / Four dead in Ohio / Gotta get down to it / Soldiers are cutting us down ...
But Young fell flat with his 2006 song “Let’s Impeach the President,” which targeted President George W. Bush with such scathing lines as: Let’s impeach the president / For lying and leading our country into war / Abusing all the power that we gave him / And shipping our money out the door.
And Young has yet to gain traction with his recently updated version of another one of his 2006 songs, now re-titled “Lookin’ for a Leader 2020.” The new version targets President Trump and endorses his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, with such lines as: America has a leader building walls around our house / Don’t all black lives matter? / We’ve got to vote him out ... Just like his big new fence, this president’s going down.
Young’s heavy-handedness is readily apparent, but some of the most effective protest songs hit their mark precisely because of their lack of subtlety. Either way, the best protest songs inspire reflection, if not action, by opening the hearts and minds of their listeners.
They can also help animate the goals articulated in their titles — be it Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1964 and the John Lennon-led Plastic Ono Band’s “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969, or Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” in 1988 and Lin-Manuel Miranda & Artists for Puerto Rico’s “Almost Like Praying” in 2017.
The Vietnam War era inspired an array of memorable songs. They include Edwin Starr’s “War,” Nina Simone’s “Backlash Blues,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam,” Country Joe & The Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” The Byrds’ “Draft Morning,” The Fugs’ “Kill for Peace,” the Edgar Broughton Band’s “American Boy Soldier,” Pete Seeger’s “Bring ‘Em Home” and “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” and a good number more.
For every protest song that endures, many more fail to make an impact. Artists who wrote and recorded songs protesting the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq range from Pink, Pearl Jam and Eminem to Lenny Kravitz, R.E.M. and Merle Haggard. Hands up if you can name more than one or two of those songs.
Of course, it remains to be seen which songs inspired by the Black Lives Matter will still be sung 10 or 20 years from now. It also remains to be seen how many more belatedly woke White groups will change their names, as Lady Antebellum (now Lady A) and The Dixie Chicks (now The Chicks) both did in June. (See below for more on name changes.)
But there are new protest songs every month. Some of this year’s standouts include Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me,” H.E.R.'s “I Can’t Breathe,” Beyoncé‘s “Black Parade,” Trey Songz’s “2020 Riots: How Many Times.” Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture,” and Leon Bridges and Terrace Martin’s “Sweeter.”
How many times, indeed?
In the meanwhile, expect more protest songs to ring out. And in an age of instant streaming, smart phones and TikTok, expect those songs to be heard by an increasingly engaged population eager to sing out, stand up and get involved.
The Chicks and Lady A: Why so long?
The still-growing impact of the Black Lives Matter movement has had a profound impact on many facets of American society, as the groups formerly known as Lady Antebellum and The Dixie Chicks can both attest.
The impact of that movement extends from the federal government, NASCAR and professional sports teams in big cities to small community organizations in rural neighborhoods. And it extends from Madison Avenue to the music industry, an industry that has made the members of the recently renamed Lady A and The Chicks wealthy and famous.
Actually, there isn’t much of a distance between music and Madison Avenue, whose national and international corporate marketing strategies extend across America and around the world.
Many bands and solo artists are brands. Their names and images adorn countless products, from recordings, posters and clothing lines to — in the case of Jimmy Buffett — bars, restaurants, food products, furniture, pool floats, surf boards, yoga mats, cornhole games, and more.
But it’s no longer business as usual, thanks to Black Lives Matter, at least not for the groups formerly known as Lady Antebellum and The Dixie Chicks.
In June, the three members of Lady Antebellum announced they were changing their name to Lady A, the better to distance themselves from the pre-Civil War South in general and the slave owners’ mansions specifically that Lady Antebellum referenced.
In a statement on Instagram, the group’s Hillary Scott, Dave Haywood and Charles Kelly wrote: “We’ve watched and listened more than ever these last few weeks, and our hearts have been stirred with conviction, our eyes opened wide to the injustices, inequality and biases black women and men have always faced and continue to face every day. Now, blind spots we didn’t even know existed have been revealed.
“After much personal reflection, band discussion, prayer and many honest conversations with some of our closest black friends and colleagues, we have decided to drop the word ‘antebellum’ from our name and move forward as Lady A, the nickname our fans gave us almost from the start.”
It’s unclear why those conversations with their closest Black friends didn’t take place back in 2006, when the country-pop trio was formed, or — if not then — soon after the deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014.
But better late than never, even though the group Lady A subsequently sued Lady A, a 61-year-old Black Seattle blues and gospel singer (real name: Anita White). She has been performing as Lady A for more than 20 years. The trio’s litigation was spurred by White’s request that the group give her $10 million, $5 million of which she said she planned to give to Black Lives Matter organizations.
In a Rolling Stone interview, White decried the trio’s move to file multiple trademark registrations that would co-opt her stage name, saying: “They’re using the name because of a Black Lives Matter incident that, for them, is just a moment in time. If it mattered, it would have mattered to them before. It shouldn’t have taken George Floyd to die for them to realize that their name had a slave reference to it.”
No, it shouldn’t have.
As for The Chicks, who on June 25 dropped “Dixie” from their stage moniker, the group’s three members initially explained their move in just six words: “We want to meet this moment.”
In subsequent interviews, The Chicks — Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire — maintained they had wanted to drop “Dixie” as far back as 2003, without really explaining why they didn’t.
Ironically, their decision to do so now has led to “cancel culture” denunciations from some of the same people who vehemently attacked The Dixie Chicks in 2003. Those attacks came after Maines spoke critically on stage of President George W. Bush, telling a London concert audience: “We’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”
Embarrassment, if not shame, also spurred the recent decision by the London record company One Little Indian — whose roster includes Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk — to change its name to One Little Independent. And, in late June, the Sacramento post-hardcore rock band Slaves announced its own name change.
The new name, the band now formerly known as Slaves promised, will be announced later this year.
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