The Soundtrack Of Protest: 20 Protest Songs & Activist Anthems

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As long as there has been social injustice in the world, there have been people protesting those injustices. Oftentimes, people chant and sing songs to voice their oppression. Protest movements have always been closely linked with music.

Let’s face it, the sounds of Black people are the brick and mortar of what we called, the United States. Literally. The songs enslaved African sang was a driving force for the free labor that built and transformed a young nation into an empire. There is no denying that African-Americans have been the primary influencers of music culture. Face it with genres born of Black misery, triumph, endurance, protest, and expression, we have changed the way the entire world sounds. Undeniably many of these songs were and still are shaped by the fatigue of the constant protest that comes with Black existence.

During the 20th century, many folk and blues artists contributed to the development of the protest song, artists such as Lead Belly and Josh White. Billie Holiday’s 1939 anti-lynching tune, “Strange Fruit” was an important catalyst for the civil rights movement.

So it begs to question, which comes first: the feeling that there’s a problem with the world or the song that voices the pain the problem causes? Either way one thing is clear, it takes a song to move people. Music is a sometimes subtle, sometimes loud and proud way to articulate what is on your mind, and the music that came out of the 1970s is a perfect reflection of what was happening socially and politically in that decade: from soul to punk and everything in between.

The Black children who grew up around “What’s Goin On”, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”, “Little Ghetto Boy”, and “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We Are All Going to Go” would go on to create hip-hop, rap, and contemporary R&B music. Black music has always been gradually becoming more and more blunt. But through the decade leading up to Reaganomics, the bold lyrics of acts like Sly and the Family Stone (“Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”), the Last Poets (“Wake Up, Niggers”), Camille Yarbrough (“Little Sally the Super Sex Star (Taking Care of Business)”), and Gil-Scott Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”) influenced the generation that would influence another.

Those who were toddlers during the L.A. riots grew up through the ’90s. A lot of youngsters barely even remember 9/11, because they were just coming of age during a time a time when Nas said that hip-hop is dead and sparked a debate about consciousness within the culture. Therefore it shouldn’t surprise you to see what’s taking place musically at the many Black Lives Matter protests and rallies around the country, these days The days of turning the other cheek have been replaced by slap me and I’ll slap you back, I don’t care who you are.

This generation of Black protesters singing Lil Boosie’s “Fuck the Police” and Archie Eversole’s “We Ready” in Ferguson is a reflection of the times. This is the inherited defiance of Black power infused with a lack of concern about respectability politics. Young Blacks are realizing that those who hate our Blackness do not care if our pants are sagging or if we’re wearing a suit like Dr. King. They have discovered we can be killed either way. Despite this revelation for some, it still doesn’t sit well with some older Black folks.

The 70s protest movements picked up where the 60s left off, especially in regard to the Vietnam war. Civil rights continued to be a hot button topic, reflecting the ongoing racial tensions of the time. Meanwhile, in music, soul music began to overtake folk as the main genre for promoting social awareness and in the UK the emergence of punk rock provided a voice for disenfranchised youth protesting the status quo.

Critics of the 1980s like to point out the superficial nature of much of the 80s music. But it should be noted that the 1980s was a surprisingly rich period for the evolution of the protest song. Socially conscious rap music emerged as a form of urban folk music, provided a voice for disenfranchised youth. Also on the global front, there was a huge anti-apartheid protest movement that was developing.

Some say that the 1990s was relatively devoid of political and social upheaval and that the music of the 90s was similarly self-absorbed. While protest music existed you had to listen a little harder to hear between the lines, despite during the early 1990s, the golden age of socially conscious hip hop started to give way to more gangsteristic form.

With the events of 9/11 a new chapter of the protest movement was written. Just as protests singers in the past targeted Vietnam & the Nixon administration, during the 2000s, the Iraq war and the Bush administration became the new targets of choice. Album covers like Paris ‘Sleeping With The Enemy’ album, where Paris is hiding behind a tree and getting ready to assassinate President George Bush. Also, just as with past protests songs civil rights continues to be a commonly addressed subject as well.

The 2010s is a decade which has given way to an increase emphasis in social activism. Examples of this include the Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movements, took center stage, along with the speaking out on issues such as climate change and various sorts of inequalities.

Despite this supposed increase in social awareness, many are still asking: where are the protest songs? Who is writing the soundtrack for these movements?

The answer may surprise some. The protest songs haven’t gone anywhere, even if you can not find them on commercial stations ‘Where Hip-Hop Lives’. As always, the underground still is a rich treasure trove of politically charged music, the sad thing is you have to sift through much trash to find it. The modern evolution of hip hop continue to make considerable contributions to the cannon of protest anthems. There are also members of the old guard from the 60s and 70s that are still raising their voices against the world’s injustices.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” are just a few recent musical examples of a rejuvenated young Black movement. These albums and other songs younger Black folks identify with feed protest and rebellion of today. Watching Monáe perform “Hell You Talmbout” you can clearly see she is taking it back to the starting point, the essence of Black protest music. You can hear the civil rights era. You can hear the blues, and even a little gospel.

Bottomline Songs of Protest do not all sound the same, but they do represent the resistance to an issue of the time period the track is made. They are the expression of protest. BW decided to take you on a tour of the sound of black protest now and then. Here is the BW Soundtrack of Protest: 20 Songs that are expressions of bearing witness on behalf of an express cause by words or actions with regard to particular events, policies or situations.

AJ Woodson

AJ Woodson is the Editor-In-Chief of Black Westchester and Co-Owner of Urban Soul Media Group, the parent company, Host & Producer of the People Before Politics Radio Show. AJ is a Father, Brother, An Author, Journalism Fellow (Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism), Hip-Hop Artist - one third of the legendary underground rap group JVC FORCE known for the single Strong Island, Radio Personality, Hip-Hop Historian, Documentarian, Activist, Criminal Justice Advocate and Freelance Journalist whose byline has appeared in several print publications and online sites including The Source, Vibe, the Village Voice, Upscale, Sonicnet.com, Launch.com, Rolling Out Newspaper, Daily Challenge Newspaper, Spiritual Minded Magazine, Word Up! Magazine, On The Go Magazine and several others.

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1 comment

Jean Richardson May 19, 2017 at 4:35 PM

On the last City Council meeting on a December28,2016 a city council person stated there would be three more shooting before the year is out.The questions is how did he know there would only be 3more shooting,before the year is out.If I was talking I would say there would be several shooting. The QUESTION IS HOW DID HE KNOW IF THIS WAS FIX YOU WOULD KNOW,JUST WHATS GOING TO TAKE PLACE.


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