Protest music: a history

Historically, the tradition of protest music has been with African Americans since the inception of slavery. Photo by oksublu on and matc on

In light of the Black Lives Matters protests, many artists acknowledged the protests in the only way they knew how: through music. Atlanta native Lil Baby released his song “The Bigger Picture,” which became his highest-charting solo song and earned him a GRAMMY Nomination. 

The song features raw lyrics about the current state of police brutality in America and acknowledges that while progress may seem slow and hopeless, the movement must start somewhere.   

Lil Baby was not the only artist to use his platform as a means of spreading a message.  North Carolina Rapper DaBaby released a BLM-themed remix of his song “ROCKSTAR.” This song would later be the subject of controversy when he recreated the imagery of Derek Chauvin killing George ] for the remix’s music video.

The line “I got power, now I gotta say something” stands out in Lil Baby’s song. The line resonates with the idea that Black artists and celebrities should act as activists for their communities when they reach a certain level of fame. 

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, Rapper Noname called out Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole for their silence on social media.  This statement prompted Cole to respond with a track “Snow On Tha Bluff” in which he attempts to dissuade fans from valuing his opinion too much while subtly taking shots at Noname for allegedly shading him. 

Kendrick Lamar came under scrutiny for his perceived silence, although this died down to a degree when he was spotted attending protests in his hometown of Compton. Still, some celebrities feel that they do not have to speak on the topic at all.

In a 2015 interview, rapper A$AP Rocky talked about how he felt he shouldn’t have to be an activist. “I did not sign up to be no political activist,” he said. “I wanna talk about my motherfuckin’ lean, my best friend dying, girls, my jiggy fashion and my inspirations in drugs.”

There is undeniably a pressure to be an advocate when you have a large enough platform, whether through music or statements made on social media. Musicians have a unique ability to empower communities compared to art forms such as paintings or movies. 

Concerts are an obvious example of this. Strangers of entirely different backgrounds come together to hear music. It is easy to understand why music is a powerful motivational force for movements with that in mind.  

Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged the power of music to support protests about the Freedom songs. ”The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,” he said. “They give the people new courage and a sense of unity.”

Music unites the people, giving it an edge over other forms of art in organizing people. Music becomes a rallying cry for the oppressed.  

Whether it is slaves using songs to coordinate The Underground Railroad or Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” becoming an anthem for Black Lives Matter protests, music’s power to organize is a well-documented occurrence. This history begs the question of what exactly counts as a protest song. 

Generally, protest music is defined as music based on social and political change. They focus on the plights of marginalized groups and bring awareness in a way that other mediums cannot.

Protest songs can be genre-agnostic, but the main point that most protest songs have in common is their timeliness and relevance. Obviously, in times of economic prosperity and relative peace, protest songs just aren’t coming out. 

Unlike other forms of music, protest songs practically need some sort of conflict or strife to exist. Otherwise, it’s not protesting anything. Times of strife breed protest, and every protest needs an anthem.  

Historically, the struggles of Black Americans are a source of very many protest songs, and this trend continues in the present.  During the Civil War era, slaves used songs as a means of remembering their history after white people forcibly ripped it from them. 

Escape methods were another popular theme in these early protest songs. “Wade in The Water” is one of the most famous examples of these, with it allegedly being used to direct slaves to start traveling in the water to avoid being caught.  

Protest music would continue to be made well into the 20th century due to the prevalence of the Jim Crow era and all the various baggage that came with it. In the late 1930s, Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” arguably became the defining protest song of the early Civil Rights Movement. 

It drew attention to the pandemic of lynchings that occurred in the South. The subject matter would lead companies to ban the song from the radio, and Holliday’s record label tried to prevent her from recording it. 

With harrowing lyrics such as “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,” “Strange Fruit” became a rallying cry at the blatant miscarriage of justice that ran rampant in the southern states.

The 1960s are associated with protests due to the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War happening simultaneously. This atmosphere led to a surge in the amount of protest music. 

The Civil Rights Movement was composed of freedom songs. Not only did these songs promote union, but became the anthems for those protesting. 

Sonically, the freedom songs derived much of their content from spiritual hymns and church songs. “This Little Light Of Mine” is an example of a song originating as a gospel song transformed into a piece to rally against injustice.

Researcher Julia Katzman acknowledged the power of the freedom songs in an article published by Boston University.

“Because of segregation, blacks were systematically separated from being in communion—in community—with whites. So, music was important for creating a community,” she said. “It may or may not last, but it is a very powerful feeling, and it comes from singing and listening to music in a [profound] and meaningful way.”

Around the 1980s, the contemporary face of protest music emerged from rap and hip-hop, with anti-government sentiment charging Hip-Hop. 

Songs like “Fuck Tha Police” painting a critical image of African American relations with the police. Public Enemy’s aforementioned “Fight the Power” is an anthem opposing the oppressive government powers from an African American perspective.

Nowadays, protest music is still heavily associated with hip-hop and rap more than any other. “Alright” is the archetypal protest song of the 2010s, its chorus being an anthem for protestors everywhere. In an incident where a police officer attempted to arrest a 14-year-old-boy for allegedly carrying alcohol, protesters started chanting the song’s chorus when the boy returned into his mother’s custody.

The producer behind “Alright” Sounwave did not expect the song to become a protest song. “I didn’t expect ‘Alright’ to be the protest song,” he said. “But I [knew] it was going to do something because the time we’re living in made it the perfect song.

Music has the power to empower communities, and nowhere is this more authentic than its usage in protests. Protests elevate music from mere art to a rallying cry for the oppressed to push for legitimate change. 

Protest music gives voices to the voiceless and combines with music’s ability to unite others. It creates connections that might not exist otherwise.