In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the many other names now permanently seared into America’s collective memory, I felt a strong sense of responsibility toward my friends and community this year. I wanted to contribute in any way I could to help bring an end to the injustice exposed before me. In my hometown and throughout the country, the collective resistance of the Black community and allies could be heard echoing through the streets from an omnipresent series of daily demonstrations. Through my participation and observation of the events that unfolded this summer, many of my long-standing views on racial justice and social reform radically changed. I also developed an intense and newfound appreciation of music as a powerful force to advocate for social change.
In every rally I participated in, alongside chants from sweat-drenched protesters and honks of solidarity from passing cars, I heard beautiful music radiate from the crowd.
The musicians at these protests weren’t receiving a paycheck, they didn’t perform on a stage, they worked with modest equipment and they were full of youthful energy. The music created was spontaneous, unscripted and democratic. Often, a random musician would pull out an instrument and play along, and the music they created always had an electrifying effect on the crowd, motivating them to fight harder. In a sense, I felt as if this is how music was always supposed to be: a communal process with little boundary between musician and audience. More than any other concert hall or mosh pit, being in the streets with these musicians was the most connected to music I had ever felt.
Of course, music as an act of protest is not even close to a new phenomenon. Virtually every major cultural and political shift in modern history has been accompanied by a rich musical culture. From the pro-labor folk of Joe Hill, the emancipatory soul of Curtis Mayfield, James Brown and Nina Simone, Creedence Clearwater Revival and their monumental “Fortunate Son,” the feminist punk of Riot Grrrl, to the powerful anthems against police brutality from Kendrick Lamar, N.W.A., and Lil Baby, protest music is an integral fiber woven into the soul of the American activism.
My first experience with protest music was when my dad gave me his old record collection. Among the dusty boxes of warped vinyl, sandwiched between albums by The Commodores and Hall and Oates, was an album that changed my life. It was the revolutionary album Fear of a Black Planet by Public Enemy. I played that album on repeat on my record player, memorized every word and absorbed every note. This album led me down a well of discovery of provocative activist artists and educated me on a variety of issues which helped shape my emerging worldview.
I blasted To Pimp a Butterfly in my room, made Rage Against the Machine covers with my friends and immersed myself in the protest music genre, but it wasn’t until the recent BLM protests when I gained a proper appreciation of the power of protest music; the music left Spotify and the studios to take to the streets. Suddenly, the message behind the music I listened to because I thought it sounded cool came into clear focus.
Masses of people chanting Kendrick in the streets after witnessing police misconduct. Local buskers providing a marching call to protesters. High profile musical celebrities performing demonstrations at music festivals.
Protest music sets itself far apart from all other genres of music as it personifies an authentic emotional outcry to the injustices musicians witness in their communities. In doing so, it creates a strong rallying point for like minded activists to band together and fight for what’s right. It introduces the public to radical thought and amplifies the fears and hopes of the oppressed masses.
Protest music is not simply a response to the rapid political shifts in recent times — it is a driving force to help enact the change this country needs. Protest musicians are interwoven into the movements they fight on the front lines for. As the raging flame ignited in the summer begins to dwindle, we should be conscious not to forget the lessons learned. Now that I more fully understand the power of protest music, I plan to more effectively wield it to enact the change I want to see in society.
Daily Arts Writer Kai Bartol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.