The Return of the Protest Song

6 minute read

In 1964, Bob Dylan, author of the early-1960s protest anthem “Blowin in the Wind” and one of the most celebrated political singers of his generation, explained to critic Nat Hentoff that he no longer wished to be known as a protest singer. In his words: “Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore – you know, be a spokesman. From now on, I want to write from inside me.” He insisted, “I’m not part of no movement.”

Dylan’s turn from political songs to ostensibly more personal ones not only marked an important moment in his career, but also anticipated the commercial backlash in the 1970s against music that explicitly aligned itself with the Civil Rights Movement. In contrast to his ongoing success in the following decade, other singers that we associate with the protest song tradition like Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln, often found their careers stalled and record companies refusing to work with them. While the post-1960s did not necessarily mean the death of all protest music in the United States, it did mark the rapid decline of what many fondly refer to as “movement music.”

That is until now.

Over the last few months, thousands of protestors have taken to social media and the streets in response to the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the subsequent grand jury decisions to not indict the police officers responsible for their deaths. Hailed by some as the birth of a new civil rights movement, these activists are now part of a decentralized campaign – with protest all over the country and under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” – demanding an end to institutionalized racism in general, and police brutality against African Americans in particular. And like the previous Civil Rights era, its soundtrack distinguishes this movement. Young musicians, some famous, others grassroots are finding their role in this movement through a simultaneous revival and redefining of the protest song tradition.

In the immediate hours after the Ferguson grand jury decision to not indict Darren Wilson, hip hop artist Killer Mike’s speech publicly rebuking and mourning the death of Brown went viral. However, the vast majority of artists have stayed true to their musical form. For example, after his visit to Ferguson this past summer, rapper J. Cole released “Be Free,” a song that NPR’s Ann Powers tweeted was, “The first fully-formed protest song I’ve heard addressing the death of Mike Brown. Evocative of Nina Simone.”

During that same time, hip hop artist Lauryn Hill—even more frequently compared to Simone—released “Black Rage,” which she dedicated to the protestors in Ferguson. Even though began performing the song on her 2012 tour with Nas, she wrote on her website that that the tune was “An old sketch of ‘Black Rage,’ done in my living room. Strange, the course of things. Peace for MO.” Staying in the tradition of John Coltrane’s famous cover of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” Hill uses the melody of that song but changes the lyrics to describe a litany of racist experiences that African Americans continue to endure the United States. In this sense, she also follows the path of Simone’s famous “Mississippi Goddam,” a song that undercuts the light-heartedness of its show tune arrangement in order to launch trenchant racial critique.

In some ways, it makes sense for hip hop artists to shape their music to our new political moment. Famously described by Public Enemy’s frontman Chuck D as “Black America’s CNN,” it is an artistic form whose roots are highly political. But one of the biggest musical surprises of the year was also one of our most timely: the release of soul singer D’Angelo’s Black Messiah – his first album of new material in fourteen years. Set to come out in early 2015 by RCA, D’Angelo pushed up the release date specifically because he wanted to address the grand jury decision in Ferguson. “The one way I do speak out is through music,” D’Angelo told his tour manager, Alan Leeds. “I want to speak out.”

A booklet at the album’s listening party described the meaning behind the title, Black Messiah: “It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen. It’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them.”

But it is there – on the streets and amongst the thousands – that we can actually hear the ultimate protest song. Much like the demonstration-style songs sung by the SNCC Freedom Singers as part of their sit-ins and marches, the Peace Poets, an interracial collective of poets, penned “I Can’t Breathe” to be performed during rallies. The simplicity of the song not only makes it easy for the everyday protestor to pick up immediately and repeat in march after march, but the very presence of the song indicates that we are in the midst of a movement in the making, one that needs its own voice and accompanying songs.

In December, Roots drummer and in-house member for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon Questlove wrote on Instagram, “I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in … I really apply this challenge to ALL artists. We need new Dylans. New Public Enemys. New Simones.” He went on, “Songs with spirit in them. Songs with solutions. Songs with questions. Protest songs don’t have to be boring or non danceable or ready made for the next Olympics. They just have to speak truth.”

Since then artists like Alicia Keys have released the video “We Gotta Pray” and just this past Sunday, Common and John Legend won the Golden Globe for their song “Glory” in the movie Selma – a song that quite consciously merges the protests in Selma with those in Ferguson. And in the same spirit of collaboration, another song quietly appeared on the Internet this week. One that is even more poignant because of its deeply personal nature. In memory of Eric Garner, his daughter Erica and family member Stephen Flagg recorded “This Ends Today.” In the song, we hear Garner’s final words “I Can’t Breathe” looped throughout – making it both an elegy and anthem for a country desperately in need of change.

Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the non-profit, A Long Walk Home. This piece originally appeared on New America. Follow @New America on Twitter.

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