Music has been a channel for expressing emotion, thought, and perspective for as long as it has been around, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that music and politics have been for centuries.
Protest music in the U.S. got its start, as expected, during the Revolutionary War. “Free America” was a hymn written by Joseph Warren as a call to action to American soldiers, warning them not to let America meet the same fate as Athens and Rome. “Yankee Doodle,” sung by British soldiers to mock their opponents, was co-opted ironically by American soldiers and remains one of the most well-known children’s songs today.
The Civil War saw its own share of protest music, like “John Brown’s Body,” a marching song sung by Union soldiers about abolitionist John Brown and his execution at the hands of Confederates. There were, of course, peace songs, like Will S. Hayes’ song “Let Us Have Peace” and “The Last Fierce Charge,” by Warde Ford, but more often than not these songs expressed frustration rather than hope.
The first widely known protest songs, however, came from enslaved African American people. They were most often hymns, or spirituals, with themes of escape, used as an opportunity for gathering and community. The lyrics of “Go Down, Moses” told the story of the Israelite’s escape from Egypt and resonated heavily with the slaves struggling for freedom and equality. It’s even said that Harriet Tubman used this song as a code during her operation of the underground railroad, containing instructions on where to meet, go, and how to escape.
The genres of Jazz, Blues, and Soul were pioneered by young black communities, taking many elements from gospel music and the hymns sung by the enslaved people. One of the most notable examples of protest in Jazz is Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a haunting song about lynchings in the South. Her song proved, for perhaps for the first time, that protest did not have to be propaganda but could function as art in and of itself. Nina Simone sang “Mississippi, Goddamn” about the bombing of an Alabama church, which went on to function as an anthem for civil-rights activists at the time. Marvin Gaye and Sam Cook both wrote politically charged songs of their own during this time. It was hard not to – their entire lives were political by nature.
The advent of electronic music recording propelled folk to the forefront of the American consciousness during the Great Depression and World War II. Woody Guthrie, quite possibly the most famous folk artist of them all, wrote songs like “This Land is Your Land” – a direct response to the overplaying of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” – and “Ain’t Got No Home.” A few decades later came Bob Dylan. Although he attempted to distance himself from the role of a political leader, his songs were used throughout the nation by civil-rights and Vietnam War protesters. Woodstock, dubbed a festival of “3 days of peace and music” was a festival entirely of and for the counterculture generation, with many artists, like Joan Baez and Janis Joplin, using their stages to speak out against events at the time.
Although the American political climate had cooled significantly in the years after the Vietnam war, protest songs were now being written about broader discontent rather than singular issues. Artists like Green Day and Bright Eyes railed against the Bush administration and the Iraq War. Rage Against the Machine sang about colonial sentiments in modern America, while bands like The Dead Kennedys sang songs about the rising Neo-Nazi movement.
In the ’90s, the Riot Grrrls yelled in defense of young feminists everywhere, and although the movement fizzled out by the turn of the century, their legacy can still be seen in feminist bands today.
Rappers in the ’80s and ’90s, like Tupac and NWA, wrote songs that denounced the police brutality they saw so often in their neighborhoods. Public Enemy wrote “Fight The Power” about the continuing civil rights struggle.
Today, with the rise in popularity of social media, it’s easier than ever to share protest songs. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” (which is being played at Black Lives Matter protests to this day), A Tribe Called Quest’s “We the People,” and Beyonce’s “Formation” are all fantastic examples of the way that social media alone can drive the popularity of this kind of music. It isn’t just the Black struggle – Lady Gaga wrote “Born This Way” as an anthem for the LGBT community, which itself has a long and rich history of using music to speak about the cause.
Contemporary protests (such as BLM demonstrations) still use call and response chants to rally themselves, just as was done decades and centuries before. Bands and artists are speaking out against the use of their songs in political campaigns that they don’t align with, lending weight to the idea that music and politics are, at least in part, intertwined. Even having a seemingly innocuous song aligned with a certain party makes it political, and with the ability for videos to go viral overnight, artists are having to watch out for any tacit endorsements they might be making.
In this day and age, our lives are hardly unpolitical as they are. If you have a cause that you’re passionate about, music could be one of the most natural and impactful ways you have of making a statement – there are already scores of albums being released about the experience during quarantine and the feelings arising from that. There’s no way to know what the politics of the future may bring about in the music world (and vice versa) but at least we can be certain it will matter.