Music has always been a tool of protest, but who defines what protest music is or what songs should be heard? We talked to Kate Seeger, the niece of famous activist and folk singer Pete Seeger, who is also a musician and activist herself. In response to this question, she offered, “there’s less music in some ways [today] as classic protest songs go, but there’s lots of call and response stuff, lots of spoken word stuff, lots of slam poetry […] that is being used at protests.”
Every great movement of the past has had great protest songs accompanying it—music is as much a unifying force for people and movements as it is accessible, comforting, and often public. Thinking about protest music, there are the obvious artists or songs that come to mind, like the song “We Shall Overcome.” The lyrics “We are not afraid today/Oh, deep in my heart/I do believe/We shall overcome, someday” have spoken to generations of people fighting for their beliefs.
Tufts University instructor Katherine Swimm, who teaches an Ex-College class called Power, Performance, Protest: Women and the American Political System, takes interest in exploring how performance and social movements interact. Swimm takes this a step further and defines the act of protest itself as a type of performance.
“Performance can be anything as long as there is an audience and a performer,” she said. “There is a group of people who are doing an action together in an effort to create a certain effect. [Protesting…] is about people getting together and using their bodies and their voices as a mechanism of sending a message.” Protests inherently push against rules. In the case of protest music, the music itself can be used as a tool to bring people together and make a statement. Musicians have been pushing boundaries in this way for years.
Throughout the most important movements in the past, certain artists have sacrificed part of their presence in the mainstream to make their opinions heard. Nina Simone was not only active in the Civil Rights Movement, but her music and activism were intrinsically tied together. In “Mississippi Goddam” she sings, “Picket lines, school boycotts/They try to say it’s a communist plot/All I want is equality/For my sister, my brother, my people, and me.” She wrote this song in reaction to the 1963 killing of four young Black girls in a church bombing in Birmingham, AL. Many believe that Simone never reached the same level of superstardom as other Black women singers of her generation—such as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, or Whitney Houston—because of her political outspokenness.
Dr. Kerri Greenidge, director for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts, elaborated on the role of music during the Civil Rights Movement. She emphasized that influential music at the time was largely “rooted in the African American church… and those churches had a long history of using hymns from the early 19th century.”
She also discussed the persistence of these songs throughout time. “A lot of the music that we now think of as protest music, like ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ ‘Amazing Grace’ … have their roots in West African Culture.” She noted that many of the protest songs of the Civil Rights Movement were songs that had been sung for generations before.
Folk music also played an important role in activism in the 1960s and 1970s, around the time that Pete Seeger was an important folk artist. He famously sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” an anti-war song protesting the Vietnam War, and popularized other songs with political messages like “Solidarity Forever,” a union song which asks, “Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?/For the union makes us strong.” Later, in the late 80s, Tufts University Alumna Tracy Chapman wrote “Talking ‘Bout a Revolution,” which highlighted issues of poverty she was aware of at the time. She sings, “Poor people gonna rise up/And get their share/Poor people gonna rise up/And take what’s theirs.” Her song did not reach the same level of usage as the protest songs of the 60s, but it explicitly called out the harsh realities of the time in an open and unapologetic way.
In contrast, the songs performed today at large protests such as the Women’s March or March for Our Lives, often fall in line with songs like “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten. The difference is that Platten never had any intention of being political in her art, and never explicitly references social issues in her music. Because her song keeps more people comfortable, it is a departure from the history of typical, more narrative music that has been used as protest. These types of songs represent a larger imbalance in contemporary protests. On one hand, it is important that these gatherings are bringing in many people who have not previously participated in civil disobedience, but on the other, many are frustrated by what they see as “surface level protesting.” The range of music that goes along with these protests, from tame to more radical, reflects this struggle to find a balance. In an interview with Dean Spencer, husband of Kate Seeger and an accomplished musician and activist, he asked: “Do you have to sacrifice your political existence to succeed economically?”
Although the true protest music of today may seem more under the radar, it very much still exists. However, its new wave of artists has been kept just outside of the mainstream. For example, in Donald Glover’s “This is America,” he raps, “Look how I’m livin’ now/Police be trippin’ now.” Similarly, in Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” he makes a powerful statement about Police brutality with the lines, “And we hate po-po/Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’.”
These songs have reached fame among teens and young adults, but they have not reached mainstream success comparable to other major hits. “This is America” went spectacularly viral, but its radio airplay was unusually low. Similarly, these songs are not present at popular political movements in the same way that less political songs like “Fight Song” are. For example, at March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., some big-name White artists such as Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande were present, while other Black artists who had been talking about gun violence for years before the march were not. This is not to say that there is no room for artists like Cyrus and Grande in activism, but they should not be the only voices.
Additionally, songs like “Fight Song” have reached mainstream recognition under the vague guise of empowerment. What sets Glover and Lamar’s songs apart is their refusal to stay silent about the institutions oppressing them—they inevitably cause controversy in a way that mainstream pop songs do not. It is time that this era of protest music intentionally encompasses all voices. It is time we lean into discomfort and appreciate protest music for what it must be: pervasive and catalytic.