The Contemporary Protest Song: Three Musicians Making Waves
“Music can change the world because it can change people.” - Bono
Music has always been a powerful tool for social commentary and galvanizing action over injustice, often without institutions’ approval. If there is any proof of the resilience of the protest song tradition, it’s “Mississippi Goddam”, written by Nina Simone, one of the mothers of jazz and the civil rights movement, whose music was banned in many US states in the 1960s for its activist nature. More recently, in the wake of Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the importance of protest music as a form of activism is increasingly undeniable in light of recent events with rampant police brutality in the United States and political tension in East Africa.
Here are three musicians who take on the themes of black resistance, women's empowerment, queer identity, and cultural diversity in their music. Their musical endeavors and public personas are true demonstrations of brave leadership.
Solange Knowles debuted her singing career in the early 2000s, with pop-infused R&B. She’s gained notoriety since the 2010s for breaking out of the commercial R&B mold, addressing political topics and collaborating with like-minded artists.
Her latest album released this year, A Seat at the Table, is an exploration of the shared history of oppression faced by African-Americans. Its content, curation and visual elaboration highlights the complex nature of the current cultural climate in the US; evoking issues of systemic racism and profiling, but also paying tribute to Black resistance and pride.
Her song “Rise” is a call to action against the police killings in Ferguson and Baltimore. With “Don’t Touch My Hair,” a collaboration with the artist Sampha, Solange addresses the “Other-ing” of many African-Americans in mainstream white culture. Trauma is a big theme in her album. But it is also accompanied by songs and interludes of empowerment and self-care. “F.U.B.U” is an homage to black heritage and Knowles’ personal ancestry.
When asked about black empowerment in an interview for The Fader, Knowles stated: “I don’t think everyone needs to be out here with pickets and signs and protesting; maybe their form of that is going into their office every day and standing firm as a person of color. We just have to be sensitive to each other and not criticize people as much as we do because their truth isn’t our truth, or they aren’t in the same place on the journey as we are.” She clearly has a strong sense of the importance of unifying people in a social movement regardless of protest strategy choices. Her lyricism transcends revolts and summons unity of cause and community of changemakers.
Meklit Hadero is an Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter based in San Francisco, California, who uses everyday sounds to create and cultivate cultural diversity in politically-torn East Africa. Described by the San Francisco Chronicle as an an artistic giant in the making, she combines New York Jazz, Ethiopian sounds, and West Coast folk, and weaves a story of multiculturalism in her five albums. More recently, she worked with Eli Crews (best known for his work with tUnE-yArDs) and also explored more funky grooves with an Ethiopian tune "Kemekem" ("I Like Your Afro!").
Nature, language and silence are all cornerstones that Hadero plays with to express the synergy of music making and immersion in the world. Exemplifying how we are predisposed to co-creation, she samples birdsong, which is an integral part of music itself in Ethiopia.
In her TED talk, she adamantly encourages: “Study music, trace your sonic lineages and enjoy that exploration. But there is a kind of sonic lineage to which we all belong. So the next time you are seeking percussion inspiration, look no further than your tires, as they roll over the unusual grooves of the freeway, or the top-right burner of your stove and that strange way that it clicks as it is preparing to light. When seeking melodic inspiration, look no further than dawn and dusk avian orchestras or to the natural lilt of emphatic language. We are the audience and we are the composers and we take from these pieces what we are given. We make, we make, we make, we make, knowing that when it comes to nature or language or soundscape, there is no end to the inspiration -- if we are listening.”
In 2011, she started the Nile Project, a residency project where eighteen musicians from seven Nile countries met to create a body of music together. She realized that it was easier for immigrant musicians to have access to a variety of cultures through music in the East African diaspora, than in their own countries in East Africa along the Nile. The project soon birthed questions of transforming cultural curiosity into political understanding, as musicians from the eleven Nile countries, sharing the same water source, started sharing and redefining their musical identities.
The Nile Project is now focusing on the theme of “Food Sustainability” with a program that supports Nile Basin university students in designing and implementing sustainable and community-driven solutions to food injustice. The program provides the students with skills-based training and collaboration opportunities with nonprofits and grassroots organizations.
Hurry for the Riff Raff
Hurry for the Riff Raff is a New Orleans blues-folk music collective that has carried on the Americana protest folk tradition, evolved from Woodie Guthrie’s iconic work. The lead singer is Puerto Rican Alynda Lee Segarra, who learned how to play the banjo in Louisiana after leaving the Bronx when she was a teenager. Her bandmate Yosi plays the fiddle. They claim protest music is in resurgence: "My musical heroes always were people who used their music as some form of political protest," Segarra told Mother Jones.
But if protest music is back, they are bringing a new tone addressing LGBTQ rights in their collection of six albums: "You don't see a Puerto Rican girl play the banjo in a honky-tonk very often. You don't see a transgendered drummer/fiddle player very often. It's awesome. I think it's powerful that we'll play songs with the Tumbleweeds and show publicly that we accept and love each other as musicians and people. I hope that kind of acceptance and respect is contagious."
In 2016, American society is still not a fully safe space for LGBTQ communities. “Body Electric” is a song that reminds its listeners of violence experienced by these communities, people of color and women today, and serves as a protest anthem. The video for the song picks specific imagery to re-appropriate representations of classicism in a political context. Botticelli’s statue of Venus is replaced by the performance of transgender artist, Katey Red.
Songwriting and musical performance are forceful tools for political, cultural and sexual empowerment. They reveal musicians’ craft in the creation of one of the most effective weapons of resistance and display of bravery: art.
This article was written and edited by Jessica Newfield.