Power to the People: The History of the Protest Song

Music and politics have always gone together. Artists have always used their work to protest and to heighten our awareness of social injustice, anger and oppression. ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday protested the horrific racism endured by African Americans at a time when lynchings had reached a peak in the Southern states. Traditional Irish music is synonymous with protest, from the Wolfe Tones, to the Cranberries. Even the national anthem is rooted in protest music. In Britain The Clash and the Sex Pistols rose to fame by using their music to protest Thatcherism, race, social conformity and the Crown. Towards the end of their career together, The Beatles began voicing their anti-war views, with John Lennon being especially vocal. His songs ‘Imagine’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance’ are both regarded as anthems of the anti-war movement.

For many, the era most synonymous with protest music is the Vietnam War era from the late 1950s until the 1970s. Bob Dylan famously used his music to tap into what an entire generation was feeling during that time, with ‘Masters of War’ often regarded as the best protest song ever written. The final question posed in his 1963 song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘how many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died’ captures the growing anger and outrage at the casualties of war, and the growing social movement of pacifism and hippie culture. ‘The Times They Are-a-Changin’ perfectly encapsulates that shift from conservatism and repression to a freer, youth orientated culture, which openly questioned the validity of war and military intervention. The Vietnam War era saw a surge in musicians using their platform to protest, as did the Civil Rights movement spearheaded by Dr Martin Luther King and others.

From its genesis in New York in the late 70s, rap music has always been a vehicle for political protest. ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is one of the earliest examples of rappers using their music to shed light on the reality of life in urban America, a reality which went ignored under the Reagan and Nixon administrations. It gives you a glimpse at the hopelessness and abandonment felt by those living in a rapidly decaying and worsening urban landscape, and at their anger towards the establishment. Public Enemy’s ‘Fight The Power’ is a rallying call to action, demanding that the marginalised communities stand up and reclaim their power from the establishment. N.W.A‘s ‘F*ck Tha Police’, which caused outrage when it was released, protests the racial profiling, intimidation and brutality of the LAPD, and managed to incur the wrath of the FBI. N.W.A consistently used their music to reflect the reality of their neighbourhoods and the injustice and marginalisation faced by those living in the black neighbourhoods of South LA.

21st century artists haven’t exactly been shy about expressing their political opinions either. The Black Eyed Peas ‘Where is the Love?’, The Gossip’s ‘Standing In The Way of Control’, and Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ are all overtly political. Green Day used their music to call out US President George W. Bush and the Iraq war with ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ and ‘American Idiot’. As the Trump presidency, Brexit, the Syrian Refugee crisis and the homelessness crisis here continue, I can only imagine that the voices of dissent will only get louder.

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Aoileann Kennedy |  Music Editor 

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