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A black and white photo of Billie Holiday onstage, singing into a microphone.

May – Week 1 – Protest Music

It’s a new month, which means it’s time for a new topic. And for many reasons, I decided that this month I’m going to do a dive deep into the history of protest music. I’ve always said that art can change the world, and I truly believe that. Art can be fun and entertaining, but it can also illuminate, scrutinize, and criticize the status quo. It can bring important issues to the mainstream, it can educate, and perhaps most importantly, it can change minds. For good or bad. That is why art is so important. In all its forms.

I considered a lot of different mediums for this month’s deep dive, but I chose music because of its pervasive influence. A stirring song or a powerful anthem can go around the world in a way that other art forms simply can’t. A three minute song is infinitely more accessible than a book or movie, and music permeates an average person’s life in countless ways. Music has the power to move people, both figuratively and quite literally, and it has been moving people into action for centuries.

This past week I listened primarily to protest songs by Black American artists. First up, I read about the seismic cultural impact of “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. About how this was the song that brought protest songs into the realm of popular music. About how it wasn’t propaganda or a call to arms, but rather a harrowing social commentary, and how it was so controversial at the time, Holiday could only sing it as the last song of her live shows out of fear of retaliation from the crowd.

I then listened to “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone and marvelled at the fiery passion in her voice. I finally properly listened to the lyrics of “War” by Edwin Starr, despite having heard this song countless times in the past. And I listened to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron, “A Change is Going to Come” by Sam Cooke, “When the Revolution Comes” by The Last Poets, and “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” by Tracy Chapman, and wondered how on earth I’d ever gone this long without hearing these classics before. I also listened to “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar and “The Bigger Picture” by Lil Baby and wondered how it is possible that from “Strange Fruit” to today, we’re still fighting the same fight against hate, discrimination, and oppression.

There’s so much more to discover in the history of protest music, because sadly, there doesn’t seem to be an end to the things we need to protest against. But if history is any indication, musicians will continue to create the songs that will inspire us to keep fighting for generations to come. Amen to that.

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!