Protest music has always been a staple in the progression of soul music. From spirituals with hidden codes and messages during slavery, to jazz tunes like Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit”– a response to the tragic legacy of lynching—music has often been the sometimes subtle, sometimes powerful voice of the people, illustrating discontent with the current construct of society.
The Rise of Protest Music in the 60s, 70s, 80s & 90s
In 1964, singer Nina Simone performed the song “Mississippi Goddam” in front of 40,000 people at the end of one of the Selma and Montgomery marches during the civil rights era. Nina Simone had been very vocal about her political leanings and had written the song in response to the shooting of Medgar Evers and the killing of four little Black girls in Birmingham, Alabama. This song, along with her songs “To Be Young, Gifted & Black” and “Four Women” were popular songs in the wake of social justice civil protest.
After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and our country’s attempt to enact equity across racial lines, social protest waned a bit within the music sector. But, not for long. Popular acts like James Brown released powerful songs of protest and triumph like the 1968 “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud”, followed in 1969 by the Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong song “War”, written for Edwin Starr as a searing response to the Vietnam War.
This soul song, with its shouted refrain and aggressive tone easily became one of the most popular protest songs of all times. Songs like “War” made it possible that in 1971, Marvin Gaye released the album What’s Going On–an album laced with public commentary and intensity, told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the States and disenchanted by the injustice he sees around him. A unique concept album, hits included the epic title cut and the classic “Mercy, Mercy Me” which, to this day, speaks to relevant themes and issues.
The 70s were rich with artists speaking out through their music—from Gil Scott-Heron and Aretha Franklin to Lou Bond and Fela Kuti. Through the 80s, artists like hip-hop’s Public Enemy, Ice-T, and N.W.A to popular pop artists like the late Michael Jackson used to protest vital social ills. In the 90s, hip-hop artists like Tupac touched upon social issues with songs like “Brenda’s Got a Baby”, as did the eclectic group Arrested Development with their songs like “Mr. Wendal”, but brazen protest music was definitely on a decline as the new millennium approached.
Fast-forward to the new millennium and our political and social arenas are fraught with even greater issues that impact the majority of Americans, from the very poor to the middle class. With high unemployment rates, bank bail-outs that have done little for the working class, and colossal foreclosures leading to catastrophic homelessness, today’s state of affairs are overdue for a collective protest soundtrack.
Is Protest Music Undesirable?
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The reality is that mainstream soul music artists just aren’t crafting songs of protest as those in earlier decades may have been more eager to do. However, there are a few. Contemporary soul singer Raheem Devaughn is one of a handful of mainstream acts stepping up to the plate. Naming Marvin Gaye among his vocal idols, in early November DeVaughn released his mixtape Freedom Fighter, which he made available on Bandcamp for free download. Including tracks from his 2010 Grammy-nominated CD The Love and War Masterpeace as well as a few unreleased tracks, Raheem DeVaughn covers a wide range of topics with a consistent theme of protest. He told the Huffington Post, “Up until this point in my career, I’ve been adamant about making message music. I always had that socially conscious undertone and overtone in the music,” he continued. “So what better platform than to put my walking shoes on and not just talk the talk, but walk the walk?”
Walking the walk may be the hard part for some performers today who are striving to become part of the 1% of wealthy people in the US with whom those in the protest movement—the 99%–are discontent. Natalie Maines of the country music group The Dixie Chicks–who was vilified in 2003 for speaking out against then-president George W. Bush–said in a 2006 interview with Public Enemy front-man Chuck D for MTV, “After what happened to us, it gave people that idea: ‘We know what happens to you if you don’t like the president. You lose lots of money in album sales, so I’m going to speak to the people who do like him, and then I’ll make lots of money,’ ” she said.
So whether it’s fear of losing album sales, ignorance of some of the serious issues that are plaguing our society, or just an overall disinterest in performing music that would be considered protest music, soul music has definitely fallen short, as of late, with being the leading genre of music that provides the people with protest songs to revitalize the movement for public freedoms. But, Raheem Devaughn says he will push on, even alone, if he has to.
“People are taking a stand. It’s a movement going on in D.C., New York, out west, like worldwide, Boston; it’s going down man. People are tired of being tired. And it feels like a voice needed to be heard…If nothing more, I want to create the soundtrack, create the vibe and the energy and give them good spirits, and make sure people are getting the proper nourishment. …I’m all in.”
Are there soul music artists out there making protest music that you listen to? Leave your comment in the comment section.
-Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman