Black Lives Matter: A history of protest music

Music has the ability to transcend time, borders and languages. It has been a form of protest for hundreds of years. Songs have the ability to instigate social change, examine current events and express the grief, rage and hope that characterises protesting. This article examines genre crossing protest music that has emerged from black voices for the past two hundred years in America. 

1800s

Blues music originated in the deep south after the American civil war, a cyclical sorrowful form used to express misery at oppression. It draws strongly on African-American spirituals that detailed experiences of black slaves. Traditionally many of these songs were sung in private, within black communities who held them sacred. 

‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’ is a traditional African-American spiritual, detailing a child that has been torn from their parents. Whilst slavery tore many individual families apart, the song’s duality evokes being torn from Africa, the motherland. Like many other spirituals it was sang without instrumentals, and in 1871 the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a black acapella group, performed it for one of the first times publicly. They toured along the Underground Railroad to raise funds for Fisk University, founded after the civil war to educate freed black people; they also performed in Europe and England. It is an expression of grief, pain and hope that has not lessened over time.

‘Lift every voice and sing’ is another notable song, written as a poem in the late 1800s by James Weldon Johnson, then later set to music by his brother. It is an uplifting call for liberation, that the NAACP claimed as the ‘Negro National Anthem’ in 1919. The lyrics are affirming to read: ‘facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on ’til victory is won’’. Beyonce has recorded and performed her own version, adding rousing percussion and chanting vocals to emulate a call to arms. 

1900s

Protest songs of this period often range from classic blues to country blues – the former drew on jazz with a brass backing, with the latter more folksy with an acoustic guitar.

Louis Armstrong’s jazz-rich rendition of ‘(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue’ in 1929 makes use of brass instruments. He sings ‘cold empty bed, springs hard as lead’, emphasising impossibility of  having comfort, rest or safety as a black man in America. He questions ‘my only sin is in my skin, what did I do to be so black and blue?’. Evoking his skin colour and the sorrow that comes with it, as well as a visceral image of someone bruised and badly beaten by a racial hate crime.

Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ has been described as a declaration of war, that preceded the civil rights movement. It is a haunting ballad addressing the lynching of black Americans, first a poem by Abel Meeropol who based it on Lawrence Beitler’s horrific photograph of a spectacle lynching in 1930. It contrasts ‘magnolias’ and ‘the gallant south’ with ‘twisted’, ‘bulging eyes’ and ‘burning flesh’. Holiday’s performances were characterised by a hushed, reverent solemnity. The existing footage retains a quiet power, as she croons of ‘black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the popular trees’. Her record label Columbia and producer John Hammond refused to record the song, fearing it would be bad for business. When she managed to get it recorded, it became a beacon of growing unrest; anti-racism activists mobilised and sent copies of the song to their senators upon its release in 1939.

More notable songs of this time include Lead Belly’s ‘The Bourgeois Blues’; a swinging song opposing segregation and Jim Crow laws.  Though lamenting his ‘blues’, Belly declares he is ‘gonna spread the news all around’. Josh White’s ‘Trouble’ discusses the racism present in the justice system. A black man is jailed without a trial after being accused of hitting a white man. The jailor says to him ‘in five years you’ll be dead’. Though the song opens with ‘well, I always been in trouble, ‘cause I’m a black-skinned man’ but White ends with the uplifting, repeated harmonies of ‘jail break due someday’.

1960s 

Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ (1964) is upbeat and lively, a self-penned response to the murder of activist Medgar Evers and the Baptist Church bombing which killed four little girls. Her  self-possessed anger contrasts with the jaunty show-like tune, as she maintains ‘oh but this whole country is full of lies’. The song was blacklisted in several Southern states, supposedly because of ‘goddam’ being in the title. Simone performed this at the Selma marches in 1965, with a powerful call and response.

Perhaps the most well-known civil rights anthem is Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. The beautiful orchestral arrangement contains swelling strings, resounding brass and steady percussion. Soulful and sure, Cooke draws on gospel roots as he sings ‘I was born by the river in a little tent / oh, and just like the river, I’ve been running ever since’. The song tells the story of a people, painting a picture across a ‘long, long time’. Cooke only performed the song once in his lifetime. 

James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’ is joyful, funk empowerment. With little melodic variation, rhythm is everything. A grooving bass emphasises the downbeat alongside the call and response with children’s voices. Brown declares, ‘We’d rather die on our feet / Than be living on our knees’. 

1980s 

Rap became the voice of black discontent in America, emerging from reggae toasters, talking blues, spoken gospel and, of course, call and response. Public Enemy’s album Fear of a Black Planet addressed black rights on songs like ‘Fight The Power’ and ‘911 Is A Joke’. Both with Flavor Flav vocals, these songs are sample rich from Michael Jackson, to Eddie Murphy and James Brown’s own ‘Say It Loud’. 

NWA released ‘Fuck Tha Police’ in 1988, addressing the institutional racism of law enforcement. It describes racial profiling and police brutality, the group concludes ‘they have the authority to kill a minority’. NWA received a letter from the FBI that stated the song was ‘degrading and disrespectful’ to police officers. The song was heavily censored, the first and only radio station at the time to play it was banned after a mere six months. The staff played NWA’s ‘Express Yourself’ on continuous loop for the next twenty four hours to protest the decision. 

2000s

Rappers like Kendrick Lamar continued to record politically conscious songs on albums like To Pimp a Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d. city. The chorus of Lamar’s ‘Alright’ has become a popular protest chant during BLM movements; huge crowds defiantly repeating ‘we gon’ be alright’ quite literally in the face of intimidating law enforcement. 

In 2014, Lauryn Hill released ‘Black Rage’, dedicating it to Mike Brown and the protestors in Ferguson. The song heavily samples ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music. The chorus is a dark parody: ‘So when the dog bites, and the beatings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember all these kinds of things and then I don’t fear so bad’. Hill discusses the bodily and psychological violence that threads throughout the black historical experience. She sings hauntingly of ‘black human packages tied up in strings’, evoking images of lynchings as well as being a stark reminder of the objectification and disregard for black bodies.

Beyonce has long used her platform to advocate for BLM, most clear in her visual album Lemonade. She pays homage to those who come before her, dropping in a shot of a Nina Simone record, a newspaper of Martin Luther King titled ‘more than a dreamer’ and a snippet from Malcolm X: ‘the most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman’. At one point Beyonce stands on a sinking police car doing the black power salute. Riot police watch as a young boy dances before them, then raising their hands up as the camera cuts to a spray painted ‘stop killing us’. The mothers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin hold pictures of their sons while gazing into the camera. Track ‘Freedom’ which features Lamar is where Beyonce is most explicit, as she sings ‘Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move, Freedom, cut me loose! Yeah, Freedom! Freedom! Where are you? … I break chains all by myself, won’t let my freedom rot in hell. I’ma keep running cause a winner don’t quit on themselves’.

Joey Bada$$ released Amerikkka in 2017. Like Bey’s ‘Freedom’, Joey uses a running motif on ‘Babylon’ as he sings ‘you better start running, running / Babylon boy them ah coming, coming’. With Jamaican reggae artist Chronixx featuring, Joey references the Rastafarian term Babylon for oppressors. What follows is a soothing escapist tune with a steady percussion and a police siren sample echoing throughout. Joey begins ‘detached from the roots since we set sail, my brothers, that’s word to the motherland, sold us on stolen ground’. He then addresses ‘turn on to CNN look at what I see again: it’s another black man, died at the white hand of justice … you fuckers not protecting and serving, more like damaging and hurting, and letting off shots til you motherfuckers certain he ain’t breathing, you made it clear, ‘fuck your breath *****’, don’t even deserve air. 

He references Martin Luther King, then highlighting ‘fifty years later, still see my brothers choked to death, RIP Eric Garner … nowaday they hanging us by a different tree – branches of the government I can name all three: judicial, legislative and executive’. 

Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ is a sharp juxtaposition of joy and fear, with the harmonic vocals alongside gospel rhythms versus the beat change into a heavy and aggressive bass. The much-analysed accompanying video depicts senseless violence and desensitised dancing, containing references to the use of camera phones given police brutality and the Charleston church shooting of 2015. Gambino sings ‘America, I just checked my following list and you motherfuckers owe me’, a reference to the lack of reparations paid to the African American community. 

You cannot enjoy the rhythm and ignore the blues.”

Amanda Seales

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