The Protest Song: A Perspective
In 1939 Billie Holiday penned ‘Strange Fruit,’ a song that went on to become a rallying cry for the persecution of black Americans for years and years to come. One of the darkest songs ever written, directly responding to the lynchings that were happening in the country at the time, Holiday was able to capture a feeling that was held nationwide throughout the black community. This was a protest song directly addressing a systemic horror head-on and putting it to stark music. It is almost impossible to not emotionally resonate with and has immense staying power over 80 years later.
The modern sounds of what we know as jazz came out of the bebop period. In the 1930s, jazz sounded much more in line with what is now considered big band music. These pieces were large, ornate, and were often played by black performers in clubs where they were not allowed to be patrons. A sense of discontent for the obvious disrespect and position they were given eventually gave way to bebop. It was the opposite of big band jazz in every way. Played in smaller groups, much longer pieces, much faster, and overall much more difficult to listen to, it was uncompromising and focused on the individual performers in a way that big band jazz simply wasn’t at all. Better yet, it started in clubs where the musicians were allowed to play their music their way – and they never took requests. This is part of where the idea of the “cool” jazz player comes from: a musician who wears sunglasses inside and hardly ever says anything, appearing totally unconcerned with their surroundings save the music they’re playing.
Although it was not explicitly political and involved no words at all, bebop was protest music. For black musicians, this act of musical defiance was a watershed moment in proving that action could be taken to make things better and that individuality could be reclaimed. Bebop still remains one of the most classic forms of jazz music, a type that became associated with intellectualism and upscale city life, which was ironic given the root circumstances surrounding its creation. Black musicians have seen their music stolen and co-opted for all of American history, the genesis of rock n’ roll being a perfect example. Yet bebop remains unquestionably a form of black music that defied what people wanted black Americans to be and progressed the march of civil rights that we see fully in motion today.
Fast forward to the present day and the protest song has morphed into an essential staple of the music world. In times of political unrest and uncertainty, it seems to be the only thing on people’s minds when it comes to new art put forth.
On June 2, 2020 Run The Jewels released RTJ4, their fourth album and their first to crack the Billboard Top 10. Released in the middle of the largest civil rights protests the world has ever seen, the album is perhaps the most relevant music on earth at the moment. The duo consists of Killer Mike and El-P, two hip-hop veteran masters who have been around for decades, and aims to evoke images of political revolution and rejection of the establishment: political leaders who are in it for nothing but themselves, the malicious forces that may or may not be behind the curtain controlling those politicians, cops who murder people in cold blood under the guise of protecting citizens, corporations who monetize empathy and people’s weaknesses.
All of these seem to be alluded to in almost every single song, sometimes indirectly, oftentimes very directly. Images of burning things down, rioting, stealing in Robin Hood terms, and more dot the imagery of Run the Jewels musical landscape. The most recent album, complete with these strong ideas, includes features by Pharrell, 2 Chainz, scene veteran DJ Premier, Josh Homme, and, unsurprisingly, frequent collaborator Zack de la Rocha, the frontman of political rock band monolith Rage Against the Machine. This is to say nothing of other collaborators over the duo’s body of work such as Danny Brown, Big Boi of Outkast, Kamasi Washington, Gangsta Boo and even Vermont Senator/presidential contender Bernie Sanders, whom Killer Mike actively campaigned for and who returned the favor by filming the intro for the duo’s 2016 Coachella performance.
Run The Jewels don’t exist in a vacuum, and that’s one of the points they make: that widespread change involves bringing in everyone. Run The Jewels aren’t necessarily mainstream, but certainly idea of an album with that sort of content being accepted and celebrated as widely as it is at this moment in history may have seemed somewhat absurd in a different time. But, yet, here we are, and protest music seems to be not just en vogue but absolutely essential during the period we all find ourselves in. Countless artists have ditched their release schedules during COVID-19 and instead have found themselves putting together protest songs in response to the George Floyd revolution. Many of these actions are not necessarily new behavior – social and political advocacy have always been a part of the musical landscape – it’s just that the priority has shifted to it being the number one thing on everyone’s minds. And rightfully so.
Too often does the term “protest music” conjure up a very specific set of checkboxes that need to be ticked. References to Pete Seeger’s ‘We Shall Overcome,’ Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the Greenwich Village scene during the 1960s civil rights movement are imagined instantly by almost anybody in America when they hear those two words together. But, as our bebop friends can tell us, music doesn’t have to even have to have words to be an act of dissent. It doesn’t have to be loud and forceful like Rage Against the Machine or System of a Down either. The historical landscape of American music can teach us that any form of music can be used to tackle issues head on – it is how the music is used to do so that’s left to the artist.
In terms of unprecedented activism, it’s worthwhile for any musician to examine their personal values and how advocacy fits into it – and if it doesn’t at all, perhaps reflect on if that’s something to reevaluate. Truly, not everyone needs to write music that’s explicitly political. Celebrated songwriter Nick Cave recently reflected on these developments and his relationship with protest music by saying “Personally, I have little inclination to [write a protest song]. It’s just not what I do.” And that’s certainly fine, not everyone does. But, at the very least, the relationship between music and activism is worth examining if not for your own artmaking practice, but to understand your fellow artists even more so while understanding the power music has to make an impact.
– Grant Simmons, Community Manager & Blog Contributor