This is the followup article to our other research piece: A Brief History of Socially Conscious Protest Music
Written by By Brett Stewart
Message In The Music
In 1963 in Montgomery, Alabama, word had gotten around of a new pastor in the area. The Staple Singers, headed by their father, Pop Staples, had already begun to make a name for themselves in the music industry. These soulful crooners were tapping into the best elements of gospel, making the genre exciting and accessible for audiences around the nation. That evening in Montgomery, however, was about to change the trajectory of the Staple Singers.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pop Staples hit it off from the moment they met. Upon returning home, Pop announced to the family that he was compelled by the Reverend’s message, and if King could preach that message, they could most certainly sing that message. Thus, the Staple Singers embarked on a journey through the United States, and history, with Dr. King. They helped raise funds, they drew attention to the movement, and above all, they ‘took us there.’
How did the Staple Singers take us there? Well, their involvement with Dr. King sparked a tonal shift for the group. They consciously diverted away from gospel and directed their efforts toward soul with a very important message – Dr. King’s message. Songs like ‘I’ll Take You There,’ ‘March Up Freedom’s Highway,’ and ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad’ lent a constructive and anthemic voice to the civil rights movement.
This is my favorite example of music inciting social change. Music is an entity that can’t write legislation. It can’t make laws and force people to abide by them. It can, however, change hearts and minds. Dr. King understood this, and so did the Staple Singers. In order to even get within reaching distance of changing laws, you first had to change the way the country felt about race. The songs of the Staple Singers humanized the black movement, providing a stark contrast to more aggressive voices the likes of Malcolm X or the Black Panthers. ‘I’ll Take You There’ brought both black and white under one umbrella. That’s some powerful stuff.
The impact of the Staple Singers has lived on far beyond their tenure as some of the greatest American musicians. Mavis Staples, the lead of the Singers, has been taking audiences there for over sixty years. She packs Lollapalooza and major festivals at the age of seventy-six singing those songs. That’s because those songs have resonated like a call to action through each and every generation that followed. From the Band, to Bob Dylan, to modern acts like Wilco, Mavis Staples captures the best of creativity and musician’s hearts.
That’s why the Staple Singers were such an important part of Dr. King’s movement. They bridged the gap between white and black, finding commonality through music. The same can be said for another aforementioned hero of the civil rights movement,
Bob Dylan. Dylan understood how to change hearts and minds, too. That’s why a twenty-one year old white Jewish boy from Minnesota penned some of the finest civil rights ballads ever. Even though he wasn’t persecuted himself, he understood and bled for the plight of the movement.
(In fact, Dylan’s musical understanding of the civil rights movement was so full, it drove
Sam Cooke wild, the previous generation’s ‘voice.’ Cooke wanted to be the one to write
the civil rights song of the era, and Dylan ended up doing that with ‘Blowing in the Wind.’ Fortunately, Cooke wrote his rebuttal into an equally fine civil rights era track, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’)
Bob Dylan and the Staple Singers, while perhaps the most enduring, weren’t the only voices of social change in the 60s. The Beatles tried their hand with ‘Blackbird,’ Pete Seeger unified audiences with ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘If I Had A Hammer,’ and the Impressions penned the pinnacle ‘People Get Ready.’ That song has been revitalized and repurposed through every single social movement since its release. The 1960s were a time of change, and that change wouldn’t have come without that music. That music changed hearts and minds, and that’s the most important aspect of inciting change.
60’s-70’s: War, Violence, Protests
The 1960s is pretty easy fodder for social change within music as a result of the civil rights movement. So, let’s take a decade by decade look at the roots of social change via music. The 1970s continued the trend of the 60s, though the songs were centralized around different issues. The very late 1960s into the early 1970s saw a massive musical shift toward anti-war music. Everyone from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Buffalo Springfield penned tunes about Vietnam and unnecessary war.
In the grand scheme of the late 60s and early 70s, it’s important to note the reason this music became so influential. For the first time, music was more accessible than it had ever been. Countless television programs and specials showcased bands and artists. More so, that same media allowed the American public to actually see what war and racism looked like. Songs like ‘For What It’s Worth’ became the soundtrack to that.
Toward the mid 70s, music stagnated a bit in regard to its social relevance. This is widely because of the singer songwriter movement. The country was so burnt out of war, violence, protests, and the like, that musicians had the same mentality as their generation: let’s go home and tend our gardens. Thus, the songs were introspective in nature, which is a huge contrast to the commentary-infused songs of the previous decade. This is when artists like John Denver and James Taylor reigned king.
Now, with that said, there were still songs latched onto social commentary. Bob Dylan continued to drive it home with tunes like ‘Hurricane’ and even artists like Rod Stewart tried their hand at making a social point with tunes like ‘The Killing of Georgie.’ Hell,
‘The Killing of Georgie’ is a commentary that remained relevant all the way up until our legalization of gay marriage just this year. (And it will remain relevant as long as we deal with gay-hating. But let’s get into that later.) Onto the late 70s!
The late 70s were fortunate in that the singer songwriter, meandering introspective era was beginning to be worn thin. Thus, it was time to address some other social issues. In comes punk and new wave. For punk, pioneer acts like the Sex Pistols arose from the flames of the late 70s. For new wave, acts like the Talking Heads were re-purposing civil rights era tunes like ‘Take Me To The River.’
Let’s talk about the Sex Pistols. This article has been primarily focused on the United States, but let’s direct our gaze overseas toward Great Britain. In the latter part of the 70s, the Conservative Party began their longstanding reign in the United Kingdom. The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, was Prime Minister over a decade. This era is a bit of a double edged sword – the UK was tough on the Soviet Union and proved a valuable ally to the States, but the Conservative Party was widely hated for its part in the decimation of the country’s lower class.
Thus, the Sex Pistols emerge. In 1977, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’ was released. The only record to ever be put out by the Sex Pistols, this album reigns supreme as one of the most controversial albums ever. Songs like ‘God Save the Queen’ incited social change throughout the UK. The lower class was sick of the monarchy and they were sick of being exploited economically.
“You don’t write a song like ‘God Save the Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up with being mistreated.” That’s what Johnny Rotten said in regard to the record. The Pistols weren’t the only band to express these sentiments. Elvis Costello hammered into his hatred for the Iron Lady with ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’ and the Clash turned into what the Sex
Pistols would have been if they had stuck around a few more years. Thus, the entire landscape of popular music in the UK was shifting around a social message: the proletariat was done being mistreated.
Now, I may be late in this preface, but in order to analyze the impact music has on social culture, I would need a book’s worth of pages and a very large pot of coffee. Or four. So with that said, I’m digging into the most notable examples – the civil rights movement, the anti-Conservative UK movement, and now another, Jamaica. Let’s talk about Jamaica.
Let’s Talk About Jamaica
In 1973, one of the best records of all time was released as a soundtrack. ‘The Harder They Come’ was the music for the film of the same title. On this record, Jimmy Cliff wrote now-standards such as ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ and ‘The Harder They Come, The Harder They Fall.’ In Jamaica during this time, there was civil unrest of a massive magnitude. War, economic turmoil, and complete distress plagued the country. The music that helped incite good vibes to turn that around? It was Jimmy Cliff’s.
It wasn’t just Jimmy Cliff’s, though. The Black Jamaican Bob Dylan reaches his prime in the same year: Bob Marley. Songs like ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ and ‘Redemption Song’ became anthems of the disenfranchised. In fact, Marley was the one man who was able to bring the leaders of both political parties together in peace. It wasn’t like the United States where we shake hands and glare into each other’s eyes – they were more likely to shoot one another than shake hands.
The music Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley were peddling was reggae. Now, why is reggae so good for inciting social change? Well, it’s actually quite amazing. Reggae is the folk music and the gospel music of Jamaica. Rastafarianism is a religion, and reggae taps that religion in its music. More so, that music reflected the social injustice and chaos of Jamaica, just like folk music in the 60s. One could most certainly argue that music was the most instrumental (no pun intended) force in uniting Jamaicans and creating peace in the country.
Now, we talked about the Sex Pistols in the late 70s and their impact on social change in their country. It’s important to note that the band opened the floodgates for punk. Punk, a phenomenon that remains prominent to this day, was essentially started by the Sex Pistols. Communities stateside embraced the genre to the extreme, especially in areas like New York and Washington DC. Bands like the Replacements and the Ramones became a voice to a new generation, an angry voice at that. These bands laid the foundation for punk, grunge, and even some rap.
80’s-90’s: Giving Voice To A New Generation, an Angry Voice
Throughout the 80s, punk became the primary catalyst for socially and politically conscious music. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you had the idiocy of hair bands and music the likes of Bon Jovi and KISS. Sorry Bon Jovi fans, but the music you enjoy has never been accused of being overly socially relevant. Or relevant at all. (#notsorry.)
Punk harnessed the feeling of a generation sickened by that kind of music. It was rebellious music that youth moved toward, like all rock and roll, really.
Then in the late 80s, early 90s, grunge began to appear on the heels of bands like the Pixies. You could argue that 1989’s ‘Doolittle’ was one of the major catalysts for grunge. Grunge was born out of a generation that felt discontent for the world they were inheriting. The tail end of Generation X embraced punk acts as a salvation from sensationalism.
One of the most enduring lines of John Lennon’s career is ‘give me some truth.’ The line, and the song, remain as poignant today as they were when Lennon penned them. In his later years, Lennon felt frustration with both American and British politicians and their inability to be honest and authentic. That’s how the grunge generation felt about their elders: they just wanted some truth. Lennon was the man to give truth to his generation. For grunge, that was Kurt Cobain.
The fact the Kurt Cobain is immortalized as a songwriter and performer is very telling in regard to his relevance. He was objectively as important as John Lennon, and just like Lennon’s death shattered the world in 1980, Cobain’s did in 1994. Why is Kurt Cobain, an angsty twenty-seven year old rocker, equally as important as John Lennon? Well, let’s dig into what his music meant.
There’s a reason Nirvana was and is still the most important grunge band of all time. Cobain was real – he was giving truth. The songs are about pain, heartbreak, drugs, internal demons, mental illness, and so on. They connected with their generation because they echoed the concerns and plight of that generation. Cobain was writing relatable songs about things that kids were struggling with. That’s real and can never die, and thus why Nirvana will always be the pinnacle grunge group, and the group that incited the most social change within the genre.\
You Are Not Just DOING Hip-Hop…
Before we jump forward to modern day, what would an article about social change in music be without hip hop and rap? In the late 80s, the same problems that plagued the nation in the 60s rearose. Race riots, police brutality, and violence became commonplace once again. Hip hop rose out of those ashes, with groups like Public Enemy and NWA writing about the social plight of the black man in America.
There’s a misconception, typically among white people, that gangster rap, or rap in general, is endorsing a gangster lifestyle. In fact, it’s somewhat the opposite. This music was a reflection of the neighborhoods these artists lived in and the problems that were destroying them. Neighborhoods like Compton in the late 80s looked more like battlegrounds than suburbs. NWA in particular harnessed this frustration, especially
in regard to the police with tunes like ‘Fuck the Police.’
In 1989, Spike Lee released a film called ‘Do The Right Thing,’ with music by Public Enemy. The film was a commentary on the racial conflict in neighborhoods like Watts or Compton, and the big hit single, ‘Fight the Power,’ arose from it. That
anti-establishment message was one of dismay and frustration in the black community. They wanted a country that cared about the tragic landscape of their communities. Songs like these became the anthem of that movement, exposing the harsh realities of the conflict to the rest of the country.
Hip hop has been particularly exceptional about exposing social injustice over the years. From Grandmaster Flash to Kanye West, it’s been a genre so chock-full of social commentary over the last thirty years, that it may even reign as the most important modern expression of social change through music. Hip hop in a modern perspective is very similar to its roots, too.
Perhaps the reason hip hop has come full circle to its roots is because the catalysts for that music have come full circle as well. Over the last few years, our country has been divided by the mistreatment of innocent black citizens. From the killing of Trayvon Martin to the killing of Eric Garner, brutality within the police force and between whites and blacks has expedited.
Where Do We Stand Now
Just this year, Kendrick Lamar put out a superb record commentating on these issues:
‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. Even Public Enemy felt the need to return to the studio to pen songs about these injustices, which resulted in this year’s ‘Man Plans God Laughs.’ Last year at the Oscars, ‘Glory’ won the Oscar for best original song for a motion picture. John Legend and Common articulately and eloquently utilized that song to draw remarkable parallels between the civil rights movement and Ferguson. Macklemore won a Grammy the year before for an album featuring ‘One Love,’ a song humanizing and embracing the gay community.
So, where do we stand now? Well, each of those songs, and every single other song I’ve referenced in this article, have lead the charge of social change. In 2008 we elected our first black president. Politics aside, that’s progress that was most definitely incited by the songs discussed here. Let’s bring it back to the root of this article: Dr. King’s changing of hearts and minds. Songs like ‘One Love’ helped change hearts and minds about the LGBT community. ‘Glory’ drew undeniable parallels between past and present that made us sickened at our own turmoil.
Music is entirely universal. Since it’s universal, it’s always the basis for changing those hearts and minds. Without those songs, Jim Crow laws may have never fallen. Without those falling, we never would have had the society we have today. Social progress is very slow change, and for every step we take, we take a half-step back. Music is the undeniable constant in all of that – through gospel, blues, folk, punk, rock, hip hop, rap, and every other genre. As long as musicians keep doing what Dr. King taught, that’ll never change. The next Staples Singers, the next Sex Pistols, the next Bob Dylan, and the next Chuck D are all around the corner. And their job, just like those before them, will be to keep changing hearts and minds.