Songs of Protest: From Bob Dylan to Beyonce

 "The Steel City Jug Slammers" performing at The Brooklyn Folk Festival April 6th, 2018

"The Steel City Jug Slammers" performing at The Brooklyn Folk Festival April 6th, 2018

 

With the midterm elections taking place later this year, people are taking their grievances to the street in the form of protests. Visions of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated 50 years ago, and the Civil Rights Movement immediately come to mind.

In 1964, Bob Dylan, known for leading protest movements through song, explained to critic Nat Hentoff: “Me, I don't want to write for people anymore—you know, be a spokesman. From now on, I want to write from inside me. I’m not part of no movement.”

Whether Dylan was part of any protest movement can be debated. But it’s no question how influential music has been in social movements over the last 50 years.

Before “F.D.T” by YG, Dylan was protesting the many political and racial inequalities that plagued American society. Before Dylan, Joseph Warren was singing “Free America” as a call to action.

 July 2, 1963: Bob Dylan at civil rights gathering in Greenwood, Mississippi singing 'Only a Pawn in Their Game.

July 2, 1963: Bob Dylan at civil rights gathering in Greenwood, Mississippi singing 'Only a Pawn in Their Game.

Indeed, in the age of President Donald Trump, many still are making songs from the heart meant to rally people behind a common cause.

“We spoke up because no one else was speaking up. That's what rap is made for,” rapper YG told the Los Angeles Times, after his song “F.D.T” was released in 2016.

Folk music was the star of music for protesting and it certainly is not the end.

“[Folk music] is the original pop music, between protest songs and heartbreak, it is telling a story,” said Ricky, member of Alabama folk band “Steel City Jug Slammers,” which performed at the Brooklyn Folk Festival in April.  

Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” for the first time in 1939, protesting American racism. Now people are influenced by Beyonce at Coachella, when she sang last weekend at coachella, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” written in 1905 by  J. Rosamond Johnson. Dubbed America’s “Black National Anthem” at the time, it was made the official song of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Although the performer may change, the message stays relevant.

“It is Americana. It is roots music. It gives you a base of everything that we listen to now and where it came from,” said Washtub Jay, another member of Steel City Jug Slammers.

Protest music has not disappeared, but rather taken different forms over the years. Tupac came out with the song, “Trapped” in 1991 protesting police brutality. Before him, J.B. Lenoir wrote “Alabama Blues” in 1965 protesting the same issue.

“We have always included protest songs in the Brooklyn Folk Festival, as a way to tell the story of the people's struggles,” said Lynette Wiley, a co-founder of the Brooklyn Folk Festival.

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Black protest music has also been influential in this generation with albums coming out from Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Solange Knowles, and recently Childish Gambino’s “This is America” released in the beginning of May 2018.

“Out of all the protests, I would say the protest led most by artists is the Black Lives Matter Movement,” said Mariana Pimiento, a sophomore at The King’s College involved in human rights advocacy.

Though music changes throughout the decades, the reason behind it remains the same: to pass along a voice.

“At the end of it all, whatever we do, we are always fighting for the equality and dignity of human beings, and we see this even in music,” said Pimiento. “It is a simple idea.”