From “Yankee Doodle” to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” music has always acted as a vessel for change. Melodies can be more than just pleasing notes — they can have the power to function as rallying calls as well. Similar to protesting, music is meant to be heard, and both practices draw on the innate human need for connection. From this, an important question arises: How has protest music changed throughout American history, and why has music historically been such a powerful tool for social change?
From African Shorelines to Red Coats
Music lies just below the surface of American history, subtly acting as a catalyst for change and a chronicle of the effects. One of the first instances of American protest music predates America itself, originating in the 13 Colonies: “Yankee Doodle.” What began as a simple tune soon became one of the most famous songs in the Western world and a hugely recognizable symbol of American patriotism.
It is believed that “Yankee Doodle” received its famed lyrics from a British doctor, Richard Schuckburg, during a time of increasing turmoil between American colonists and their British rulers. In 1755, Schuckburg penned the song’s mocking lyrics to the widely used tune to ridicule the increasingly restless 13 American Colonies. Words like “Doodle” and “Yankee” caused quite a stir in the 18th century: They roughly translate to “hick” or “uneducated” in 21st century terms, and highlight the increasingly unfair power dynamic between the colonists, who were viewed as uneducated and inferior by many British aristocrats, and the continental British population.
This jeering song came at a time of great turmoil; the French and Indian War had just started, and American colonists were beginning to grow tired of higher taxes and fighting in service of Great Britain without representation in Parliament. As the conflict came to a boil and the beginning of the American Revolution neared, “Yankee Doodle” and its accompanying lyrics shot to popularity, much to the chagrin of the colonists.
During the Battle of Lexington and Concord, reports say that the British Red Coats mocked the greatly outnumbered colonists by playing “Yankee Doodle” before the fight began. However, to the surprise of the British, the American colonists emerged victorious and officially ignited a war that would eventually defeat one of the world’s biggest superpowers and allow the colonists to claim independence. As a sign of triumph, American soldiers played “Yankee Doodle” as the Red Coats fled back to Boston.
Most American colonists lacked the education or means to express their concerns through written word, such as literature, so music was the best way to spread their message and connect to other colonists who felt neglected by the British Monarch. As the war raged on, the once mocking song became a rallying call for disgruntled colonists. What once began as a satirical musical piece soon turned into a powerful uniting force. The song came to represent colonists’ frustrations with being treated like second-class citizens and their deep desire for freedom. While the lyrics were originally meant to humiliate, they now stood for a new age of patriotism.
While “Yankee Doodle” was one of the first instances of a song being used to promote a political movement by White colonists in the U.S. — in this case, independence from Great Britain — it was not the first song of this sort in North America.
From the moment that enslaved people were forcefully brought to the land that would eventually become the United States, music accompanied them. As chattel slavery stripped enslaved peoples of their culture and bodily autonomy, music and hymns existed as the only surviving ties to a homeland many kidnapped African people would never return to. As centuries passed, the songs from West African shorelines, which utilized iron bells and drums, transformed into Negro spirituals. These songs, disguised as gospel hymns or storytelling songs, sent signals for escape and warnings about slaveholders and the Underground Railroad. As the ratification of the 13th Amendment brought about the end of legal slavery in 1865, these integral Negro spirituals transformed into jazz and blues.
While the 1920s brought glitz and glam for America’s elite class, Americans of color were suffering from various forms of racial discrimination, such as sharecropping and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. In the hopes of escaping the crippling discrimination, over six million Black people left the South, in what became known as The Great Migration. From 1910-1970, many of these people went to Harlem as part of “The New Negro Movement,” or what would later be known as the Harlem Renaissance. From their lived experiences grew a collective of writers, artists, and musicians stationed in Harlem, New York City. These artists created a new form of music with syncopated beats and enticing rhythms in the inner sanctum of 1920s Harlem: blues music. After building new lives in unfamiliar cities, many Black folks created communities through music as a way to feel connected and seen.
Blues music focused on the struggles of Black Americans. From overworking to police brutality, Black folks used blues as a vessel to tell their story. The wildly addictive tempo of blues spread its melodies far beyond Harlem, reaching the ears of many White Americans who had not before interacted with the Black struggle. Songs from Billie Holiday highlighting the horrors of lynching found popularity even outside of the Black community. Lyrics like “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” from her hit song “Strange Fruit” told the story of racially motivated lynchings in southern states. Even though the song was banned in the South, it would go on to sell one million copies and reach the ears of many White Americans in the North.
For the first time in America’s 400-year history, Black artists found fame and were cast in a positive light in the mainstream media. As a result of the newfound spotlight, racial discrimination was thrust in front of White Americans and would become a starting point for the civil rights movement. Although the Harlem Renaissance ended with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, its impact resonated for generations. Eventually, its legacy became the precursor to the American civil rights movement.
Fighting for Civil Rights: The 1960s
220 years after the Revolution, Americans still used music to protest the powers that be. This time, however, they were protesting the American government itself.
The 1960s were full of turmoil and victory. The highs and lows were captured through various forms of nonviolent protest, one of which was music. Songs like “We Shall Overcome” by Pete Seeger, a gospel song that encouraged civil rights workers to continue to fight for equality, and “People Get Ready” by The Impressions, a tune that inspired American citizens to join the civil rights movement, were used to motivate and unite Black protestors while sharing the story of the Black struggle with their White counterparts.
In an interview with the HPR, Trey Carlisle, programming director for Music in Common, expressed that music was so integral to the movement because “during marches like the Selma to Montgomery march or during the protests folks would engage in, Black and white folks and folks of different religions were singing the same songs together during their marches to not only uplift their spirits, but also expressed their collective calls for change.”
The songs often heard during civil rights protests drew inspiration from the Negro spirituals sung by enslaved people. While the two time periods were separated by almost a century, the struggles of the singers were eerily similar. In fact in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait,” he expresses that he and his fellow civil rights activists “sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that we shall overcome.”
Furthermore, music served as a way to activate many Black people who were previously uninvolved in the civil rights movement, especially in the Deep South. While many Black folks did not have true access to their constitutional right to vote due to discriminatory tariffs, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses, they did have access to churches.
The Black church was at the forefront of civil rights negotiations. Preachers and pastors like Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy became the face of the movement. In these chapels, songs of freedom and grace rang out, and with them came a new wave of Black activism. Many of the churchgoers had been denied access to a platform to share their struggles, but the gospel songs were a chance for them to share the dimensions of the Black struggle and Black joy.
Radical Rap: Hip-Hop in the 2000s
As the civil rights movement gained recognition and power, tangible solutions began to develop, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However racial discrimination in the form of redlining — the process by which banking institutions denied home and business loans to Black people by categorizing areas with a large community of Black people as unsuitable — and police brutality continued to persist. And while access to voting and civil liberties increased tenfold, Black Americans were still left in systemic poverty by the 1980s, partially due to the “War on Drugs” and the mass incarceration that plagued Black communities. In response, one of the most famous and recent instances of music being used as a vessel for politics emerged: hip-hop.
The genre of hip-hop can be traced back to militant spoken-word groups such as The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets. Rap, which grew from the culture of hip-hop, emerged in predominantly Black communities with high levels of violence and a lack of resources, such as safe housing and healthy food, to express the struggles around race and racism that had developed in the 1970s, especially for Black youth.
Thanks to artists like DJ Kool Herc and Sugarhill Gang, rap became an American staple. Though rap added a new flare to music with its steady bass and talking-like flow, it still drew heavily from Black protest music of earlier decades. In an interview with the HPR, Carlisle described rap in the 1980s and ‘90s as a “reimagining of the music and the essence of ‘60s and ‘70s music in their current context.”
Rap is arguably one of the greatest exercises of the First Amendment in the past few decades: Its speech, especially in the early days, was opinionated and represented a large group of society that, at that point, wasn’t represented in the mainstream media. 1980s and ‘90s rap talked about the “War On Drugs,” police brutality, and the lack of government support for the Black community. Tupac Shakur’s song “White Manz World” resonated with the youth of Black communities, as Shakur rapped, “Only thing they ever did wrong was being born black in this white man’s world.”
A New Age of Protest Music
As political turmoil continues to grow in the U.S., there are musicians and musical organizations working to highlight social movements. One of these groups is Music In Common. Todd Mack, the group’s founder, expressed in an interview with the HPR that the organization’s goal is to “strengthen, empower, and connect communities through the universal language of music.”
In an effort to connect community members with a variety of backgrounds, Music In Common travels across the country with their program, the Black Legacy Project. From Los Angeles to the Mississippi Delta, the group works with local artists to perform songs that are important to Black history. They “bring people across racial divides, and use historical Black songs as the talking piece to help inspire conversations around race relations in the U.S.,” Carlisle explained to the HPR.
Community-led projects and grassroots music movements like the Black Legacy project have become the new voice of politically charged music. Mack told the HPR that he’s been inspired by “the depth of empathy that the project has cultivated within White people by helping deepen their understanding of Black struggle or Black joy.” Through music, communities that were separated by race, religion, and politics can find common ground.
Not only are there musicians working to preserve the history of protest music, there is a new wave of musicians creating it. In an interview with the HPR, Austin Sawyer, who writes and performs music under the stage name Drumming Bird, said that he was inspired by messages hidden in songs like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in America.” He wanted his song, “American Spirit,” to be about “something timely,” intending it to combat the “Christian nationalism which has started to reach a boiling point in the country.” Sawyer believes that music is powerful because the act of listening to it “is opening yourself up for an emotional response.” He continued, “if you can use that emotional response for a protest song, it works well.”
While a look at history uncovers the many ways in which music has been used for social movements, it still remains a powerful tool in the present day. In the words of Trey Carlisle, music is “a universal language. It’s a way that we’re able to speak to our interconnectedness as a world and it’s deeply connected to our emotions.” Music has drastically changed from the days of “Yankee Doodle,” but the underlying sentiment remains the same — our voices are meant to be heard and our stories are meant to be seen.