The Sounds of Protest

Songs set the tone. Lyrics and beats set the mood. The Sound of the Times have been used to express opinions and feelings in difficult times. Protest songs have been important to Blacks since our struggle began. No matter if it was slavery, human rights, civil rights, wars, lynching or police brutality, we have expressed feelings in songs.


June is when we commemorate Black Music Appreciation Month (the decree first issued by President Carter in 1979), one cannot forget the songs and artists that made political and civil statements through their music. Hot summers, punctuated with violence in the streets, the assassination of beloved leaders, even the anxiety caused by deaths from and seemingly endless wars.

Fifty-eight thousand young Americans lost their lives in what many felt was a waste in Vietnam.  The angst of missing sons and daughters from communities.  Fathers and mothers brought home in flag draped caskets. TV nightly news showed endless images of coffins being carried off planes. Whatever the event, songs, even it’s rhythms expressed powerful feelings. Many feel that the lives in conflicts since World War II were all wasted. Arguably no war since World War II was fought with a country that attacked the United States. Sept 11th attakers used Afghanistan as a base of operation, it was America’s longest war. The Civil rights Movement stirred similar passions.

Watching dogs in Birmingham attack peaceful demonstrators, State Troopers attack peaceful marchers, even churches were bombed. The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed during Sunday School.  Killing 4 little girls. To sooth the pain or to express the pain music helped. Music sometimes told the stories in a way newspapers couldn’t.



james-brownNearly a century after the Gettysburg Address (1863) and the War Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (amendments 13, 14 & 15), the constant onslaught of degradation and the relegation to second class status for black people didn’t slow. In the South, horrible treatment of blacks accelerated after federal troops were removed ending the Reconstruction Era. W.E.B. Dubois recounts in his book “Souls of Black Folks”, walking pass store front businesses, in Atlanta, that displayed parts of black men’s bodies that were recently lynched and dissected. Displayed as trophies.

Public humiliation by law enforcement was the life Black folks lived, it continues today (Stop & Frisk). Even with the unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1954,  Brown v. Board of Education, found that separate public facilities, especially schools, was inherently unequal. However, school boards throughout the South took nearly 20 years, fought several legal and community challenges to stop the integration of schools.  Some school districts created private schools and abandoned public education, just to avoid integration.  It was the humiliation and disrespect for many that drove some to express feelings in song. Take James Brown, he said it in song. “I’m Black and I’m Proud”. Only someone as talented and determined as James Brown could say what he felt without fear of what it would do to his career. He even refused to perform at segregated venues.

“Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968).

SayitLoudI-album“I say we won’t quit moving
Til we get what we deserve
We’ve been buked and we’ve been scourned
We’ve been treated bad, talked about
As just as sure as you’re born”




The disrespect for ones religion also reached the Supreme Court. In the case of The United States v.  Muhammad Ali. Ali refused to respond to the draft board’s call to enter the U.S. Army. It was Ali’s contention that the Vietnamese hadn’t treated him like his own countryman here in the United States. Edwin Star’s, “War” (What is it Good For?), the anti-Vietnam protest song (originally a Temptations song), let everyone know in emphatic terms, that the United States was wasting the lives of soldiers in a futile effort to combat the growth of communism. Our government felt China had too much influence in southeast Asia. We now trade with and consider Vietnam a friendly country. China is our largest trading partner and holds trillions of dollars in american debt. It remains a communist country. Edwin Starr (Born Charles Edwin Hatcher ( in Nashville, Tennesse), sang with Motown Records beginning in 1968. His powerful rendition of the anti-war song, “War”, (1970) reached number 8 on Billboard’s Hot 100.


edwin-starr-album-cover“Oh war, is an enemy to all mankind
The thought of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest within the younger generation
Induction, then destruction who wants to die”





Black Music Appreciation Month would be incomplete without mentioning some of the other powerful Protest Songs.

  • “Lift Every Voice and Sing”; a Black American anthem written by James Weldon Johnson
  • “Strange Fruit”; sung by Billie Holiday protesting lynching.
  • “Oh Freedom”; sung by Odetta
  • “A Change is Gonna Come”; sung by Sam Cook
  • “Respect”; Aretha Franklin
  • “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me”; sang by Marvin Gaye
  • “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”; by Gil Scott-Heron
  • “Fight The Power”; Public Enemy

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Movements for social change are often associated with to songs. Sometimes it’s the song that triggers the memory or rallies like-minded protesters. The celebration of African American Music Appreciation Month wouldn’t be complete without the somber, sometimes uplifting songs of movements help cope with the hardships Black Americans face.






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One Comment:

  1. Protest songs are often sad. They bring back tough memories. But struggles are what define us. We have survived everything. Songs help us get through.

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