My mother-in-law loves protest music. She lamented to me over Chanukah that it seemed like people didn’t make protest music anymore. What did she mean?
My mother-in-law is thinking of a specific era of protest music, American folk music like Peter Seeger’s “Solidarity Forever” (it was originally written in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin). She’s probably well acquainted with or would love Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black”, but she probably wouldn’t think of Green Day’s American Idiot the same way.
In some ways, I can sympathize with my mother-in-law. As Lindsey Ellis points out in her video essay, “Protest Music of the Bush Era,” there was a strange absence of protest music during the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, America became more jingoistic and when the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks) made a comment dissing then-President Bush they were almost immediately barred from radio play and never really regained steam.
Protest music didn’t disappear, it spread through the most culturally relevant medium available: social media.
But what my mother-in-law fails to realize is that while songs like “Fortunate Son” will forever be associated with the Vietnam War in part thanks to films about that war using the song, the lull in protest music didn’t last forever. In 2011 Keny Arkana released “La Rage” which circulated over social media. With the Internet overtaking the radio, platforms like Pandora (and later Spotify) gave us a new way to interact with music. Gone were the days of requesting a favorite track that maybe the radio DJ would get to in an hour or two, now everyone could listen as often as they wanted.
Then came “Black Rage” by Lauryn Hill in 2014 and the Wondaland remix, “Hell You Talmbout” in 2015. Protest music didn’t disappear, it spread through the most culturally relevant medium available: social media.
The problem is that social media can be as insular or expansive as the individual user wants it to be. Each platform allows people to selectively curate what shows up on their feed. This can mean there’s a limit to how much exposure someone like my mother-in-law might have to viral protest music. For younger generations, the solution might be to find new friends and groups to be with, but what can be done for our aging population who may not be as acclimated to connecting with movement music on social media?
For now, it is important to remember that while protest music may not sound the same as it did in the 60s, the protest music hasn’t stopped and there are still plenty of things to protest. It’s hard to say what will be remembered as the music that was emblematic of the Ferguson protests or the Minneapolis protests and subsequent global protests. We shall see.
Furthermore, it’s important not to think of protest music as only an American phenomenon. Ireland, for example, has a long tradition of Irish rebel music including “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” or “The Foggy Dew.” In Germany, there was “Deutschland”; South Africa had “Soweto Blues”; protest music exists across the globe.
In parting, I would like to remind folks that the idea that when things get bad, “at least the protest/punk music will be great” isn’t the consolation that’s meant by the sentiment. Protest music comes about because of great tragedy and genocide, such as the South African Apartheid. It’s the same insensitive sentiment as when folks would say, “We survived Reagan” or “We survived Bush, we’ll survive Trump.” Many won’t.
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