A Musical Protest Movement

Protest movements do not have a definite formula. From the labor workers’ rights strikes beginning in the early 19th century to the nonviolent protests utilized by Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., people have protested against injustice using a variety of techniques. However, one of the most dynamic and effective methods of social protest, especially for African Americans, is music. Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century with W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, emphasized in the final chapter titled “The Sorrow Songs” – music began to hold political power. W.E.B Du Bois writes:

“They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways” (Du Bois 207).

The spirituals, Du Bois’ Sorrow Songs, were just the beginning of a new kind of social protest movement – focused around black music. The reasons for the effectiveness of this method are encapsulated in Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison’s Cambridge University Press article “Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing tradition in the twentieth century”:

As with the folk music tradition, it has been in the wake of the movements, after they have faded away as active political forces, that the music has diffused into the broader culture and changed popular mores and tastes; even more than has been the case in the folk music tradition, black music has served to keep alive the continuing discourse of black consciousness, that particularly double, or duel identity, that has been such an important part of twentieth-century American and Atlantic cultural experience” (78).

This musical manner of societal protest has endured and can be seen in the cultural movement of hip hop. Recently, Duane Lee Holland visited Colgate University to make us each a “hip hop ambassador”, or someone who can spread what he thinks of as the true message of hip hop to others. Mr. Holland is a former gymnast, a hip hop choreographer, and a visiting professor at the University of Iowa (with these being just a few of his many accomplishments). In essence, his message was that hip hop is both entertainment and a political expression of anti-racist and anti-capital sentiments.

Although I do not know many modern hip hop artists, Kanye West was the first to come to mind. West is an interesting character because although he is “the self- and society-anointed international asshole…it’s obvious Kanye West believes that plenty of voices other than his own also deserve to be explores in his beautiful dark twisted fantasy” (Laymon 89). One of these other voices, featured on his Yeezuz album, is Nina Simone singing Billie Holiday’s famous song, “Strange Fruit”. We discussed Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in Challenges of Modernity because it is thought of as the first protest song. The song, which was originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol, calls to mind the disturbing image of lynching in the American South. Kanye West’s sampling of the song on his Yeezuz track “Blood on the Leaves” is a reminder to the American public that history can’t be forgotten. In Kiese Laymon’s collection of essays titled How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, he speaks to Kanye’s talent and power:

” Kanye managed to collapse, carve, and distort disparate sounds rooted in the black musical traditions into newly shaped inescapable musical experiences” (Laymon 92).


W.E.B. Du Bois’ writing, Billie Holiday’s singing and Kanye West’s musical innovations are all exemplary examples of protests against racial injustice which utilize the raw power of black music.


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