Music For Social Movements

Music For Social Movements


“Protest songs invigorate the movement in a most significant way… these freedom songs serve to give unity to a movement.”

- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Of course, King was referring to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Many of the issues they faced such as voter disenfranchisement, education inequality, health disparities, and of course the senseless killing of black men and women are still very real for the grandchildren of those Civil Rights protestors. But just as the freedom songs of King’s generation invigorated the movement, some of today’s most respected artists continue to impact social movements in a similar way, and reasonably so.


The Past

If you haven’t heard, King was a man who believed in liberty. He spoke in opposition of all injustice, practiced civil disobedience and taught the importance of nonviolence across the nation. King delivered his most commonly quoted speech, “I Have a Dream” in 1963. In it, he detailed the struggle of African Americans, seasoned it with hope for the future and served reassurance on the plate of his dream.

Inspired, Sam Cooke personified King’s words with “A Change is Gonna Come” just one year later. Today, children and adults everywhere still sing this tune with passion, belief, and intensity.

But not everyone approved of King's views. Tragically, he was assassinated in 1968. However, that unfortunate event didn’t stop his movement- it fueled it.

James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” was released the year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” released in 1970, and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” spewed from just about every powered speaker in 1971. Gaye’s record echoed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous quote, “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that”, by singing the lyrics:

“You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today”

These songs not only protest against the injustices of the time, but offer hope to oppressed communities for a brighter future.

The Present

Half a century later, our nation has taken great strides toward equality, but the scale is still far from balanced. While public facilities are now interracial, there are still social injustices that hinder African Americans of what the Declaration of Independence calls “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

Jidenna’s “White Niggas” boldly confronts that truth. In an attempt to relay the plight of black people in America, he opens the song with:

“If you and your wife Madeline
Were treated just like mine
All the anchors on ABC Nightline
Would speak about white crime

We’d see videos every night
Of handcuffed white boys in the night time
Hope you know how to fight crime
911’s no longer your lifeline”

He’s talking to a white friend in an attempt to help him understand the harsh realities that plague African Americans in contrast to the freedoms other ethnicities are granted.

And, just as lynchings inspired Billy Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” in 1939, the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling inspired today’s artists to lyrically protest in response. Artists such as Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Anderson Paak. and D’Angelo have expressed their frustrations with these events, early death, and police brutality.

But these days, music albums and singles aren’t the only mediums artists are using to resist social injustice.

With 12 dancers dressed as Black Panthers, Beyonce sang the lyrics to, “Formation” during the halftime show of the 2016 Super Bowl game and arrested the nation with a statement.

A week following Beyonce’s performance, Kendrick Lamar performed a theatrical story during the Grammys. Bluesy music played, the curtains rose, and Kendrick Lamar trodded across the stage as the sound of his shackles echoed sad jingles. You cant help but to hold your breath as Lamar approaches the mic until, BAMB- he spews the lyrics:

“I’ve been feeling this way since I was 16
I came to my senses
You never liked us anyway
Bump yo’ friendship
I meant it

I’m African American
I’m African
I'm Black as the moon
Heritage of a small Villiage
Pardon my residence”

After finishing the lyrics to his politically controversial record, “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick then transitions into his hit song, “Alright”. In the chorus he proclaims:


This song does - as King’s “I Have A Dream” speech did - give the oppressed hope in a future where they’re all… alright.

The Future

As the long-awaited Black Panther film is set to release on February 16, 2018, Kendrick Lamar is set to release a song on the feature film’s soundtrack. We look forward to witnessing this generation of artists continue to use the gifts they have, and the platforms they stand on to empower social movements, inspire generations to act with intention, and offer hope in the midst of trial and controversy.

Without King’s generation, Kendrick and the rest of his peers wouldn’t have access to today’s platforms, just as future generations won’t have access if this generation fails to continue providing it.

You Know We Had to Do It!

As it turns out, MLK Day falls on King’s actual birthday this year, so it’s only fitting that we close out with this jam dedicated to the king of the Civil Rights Movement.