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Protests have changed and so have protest songs

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Protest marchers with megaphone. Image credit: Clay Banks/Unsplash

Protests have changed in the 21st century, and so have protest songs. In 1982, I marched in Manhattan with a million other people for the World Peace March, to persuade the UN to adopt a strong disarmament resolution called UNSSODII, which came out of the UN second special session of the General Assembly devoted to disarmament.

We shouted chants as we marched, sure, and we also sang songs -- especially when we were delayed, and had to stand in one spot. This was before personal phones or music players, or even boom boxes. We raised our voices to show our presence -- and that day we were a mighty presence, a river of multicoloured international protest that flooded the city.  

We sang "Where have all the flowers gone?" and "Universal Soldier," and "One-two-three, what are we fighting for?" We sang songs like "Marching to Pretoria," the South-African freedom song, and "A change is gonna come," and "You don't believe we're on the eve of destruction."

When we reached Central Park, the river of people flowed out into a lake, covering the lawn and stretching across blocks to the other sidewalk, and flowing for blocks further towards the grandstand, where dozens of top performers shared their songs and led us in singing.

Boom boxes changed everything, drowning out marchers' attempts to sing. Drummers have led most protest marches I've seen for a couple of decades now. Loudspeakers and giant amps dominate the Calgary Pride Parade. I started wondering: where are all the protest songs? And I wasn't alone.

Mind you, the pandemic is unique. "We don't have a soundtrack that reflects the anxiety and inequities that plague neighbourhood after neighbourhood," wrote Bill King, disc jockey, impresario, musician/photo journalist/radio veteran and my former neighbour. "We don't have a Marvin Gaye and Inner City Blues, the Beatles and Revolution, Gil Scott-Heron and The Revolution Won't Be Televised..."

For pandemic times, he recommended music to help listeners "feel better, lighten the heart and cleanse the soul."

On the other hand, all the trauma and upheaval under the former U.S. president produced some very dynamic protest music, to go by the Grammy Awards' page dedicated to songs for racial justice, published June 2020. Along with such classics as James Brown's 1968 "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" and Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," there are startling new songs.

2Pac incorporated a current pop song into his 1998 rap lament for racialism, "Changes," where the recurring theme is "That's just the way it is, things will never change." In their 2014 song, "Glory," capping the movie Selma, John Legend and Common combined cerebral rap with a gospel refrain.

And then in 2015, several police killings emerged in the mainstream media, with Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, and Sandra Bland's death in Waller County, Texas. The protest song of the year was "To Pimp a Butterfly." Childish Gambiono's Grammy-winning 2018 song and video, "This Is America," is a satirical live-action cartoon complete with violence and floating-dream sequences.  

So in some senses it's true to say that protest songs aren't what they used to be. Protests aren't what they used to be either, with the Portland Moms singing, "Hands up, please don't shoot me." Protest songs haven't faded, but they have changed with the times. 2018-2020 may have been the turning point, when anger overtook melody, and protest songs became textbooks for their movements.

Among keyword search terms, the phrase "2020 was the year of the protest song" racked up 173 billion hits. The Ongoing History of Protest Music site has one web page for each decade from the 1960s to the 2010s, and one year of music for each of 2017-2021. Billboard Magazine suggests that "the pandemic boosted protest songs up the sales charts."  

"The May 25 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police," reported another issue of Billboard, "resulted in the eruption of worldwide protests against racial injustice, as well as an influx of new protest anthems across demographics in the weeks that followed.... Protest music soared on the charts, too: 'Rockstar,' the DaBaby and Roddy Ricch smash that crowned Billboard's 2020 Songs of the Summer chart, received an official 'BLM remix' in the weeks after Floyd's death."

Yet melody will prevail. Hip-hop star Common collected two hours of Grammy winners in a one-time TV presentation titled A Grammy Salute to the Sounds of Change. Common and the music directors made vintage songs fresh with dramatically different performers. For instance, Patti LaBelle sang Lesley Gore's hit "You Don't Own Me." Vocalist Gladys Knight, drummer Sheila E and an all-star band performed "What's Going On?" the immortal Marvin Gaye's musing about his brother's military service in Vietnam. Music like that is music to sit and savour.

For folks who want anthems and ballads for walking and marching, the Justice Choir in Minneapolis offers 34 new and re-purposed songs so far, selected from a national call for scores across the U.S. Have a listen to their YouTube channel for a sense of the music and the power. In contrast to the justifiable rage simmering through some of the songs on Billboard’s charts, Justice Choir songs are unabashedly non-violent. Take Melanie DeMore’s "One Foot in Front of the Other," which she said she composed the day the former U.S. president was elected. Her cheerful determination reaches new audiences all the time, while his authoritarian influence dwindles daily.

In another U.S. protest music centre, the Golden Bridge Community Choir (GBCC) from San Francisco holds weekly Zoom singalongs -- "Together in Song" sessions -- with new and established musicians. All the songs I've tried are easy to learn as well as upbeat and uplifting. Led by Maggie Wheeler and Emile Hassan Dyer, the GBCC invites a wide variety of other musical artists to share their songs and lead the singing. I sang "We are a gentle angry people," along with the song's composer, Holly Near, her face filling my whole screen. That was a really inspiring moment, a moment to share with grandchildren and loved ones. Such moments are available through the power and passion of great protest songs.

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local column in Calgary for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004-2013.

Image credit: Clay Banks/Unsplash

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