The history of American protest music, from “Yankee Doodle” to Kendrick Lamar

By Bridgett Henwood, Vox.com

“We don’t believe you, ’cause we the people / Are still here in the rear, ayo, we don’t need you,” Q-Tip raps on A Tribe Called Quests’s 2016 track “We The People,” an opening verse aimed straight at a flawed America. As the song goes on, it calls out specific social problems in the US — discrimination, unequal pay, deportation. It’s a protest song through and through.

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The tradition goes back to the country’s founding. “Free America” was one of the nascent US’s first protest songs, a Revolutionary War call to action song by minuteman Joseph Warren. “Yankee Doodle,” now popular as a children’s song, was actually written by British soldiers mocking their American counterparts during the Revolutionary War, but Americans took up the tune ironically to toss it back in the Brits’ faces….

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Billie Holiday’s 1939 song “Strange Fruit.” As music journalist Dorian Lynskey writes in his book 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day, Holiday’s tune was the first of its kind, bringing protest songs into the popular music realm. “Up until this point, protest songs functioned as propaganda, but ‘Strange Fruit’ proved they could be art,” Lynskey writes. [Editor’s note: “Strange Fruit” is actually about a northern lynching.]

Unlike the protest songs of the Civil War era, “Strange Fruit” wasn’t a chant or a call to arms. It was a harrowing commentary on the state of the country, designed to make people sit up and pay attention….

Sam Cooke set a different tone with 1964’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a track that expressed less anger and more melancholy hopefulness. “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, an early 1970s protest song, could be applied to a number of different grievances. “It alluded to all of these changes in society and all of these struggles,” says Roberts, “but he keeps coming back to this statement, sometimes a question. It can be directed toward multiple people and institutions.”

Beyonce, one of the many celebrities who used her platform to protest American history and called her fans to get in ‘Formation’ to do the same. Credit genius.com

These songs quickly faded into the political past with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. With a Democrat in the White House for the first time in eight years, and the first black president at that, liberal musicians took up a different songwriting mantle: the empowerment song….

Take Beyoncé’s “Formation,” which she surprise-debuted by uploading the video to her YouTube page the day before she was set to perform at the 2016 Super Bowl. The video features shots of post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, cops in riot gear, and references to Black Lives Matter, and set the stage for her Black Panther–inspired halftime show. Within hours, the hashtag #Formation was trending, giving people a space to talk about the video, the artist who made it, and the issues it presented.

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A Reminder of Black Heroism

By Rhonesha Byng, HuffingtonPost.com

In a world where two men were insensitive enough to dress up as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman for a Halloween party, and a black college student is arrested at a high-end luxury department store for buying a belt, this teen’s story will restore your faith in humanity. In a series on kindness, the BBC recounted the incredible moment in 1996 when Keshia Thomas, an 18-year-old at the time, protected a man believed to be a white supremacist affiliated with the KKK from an angry mob.

Keshia Thomas (1996)

Keshia Thomas (1996)

In June of that year, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally at the city hall building in Ann Arbor, Mich. The town, whose population is known to be home to mostly liberals, came out in large numbers to protest the presence of the notoriously racist group. According to reports 300 anti-clan protestors showed up, while just 17 Klansmen were present.

kkk supporter running from mob, ann arborThomas was in the crowd of anti-clan protesters, when someone spotted a man in the crowd amongst them with an SS tattoo and a confederate flag shirt. The group, including Thomas, immediately chased the man.

But, in a flash, the crowd went from controlled protestors to an angry mob, hitting the man with sticks and kicking him as he lay on the ground. In that moment, Thomas separated herself from the mob and threw herself on the man to protect him.imgres-10

“When they dropped him to the ground, it felt like two angels had lifted my body up and laid me down,” Thomas said. (. . .) “She put herself at physical risk to protect someone who, in my opinion, would not have done the same for her,” he said. “Who does that in this world?”

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This Day in Black History: The Niagara Movement Founded

From the African American Registry

Niagara Movement group photo 1905

Niagara Movement group photo 1905

This date marks the founding of the Niagara Movement, the first significant black organized protest movement of the 20th century in America.

It also represented the attempt of a small yet articulate group of radicals to challenge the then dominant ideals of Booker T. Washington. At the turn of the century there were divisions in African-American political life: those who believed in accommodation, led by Booker T. Washington; and the more militant group, led by W.E.B. Du Bois and William M. Trotter.

In 1904, a closed-door meeting at Carnegie hall produced the Committee of Twelve for the Advancement of the Interest of the Negro Race, but it fell apart due to infighting. In February 1905, Du Bois and Trotter put together an all-black group that included Frederick L. McGhee and C.E. Bentley. They invited 59 well known anti-Washington businessmen to a meeting that summer in western New York. On July 11 thru 14, 1905, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, 29 men met and formed a group they called the Niagara Movement. The name came because of the location and the “mighty current” of protest they wished to unleash.