Three hundred years ago, Jeremy Collier warned his fellow Englishmen that “music is almost as dangerous as gunpowder.” It’s as much of a threat to the social order as the free press and, like the press, music would need “looking after.”
Collier, was neither the first nor the last to worry about music’s power to stir the masses.
Two thousand years earlier, Plato had cautioned that “any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State and ought to be prohibited.” First, it “imperceptibly penetrates into manners and customs.” Then “it invades contracts between man and man, and … goes on to laws and constitutions, in utter recklessness.”
In the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights and peace movements, the Rev. David Noebel of the Christian Crusade led a cadre of the like-minded in arguing that music—protest songs in particular—was part of a Communist plot, priming America’s youth for “riot, civil disobedience, and revolution.”
These men were right to worry. Music, as Pete Seeger observed, is “more powerful than the bomb.” It has played a role in every significant social change movement from abolition to Civil Rights to peace to feminism to world hunger to AIDS to anti-globalization. It’s been warning-labeled, enlisted, protested, outlawed, blacklisted, backlashed, co-opted, demonized, corporatized, and homogenized.
But the beat—and the song—goes on.
It’s not just any music that threatens the status quo—some music is the status quo. It’s one particular kind of song. The song of the outsider. The disenfranchised. The down-and-out. It’s the song of those to whom the promise of justice and equality was not kept.
This is trouble music—spirituals, protest songs, blues, folk songs, or rap. Its power lies in the poetry of survival, of lives marked by what Woodie Guthrie called “hard travellin’.”
A talent for truth-saying
Explains bluesman Li’l Son Jackson, this music is about “a feeling that you get from something that you think is wrong, or something that somebody did wrong to you, or something that somebody did wrong to some of your own people or something like that. And the onliest way you have to tell it would be through a song.”
And so the slaves sang:
“Oh, Lord, Oh, My Lord!
Oh, My Good Lord!
Keep me from sinkin’ down.”
The men on the chain gang, doing hard labor from before sunup until after sundown, sang:
“Water boy! Where are you hiding?”
Woodie Guthrie wrote songs that spoke for the striking migrant farm workers in the Dustbowl years:
“From the south land and the drought land,
Come the wife and kids and me,
And this old world is a hard world
For a dust bowl refugee.
Yes, we wander and we work
In your crops and in your fruit,
Like the whirlwinds on the desert
That’s the dust bowl refugees.”
Jailed civil rights protesters sang “Freedom Is a Constant Dying,” a song written by a 23-year-old Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) voter registration worker from Cleveland, Mississippi.
The best of these trouble songs tell a truth more vivid than the news, a truth many of us don’t see—or prefer not to.
“Truth is a powerful agent,” writes author Walter Mosley. “It only needs to be spoken once. After that the world has changed.”
But why sing?
If it is truth that changes the world, why not just speak the truth? Or write it? Or shout it? Why bother to sing?
Because singing is safer than the alternatives, more memorable for the listeners, and less likely to provoke a violent response from the authorities.
Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley, one of the first Third World superstars, deliberately chose music to give a voice to the people of Kingston’s shantytown. It was “both safer for him personally and more effective as a way of creating a world-scale impact for him to explore ways of obtaining that freedom in songs rather than in speeches,” writes Mary Ellison, scholar of black protest music.
“Them belly full but we hungry,” Marley sang, “A hungry mob is an angry mob.”
As a way of speaking the truth to power, singing is less confrontational than any other option—even when the lyrics directly challenge authority. Singing is like smiling. In language that’s ancient and nearly universal, it says, “Look! I’m singing. I’m not going to hurt you.” Music is such a friendly art that Vladimir Lenin worried it would make him soft. “I cannot listen to music too often,” he wrote. “It makes me want to say kind, stupid things, and pat the heads of people.”
Some people, including Henry David Thoreau, report that they feel safe behind music’s protective shield. “When I hear music, I fear no danger,” Thoreau wrote. “I am invulnerable. I see no foe.”
American slaves took advantage of this apparent harmlessness to communicate musical messages of rebellion and plans for escape under the noses of white overseers.
Songs are persistent. They get into our brains and live there, long after other forms of communication have faded. That’s why we remember verbatim the songs we sang as children when we’ve forgotten the words we spoke. That’s why a stroke patient who has lost the ability to speak can sometimes communicate by singing, and why an Alzheimer’s patient who can no longer recognize her children may still be able to play Chopin waltzes on the piano.
What can music do for a political movement that knows how to take advantage of it? A lot. Those who study social movements say that music establishes a movement’s identity, provides a channel for resistance, raises consciousness, and educates, mobilizes, inspires, and encourages the discouraged.
Most importantly, argues Ellison, it creates channels of empathetic communication between the individual and society, and gives potent public voice to shared grievances and complaints.
Woodie Guthrie and Joe Hill were particularly good at articulating the complaints of working people in the 1930s. Guthrie sang about poor folks fighting “to win a world where you’ll have a good job at union pay, and a right to speak up, to think, to have honest prices and honest wages, and a nice clean place to live in and a good safe place to work in.” The peace movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s that eventually helped end the Vietnam War was given spirit, unity, and focus by singers like Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. John Lennon’s song, “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” became a mantra sung at peace rallies everywhere.
But in black America’s ongoing civil rights struggle, music has been more than a warm-up act for political action. “Music has explored the range of human choices for black people with a lucidity and honesty rarely achieved by politicians,” argues Ellison.
That’s one reason the civil rights movement did a better job than any other of using music to inspire and empower. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of how it cheered him when he was in jail to hear the people singing. Candie Anderson, jailed in Nashville in an early Civil Rights protest, was also moved by the music of the movement: “Never had I heard such singing. Spirituals, pop tunes, all became so powerful. The men sang to the women and the girls down the hall answered them. … We sang a good part of our eight-hour confinement that first time.”
But that was 40 years go. By the mid-’70s, the take-to-the-streets political movements had splintered, fizzled, succumbed to infighting or the FBI’s COINTELPRO, or simply turned inward. Their sporadic protests weren’t much more than an irritation until November of 1999, when a new international, broad-based movement brought to the streets of Seattle 50,000 people from the environmental, labor, peace, agriculture, food security, and democracy movements in opposition to corporate globalization. Already this movement has its important musical voices in the folk/protest tradition, like Ani de Franco and Billy Bragg, as well as rappers like Drew Dellinger and the duo Common Prophet.
Recently, the riches of black musical traditions metamorphosed into hip hop and rap. In the 1980s, rappers picked up the political megaphone and started shouting angry, impatient, sexual, hard-edged, political rhymes. Their message was powerful, disturbing, and fresh in the Reagan era, a time when, as Bob Dylan observed, the rappers were the only ones with anything interesting to say.
Rap is a competitive street art that goes back to the griots of Africa. It’s about creating spontaneous street poetry through verbal dexterity and competitive one-upmanship. Early artists like Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash produced work with a consistent political message. But in the mid-‘80s, the crack epidemic gave birth to the sub-genre of gangsta rap, which shoved its way to center stage with songs that are ultra-macho, prison-centered, drug- and gun-happy, sexual, violent, misogynist, and angry. The gangsta attitude soon overshadowed hip hop as a whole and stirred a hornet’s nest of controversy, both inside the African American community and around it.
Some, like Grand Slam champion, poet Taalam Acey, argue that this music is destroying the African-American community. In his rap, “When the Smoke Clears,” he takes gangsta rap to task:
Sometimes I believe that some of these emcees sit down and consciously try to figure out how to get more young black men shot.
Like they figured out a correlation between making money and delivering more young black souls into the hands of the cops. …
Ninety-nine percent of the time pimping the worst parts of capitalism through record company ho’s, platinum-coated egos, putting out bullshit lyrics hyper-marketed to supersede those revolutionary mantras of yesteryear.
Cats no longer want to follow the leader, Snow they want to follow nigga’ killers and black woman beaters.
Who or what is to blame when cold-blooded, violent lyrics born in the urban ghetto find a huge, enthusiastic, and lucrative audience among youth of all races around the world? The music? The artist?
“I believe artists should be held accountable for the violence of their lyrics,” says rap artist Drew Dellinger. “But what’s missing from the debate is the role of the industry. There are plenty of good, socially conscious rappers out there, but they’re not the ones who get the multimillion dollar contracts.”
Why not? For the same reason that a serial killer story gets more coverage on the evening news than the G8 summit. “Sex and violence are very compelling to mammals,” Dellinger says. Guns, drugs, and misogyny sell, and money talks—loudly. Revenue from the sale of recorded music alone rivals that of all organized sports and the film industry combined.
On the other hand, life in the urban ghetto is harsh, dangerous, and often short. There, guns are not a vicarious thrill but a fact of life—the number one cause of death for young black men. Nor is prison just tough-guy talk but a tragic rite of passage, since one in four black men will do time. So, the argument goes, rap that’s obscene and violent, that deals with guns and drugs and prison is just a matter of telling the truth. “Anti-Semitism, racism, violence, sexism are hardly unique to rap stars,” notes black music critic Nelson George, but simply “the most sinister aspects of the national character.” The rapper simply does what protest artists are supposed to do: shine a harsh spotlight on the country’s dysfunctional values. And if that’s a reality most people find distasteful—well, too bad.
But hip hop is only one of several heirs to the rich tradition of African American protest music. Reggae thrives. Calypso continues to deliver scathing indictments of oppression. And, from the ‘70s forward, a secular brand of gospel has attracted a large and devoted multiracial audience. This music is strongly spiritual and deeply rooted in the music of Africa and the African-American church. Its best-known representative is Sweet Honey in the Rock, a women’s a cappella quintet founded 29 years ago by civil rights leader Bernice Johnson Reagon. A historian and former curator of African American history for the Smithsonian, Reagon approaches songwriting with a commitment to remembering the long struggle against oppression, from racism to domestic abuse to AIDS. The group’s name comes from a story in the Bible of a land so rich that honey flowed from the rocks. Her songs, she says, are like that too—hard, but sweet and rich:
I don’t know how my mother walked her trouble down
I don’t know how my father stood his ground. …
I raise my voice for justice. I believe.
In 1903, the historian W.E.B. DuBois described the former slaves as the “children of disappointment” and singers of “sorrow songs.” The same description would fit migrant farm workers, coal miners, steelworkers, prison inmates, and urban ghetto dwellers.
But DuBois also noticed something unexpected about their songs. “Through all the sorrow … there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things.”
DuBois, who had thought deeply about “the souls of black folk,” understood well what it means to live with injustice and sing out against it, to weave hope and music from despair. To sing, and to keep on singing, despite mountains of good evidence that your song will fall on deaf ears, is not just an act of faith in the power of music, but in the human spirit itself.