The Songbird’s Melodies of Change: Protest Music By Mia Gustavson

Illustration by Janet Liu

Music is incredibly powerful. It is capable of affecting our health, wellness, and perception. It can rock us to sleep or inspire us to take action. It can be more compelling than books and articles. One main reason for this is that music is memorable. Tunes tend to stick in our heads for longer than speeches, and rhyming words are much easier to recall than lists. This is why music is used in politics and protests.

Popular songs make a bigger impact. The impact of “Zombie” by the Cranberries is evident through its 1 billion views on YouTube and 472 million plays on Spotify. The song advocates for peace and was written in memory of two children who were killed in the bombing of the Irish Republican Army in England on March 20, 1993.

Another song with a large impact is the Yiddish song about political struggles of Jewish socialists, communists, and anarchists in Russia and Poland. It is called “In Ale Gasn/Hey, Hey, Daloy Politsey,” which translates to “Everywhere You Look/Hey, Hey, Down With the Police,” and it was a protest song in the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

Billie Holiday’s most popular song, “Strange Fruit,” was another protest song that used lynching as a larger symbol for the rampant, destructive, and gruesome racism ever-present in America. It was recorded in 1939, and in 1999, it was named the greatest song of the century by Time magazine.

Illustration by Janet Liu

Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” was also a song that spoke out against racism. It was inspired by the news of the murder of Medgar Evers, a black man, on June 12 after president John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights address, and the deaths of four black girls who were killed by white supremacists in Alabama.

“It was more than I could take...I suddenly realized what it was to be Black in America in 1963, but it wasn’t an intellectual connection…it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination.” Simone recalled, according to Longreads.

“Mississippi Goddam” is now one of Simone’s most famous songs.

Every time they are played, songs make an impact on the world.

Another popular protest song is “White Riot” by The Clash. The band was inspired to write it after participating in the Notting Hill riots in London, 1976. Over 100,000 copies were sold in 1977. The song is about vocalist Joe Strummer’s view that white people should take direct action against the oppressive governmental structure just as black people do. This song encouraged white people to engage in protests and the fight for freedom, as opposed to the common misinterpretation that Strummer was attempting to instigate violence or further racism. It’s a call to action for those that sit far too comfortably in the system.

The Italian folk song Bella Ciao is unique because it is a staple protest anthem. It was used by the Modina women in protests against working conditions in the 19th century. Later during World War II, it was played as an anthem for the anti-fascist resistance. It became internationally known and is now used in many different kinds of protests. Bella Ciao is a great example of how universal protest music really is.

These songs are great examples of protest and political music in history, though influential music is used in current times as well. For centuries, songs have affected people, uniting them, swaying their opinions, and toying with their emotions and perspectives. Every time they are played, songs make an impact on the world.