Music has always been a representation of what is inside of us. We are complex beings that hold strong opinions, a wide range of emotions, and a very, very loud voice. Throughout history, music has served as a voice for the people in times of need, discomfort, and revolution. As Hope College Concert Series, it is our job to ensure that music continues to speak about the state of the world and that it continues to tell stories. We are going to explore a few of our favorite examples of how music has spoken volumes and inspired communities to act.
Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday (‘39)
“Strange Fruit” was first written as a poem by Abel Meeropol in 1937, but popularized by legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday in 1939. The lyrics of the poem are intense, and not for the faint of heart: “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”. The song is, of course, about the high amounts of black people being lynched in America, and the lyrics were written after Meeropol saw a grotesque image of two black men being lynched in northern Indiana.
“Strange Fruit” has been called “the start of the Civil Rights Movement”, and Holiday could only perform it in certain locations without fearing for her safety, but the song is one of the earliest examples of protest music in America after the Civil War. The song called attention to the inhuman acts being committed regularly in the most direct, most blunt way possible and the vivid imagery of the lyrics, specifically the second verse, got it banned from multiple radio stations. But that just made “Strange Fruit” even more impossible to ignore and it became a staple of Billie Holiday’s live shows.
Clearly, as long as there is injustice in America or worldwide, there will be voices speaking out about it in song.
It was made even more popular in 1965 when Nina Simone covered the song with the new context of other horrific events, including the murder of 14-year-boy Emmett Till. “Strange Fruit” has had an unfortunate amount of longevity as the sentiment of the song still rings true today, and it’s one of the best early examples of music as a form of protest in America.
Hendrix @ Woodstock (‘69)
Woodstock. 1969. Jimi Hendrix, at 27 years old, gave one of the most incendiary renditions of “The Star Spangled Banner” that the world has ever heard. The United States had been engaged in the Vietnam War for over a decade and the perceptions of these wartime efforts were shifting. The 60’s were a time of revolution and counterculture involving strong movements against government and the Civil Rights Movement.
Hendrix, a former military man, took the stage on a gloomy August day on the last day of the Woodstock Music Festival and left a legacy that lasted much longer than the “3 Days of Peace of Music”. A familiar melody emanated from the Marshall stacks as Jimi started playing the “Star Spangled Banner” on his white Fender Stratocaster. The patriotic sentiment was interrupted as the melody began to distort nearing “the rocket’s red glare”, and then a beautiful chaos ensued. The audience was shocked by the electric emulation of bombs being dropped, screams, and military horns as Jimi played his heart and soul out through his guitar. After 4 minutes of song, Jimi “let freedom ring” as he struck the final chord, and the world knew that this performance was more than just a moment.
This was an attack on the government’s increased involvement in Vietnam and it highlighted the true horrors of war, the very war that was going on at that very moment in time. This moment was a powerful example of how music can represent the hearts of the people and be applied in any context to say what is really on everyone’s mind.
A Broader Perspective
Obviously, protest music didn’t stop after the 70s, and there have been countless reasons to have music as a form of protest in the last 40+ years. The “war on drugs” of the 80s and racially charged events like the Rodney King beating and subsequent LA riots spawned some iconic protest music, songs like “F*** the Police” by NWA in 1988 and “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy in 1989.
The wars in the early 2000s in Iraq and Afghanistan gave birth to protest music like Green Day’s 2004 album, American Idiot. And, rising amounts of police brutality and racial tension in American society and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which started in 2012 and continues into the present, gave way to songs like Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 song “Alright”, Beyoncé’s 2016 song “Formation”, YG’s 2016 song “FDT”, and Childish Gambino’s 2018 song “This Is America”.
There are even protest songs about the events going on right now, in October 2020, like Terrace Martin and Denzel Curry’s song “Pig Feet”, which came out this past June, and whose music video ends with an almost 3-minute long crawl of the names of people killed by police. Clearly, as long as there is injustice in America or worldwide, there will be voices speaking out about it in song. And, these songs and albums and artistic statements continue to speak volumes.
Have any other amazing examples of musical voice? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram @hopeconcerts and don’t forget to follow us on Spotify @hopeconcerts!