How music shapes social movements

A podcast analysis across artists, genres and ages


Link to Playlist

Link to SoundCloud Audio


Must-Listen Songs:

  • We Shall Overcome, Pete Seeger
  • A Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke
  • What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye
  • Killing In the Name, Rage Against the Machine
  • When the President Talks to God, Bright Eyes
  • Alright, Kendrick Lamar
  • We the People, A Tribe Called Quest


Audio Transcript:

This audio works in tandem with a playlist that’s roughly four hours long. It was curated to reflect almost a century of protest music. The playlist is linked alongside this audio, and both are on Spotify. I encourage listeners to go back and forth, pause the podcast, play the song and then come back for more.

Music doesn’t just span social movements, it defines them. It played a role in the Civil Rights era and continues on in its modern counterpart of Black Lives Matter. Music fought for women’s liberation and for the rights of the LGBTQ community; for anti-war, for workers’ rights, for the freedom of minorities and for the health of the planet. All of this across multiple generations, shaping causes into the rallying and powerful bodies that are widely recognizable today.

And society owes this in part to youth culture. Music has always been a fundamental part of young people’s identity. The very basis of the art is self-expression, a practice that embodies what it means to be angst-ridden, purpose-driven, a teen going into early adulthood. 

Statistically, the data doesn’t lie. Young people drive sales when they’re drawn to a certain artist or genre. Constance Grady wrote an article for Vox on how teen girls in particular influence pop culture to the point of deciding worldwide trends. It dates back as far as the late 50s when they almost single-handedly pushed the Beatles to stardom by being their fans before the band achieved greater recognition.

Music pairs well with youth’s affinity for activism. Lyrics are able to articulate sentiment toward societal institutions, oppression and change – or the lack thereof. Catchy rhythms and innovative beats revamp the important messages seen in political speeches into anthems that can be blasted on the street.

Examining the music of the most influential movements in the US creates a complicated timeline of countless genres. It spans nearly a century. It’s difficult to find a genre to begin with, a decade to start in, a protest to cover first. 

But in this playlist’s anthology, radical music begins with jazz, in the 1930s, as the art form traveled from New Orleans to New York. Often referred to as America’s classical music, jazz owes its creation to talented Black artists whose performances broke down racial barriers and set a precedent for all action-invoking music to follow. 

Not all songs that are considered protest music carry explicit messaging. Jazz was effective because it was entertaining to all and special to communities because of its universal creativity and joy. It was dance music, not divisive music, and bridged together a population that had been segregated by race since the abolishment of slavery.

“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, is distinctly jazz, right from the opening notes, but it’s one of the first instances of defiant protest music. Recorded in 1939, “Strange Fruit” was immediately banned from the radio because its metaphors speak out against the culture of lynching African Americans.

The second through ninth songs of the playlist are from the inspired descendants of jazz: the genres of soul and folk. Often mistaken for a patriotic song, as is the case for at least one other track on this playlist, Woody Guthrie’s  “This Land is Your Land” is actually a criticism of blind patriotism in America and a statement on poverty as a result of the great depression.

Next, the 1963 “We Shall Overcome,” by Pete Seeger, is the folk genre applied to the civil rights movement. With a long history of inspiration from hymns and gospel music, “We Shall Overcome” makes use of call-and-response singing that dates back to traditional African music brought to America by slavery. Verses were added to buoy the spirits of marchers across the South in the fight to end Jim Crow laws and achieve equal rights. I chose to put the live performance version of “We Shall Overcome,” recorded at Carnegie Hall, on this playlist because of the energy the crowd brings when they wholeheartedly join in.

After a series of Bob Dylan songs, including“The Times They Are A-Changin,” soul music makes an entrance through Sam Cooke’s transformative “A Change is Gonna Come,” wrapping up the year 1964 with an idealistic message that challenges that time period.

To pay homage to overseas influence, the Beatles and the solo ventures of its members are included from the late 60s through 70s. McCartney wrote “Blackbird” with its lyrics a metaphor for Black liberation, particularly among women and girls. 

John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band released “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969. Lennon followed that two years later with “Imagine” the staple song of his career.

Music from the Civil Rights movement and the peace and anti-war movements dominated the 60s and 70s, into the 80s – and rightly so – but one overlooked achievement of 1970 is the beginning of music with environmental themes through Canadian Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”

1978 was a historical first for music about LGBTQ and women’s rights respectively. The Tom Robinson Band’s song Glad to be Gay was released, with Robinson famously explaining, “you don’t have to be gay to sing this song, but it definitely helps.” Then, X-Ray Specs released “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” the catalyst for the feminist punk-rock era that would resurface in the 90s. Punk takes a detour to Dollywood with Dolly Parton’s well-known 1980 track “9 to 5.” Hidden behind Parton’s twangy vocals and proclamations of female empowerment and anti-capitalist messaging sometimes go under the radar.

Some world influence is brought in with The Special’s song titled “Nelson Mandela” which helped raise awareness about apartheid in South Africa and the civil rights leader’s imprisonment. Enter Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” written about the mistreatment of Vietnam war veterans, and then two songs of 1988: Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and NWA’s “F— the Police.” Then, two iconic songs of the aforementioned 90s feminist punk period: Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” and No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.” This playlist is in chronological order, so between the two is Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” which ushers in the next few songs that are most definitely of the rock genre. Green Day’s “American Idiot” and indie artist Bright Eyes’ “When the President Talks to God” are two tracks that are in response to wars in the middle east and the misogynistic, racist, and anti-immigrant sentiment during the Bush presidency. Gossip’s 2006 “Standing in the way of Control” may be the final lesser-known song on the playlist, a lyrical response to Bush’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

From there the playlist divulges into what may be more recognizable music: Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino. The teenage girl band of Asian American punk rockers, the Linda Lindas even gets a shoutout for their “Rebel Girl” Bikini Kill cover and for their original song “Racist Sexist Boy.”

Some of the music on this playlist has been sung as people marched arm in arm for monumental causes. Others are renowned for just changing minds, for just voicing important concerns. Protest music creates a unifying intersection of race and politics, identity and culture through highly consumable art. Young people play a role by needing those messages but also writing those messages themselves.

The legacy of this playlist and every song on it is to continue each and every individual fight that the music embodies, as circumstances in the world change and certain aspects of life in this country appear to be moving backward. It’s up to us to keep singing the songs of social movements and write more music.