The role of music in activism.

After the shooting of Michael Brown this past August, social media has been a means of organizing protests and activism. For example, multitudes of demonstrators organized via social media using the hashtags  #BlackLivesMatter, and #STLBlackFriday. The pictures captured of the huge groups of demonstrators playing dead are incredibly powerful and spread like wildfire on social media. Numerous other mass “die ins,” peaceful walks and marches, and thought provoking quotes can be found using these hashtags among others. Hashtags fuel the peaceful protest because they can help people organize, educate, and most importantly bring direct attention to major events and demonstrations. They are a way for people who are not present to remain informed, and involved, as they spur demonstrations in other areas. For example, the viral videos, Instagram images, and tweets from Saint Louis die-ins, spurred die-ins nationwide. There was even one at the National Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis.

The Brooks Museum of Memphis also wanted to know the role of music in activism historically and in todays landscape.

ELIZABETH MURPHY Marketing Associate @ Brooks Museum: What is your favorite protest song?  Speak to the role of music in activism/change/protest today.

Marco Pavé Hip-Hop artist and CEO of Radio Rahim Music Associate:

I have a lot of favorite protest songs, I’d have to say my favorite is, “We Are the People Darker Than Blue” (1970) by Curtis Mayfield. It’s a great songspeaking against white supremacy and the ideas that white supremacy created within the black community. One of the lyrics says, “We people who are darker than blue/are we just going to stand around this town and let what others say come true?” He was protesting the images of black people put in the media by racist networks, movies, and magazines, as well as individuals from everyday whites to the highest governmental leadership. He was also looking at dynamics within the black community that come from white supremacy, protesting the idea that lighter skin is better. His argument was that even if you are lighter than me, you are still black to white supremacy: “High-yella gal, can’t you tell? You’re just the surface of our dark deep well.”

Speak to the role of music in activism/change/protest today:

Music is central to activism/change/protest today. Some people may disagree but they are most likely the ones that still watch MTV waiting on music videos to come on. The fact that we are still battling some of the same issues that artists like Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and Jimi Hendrix were battling is a big indication that music is still one of the only outlets that can spark change. “Mainstream” artists like Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Kanye West, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, Beyoncé and Jay-Z just to name a few have silently built their careers on activism/change/protest. I say silently because it’s obviously not heard like the artist of old. J Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West all have performed their own protest songs on live network TV stations like ABC, MTV, and NBC. J Cole performed “Be Free” (a response to the recent police shootings of blacks) on The Lateshow with David Letterman. Kendrick Lamar performed his single “I’ (a response to all the oppression and police brutality, he encourages us to love us even when “they” won’t) on SNL. Kanye West performed his single “New Slaves” (a response to constraints on Americans not being free, all Americans at that) on SNL.  These are just a few examples of how music today is still central and complimentary to activism and social change. I myself have stepped into that playing field, sampling the great song by Curtis Mayfield “We Are the People Darker Than Blue” on my song “Black Tux,” which appears on my forthcoming EP, Perception. “Black Tux” uses the metaphor of a cheap black tux from Macy’s, as opposed to a high-end designer one made in Italy, to describe how America values and views black people. It also ties into how those views of us make it harder for blacks to love and support one another in families and communities. Also, just being, breathing, standing, or thinking is a form of resistance for black artists, given that we can be struck down in the street for much less and our violators are not punished. Even deliberately making a song about dancing in times like these are protest songs. People expect us all to be up in arms and in the streets having war, but when you can find peace and dance anyway, that’s protest, too. 


 NOTE: I say silently because it’s obviously not heard like the artist of old. I think what’s happening is that there is a bias inadvertently created by our idolization of that time of protest music that makes us unable to think of these artists as doing activism and protest music. To see their unapologetic blackness in the industry as protest, their daring to make songs about the black experience, one of the most devalued experiences in our country, as activist. The fact that many of these artists are very wealthy and are perceived as such also makes it difficult for people to hear them.