Where is the 21st Century Protest Music?

By Gamal Hennessy

I was recently having a drink with a veteran rock musician, discussing the changes in nightlife and music over the past two decades. At one point, she asked me “Is this generation of musicians protesting anything with their songs?” She said it as a rhetorical question but I think it’s a question that deserves attention from a cultural standpoint, especially since there are several factors that influence the music we listen to when we go out.

20th Century Protest Music

Modern social movements are identified with music that captures the spirit of that protest.

  • Various artists including James Brown, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Sly and the Family Stone and Bob Dylan supported the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
  • Musicians like Gil Scott Heron, Marvin Gaye, Joan Baez and The Doors wrote songs protesting the Vietnam War in the 1970s
  • In the 80’s, the Police, U2, Prince and Bruce Springsteen released protest songs concerning various issues while rap music grew out of protest songs from artists like Grandmaster Flash and developed with groups like Public Enemy, NWA, and the Beastie Boys.
  • Rage Against the Machine, Living Color and the Fugees were three of the most prominent protest groups of the 90’s.

There have been a few other established artists using their music as a platform since then, but the end of the 20th century saw a decline in the socially conscious popular mainstream songs that were present in every other decade.

Reasons to Sing…or Not Sing

It’s not as if American musicians can’t find social and political issues to fuel their music. Ten years of war in two countries, the struggle over same sex rights, bank bailouts, Occupy Wall Street, Trayvon Martin, online privacy invasions, right wing fundamentalism, sexual identity debates…there seems to be plenty of inspiration for protest music.

But does modern culture discourage that type of expression? When many musicians have to be their own PR and marketing department, can they deal with the backlash that might come from a protest song? When so many artists are struggling to get a deal or utilize corporate distribution, can they afford to stick it to the Man? When militant political sensitivity in the media is combined with a 24 news cycle and social media, can any musician or artist afford to hold any strong political or social position? Have we created an environment where every artist has to behave like a politician running for office if they want to sell music on iTunes?

To Sell…or Not Sell

There is still plenty of protest music being made around the world. The Arab Spring, political developments in African countries and drug related terrorism coming out of South America are all the subject of protest music. There is also a strong element of American protest music in underground rap, rock and alternative music. But outside of a few isolated cases, mainstream American music seems to have fully embraced escapism to the detriment of the protest song. Since several social movements once grew out of nightlife culture, does this lack of protest music mean there will be a lack of social change emerging from bars and clubs in the future? If so, nightlife culture can’t be a strong catalyst for social change until the next wave of protest music fills the bars.

Have fun.