In January of 2017, L.A.-based singer-songwriter MILCK headed to Washington D.C. for the Women's March. Inside the historic protest, she joined up with a group of women sporting pussyhats to perform her song "Quiet." Video of the flashmob-style performance went viral and the song became intertwined with the event. More than that, "Quiet" became part of the protest movement of the start of the Trump era. On icantkeepquiet.com, people can obtain the sheet music and guide recordings to sing the songs anywhere in the world. In Los Angeles, MILCK led another flashmob protest-performance at the Resist March in June. With "Quiet," MILCK is following the footsteps of politically-minded artists who have turned their songs into tools of social change.
Hear MILCK perform "Quiet" on Studio A
“Music made me feel that I could have my hands on the steering wheel of history,” writes Tom Morello, a musician and activist best known as the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, in an essay for the Los Angeles Times, “The right combination of rhythm and rhyme, when it washes over a throng or transmits through an ear bud, can feel like the truth and resonate deep in our reptilian brain in a way that can provide a spark for action.”
It is music’s ability to tap into the primordial brain, which have made it a perfect vessel for protest. From spirituals of the slavery era to the pro-peace anthems of the Vietnam War period to Green Day's "American Idiot" to Beyonce's "Lemonade," songs are reflective of the eras in which they are sung. In this respect, the songwriters and performers take on activist roles simply for making and performing those works. But often, music and activism are more deeply intertwined.
Aloe Blacc co-founded a group called Artivist that merges art and activism. The L.A.-based singer/songwriter has long written songs that tackled social issues. In fact, his 2011 cut "I Need a Dollar" still resonates in a country where rents are rising and wages remain stagnant. He has also been involved in a variety of social causes, like his work with Malaria No More U.K. With Artivist, the songs become part of the activism. For example, Blacc turned "Wake Me Up," a song that became a monumental hit single when he recorded it with famed producer Avicii, into a pro-immigration anthem when it was incorporated with a short film made by National Day Laborer Organizing Network and director Alex Rivera.
The work that both MILCK and Blacc have done of late bears a lot in common with other musician/activists who sang for social change decades ago.
Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie came together early in their careers as members of the Almanac Singers in the 1940s. Filled out with Millard Lampell and Lee Hays, the New York-based folk group sang songs that were critical of war and were pro-worker. Their performance venues included union meetings, which brought them into the activist circle in addition to singing about progressive politics. While the band folded after a couple years, Seeger and Guthrie in particular went on to become folk heroes.
Guthrie died at the age of 55 after a long struggle with Huntington's disease and that limited his creative output. However, during the active period of his career, he was a prolific creator whose output included songs, art and writing. No doubt, the most famous of these works was "This Land is Your Land." Written as a response to "God Bless America," Guthrie's song was heavy on social commentary and the original song included politically-charged verses that didn't make it onto its initial release in the 1950s.
Meanwhile, Seeger proved to be one of the most political artists of the 20th century. He died in 2014, at the age of 94, and worked tirelessly to champion left-leaning principals over the course of decades. After the Almanac Singers, Seeger found fame with The Weavers, but the group was ultimately blacklisted. Seeger, who was the subject of a massive FBI file, had to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The folk singer remained committed both to music and social change. He strived for the conservation of the Hudson River Valley. Through his music and actions, Seeger was actively involved in causes the include workers rights, civil rights, antiwar efforts and environmental protection.
Guthrie and Seeger were influential upon the folk singers whose careers coincided with the anti-Vietnam War movement. But, the protest songs and activism weren't limited to one genre or one subject. Between anti-war and civil rights protests, many musicians of the 1960s and early 1970s spoke out for social justice. In November of 1969, a massive anti-war demonstration in Washington D.C. brought out folk artists like Peter, Paul and Mary and Arlo Guthrie. Pete Seeger performed too; he handled a sing-a-long of John Lennon's protest song "Give Peace a Chance." In 1972, the Wattstax concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum brought out around 100,000 people for an uplifting concert featuring artists like Isaac Hayes, Staple Singers and the Bar-Kays, to remember the Watts uprising.
The intersection of music and activism isn't solely a U.S. phenomenon. In the latter half of the1970s, Rock Against Racism came together in the U.K. as a response to the rise of the National Front and anti-immigrant sentiments. The group put together multiple concerts that included such bands as Steel Pulse, The Specials, Gang of Four and X-Ray Spex.
In 1982, a mass of what the New York Times described as "hundreds of thousands" of protesters gathered in New York for the Nuclear Disarmament Rally. Performers included Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen and Linda Ronstadt. Throughout the decade, artists sang in protest, whether it was against war or homophobia or racism. Those large music events, though, took a turn towards relief-based projects, like Live Aid and Farm Aid.
Spearheaded by the influence of punk rock, a new musician-activist movement arose in the 1990s. Riot Grrrl was punk rock feminism made by and for young women. Bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Huggy Bear used songs to fight against sexism. Word of their music traveled largely by independent means, like zines and college radio. Riot Grrrl groups formed in various cities and young people started their own bands, made their own art and created their own media. On a more mainstream level, a chance encounter in Nepal between Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and activist Erin Potts led to the wildly successful Tibetan Freedom Concerts, which featured artists like Bjork and Radiohead.
Protest music changed after 9/11. In his 2002 essay, "Is Protest Music Dead?" writer Jeff Chang looked at how the political and music business climate had impacted the ability of protest songs to infiltrate the mainstream. "Message music is being pinched off by an increasingly monopolized media industry suddenly eager to please the White House," he wrote. "At least two of the nation's largest radio networks — Clear Channel and Citadel Communications — removed songs from the air in the wake of the attacks."
As years passed and war continued, some anti-war music did manage to make it through the gatekeepers. Most notable is "American Idiot," the song and the album from Green Day that was released in 2004.Its rock vitriol followed Jesus of Surbubia and his disillusionment and dissent of Iraq War-era America. At the time, frontman Billy Joe Armstrong told Spin Magazine, "Patriotism isn’t about being pro-anything. It’s not about being pro-Bush or pro-Kerry. It’s about what you stand for and what you think America represents.”
And while we haven't hit a mass of protest songs quite like the 1960s, or even the 1980s, artists are once again pushing forward messages of social justice in their work. In 2015, Kendrick Lamar's hit, "Alright" became a protest anthem at a Black Lives Matter event in Cleveland. Beyonce brought the message of Black Lives Matter to the Super Bowl halftime show in 2016. While the performance was praised by many, it triggered the ire of right-wing talking heads and brought in a bounty of complaints to the FCC.
Now, as the Trump era unfolds and protests have erupted across the country, music and activism continue to feed off each other’s energy, inspiring people to take action.