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Advocacy Through Music

I’ve always known music has a strong influence on people. But over the summer, my depth of knowledge of music’s influence on history and culture was expanded significantly. I had the opportunity to do research for Union College Professor Jennifer Matsue as a teaching assistant and discovered some fascinating topics about music’s influence on social justice. Ms. Matsue, Music Department Chair and professor of music and anthropology, tasked me with identifying research articles regarding the use of music in social and political activism and articles regarding successful community engagement through music for her to use in two courses to be taught this semester entitled “Music as Activism” and “Mapping Musical Lives: Ethnography of the Performing Arts” respectively. The analysis of the articles I researched made me realize some key ideas and themes about music I hadn’t fully understood before.

Music runs deep in the veins of human history and culture. The energy music creates for social movements lends power to people supporting a cause or seeking change. The research I presented to Professor Matsue explained how various historical events were influenced by music. Each historical example is different. Some use scathing lyrics sung to a sweet melody to create a form of sarcastic protest, while others use an empowering melody with a strong sympathetic rhythmic pulse to create uplifting social protest. But in each example, music has a strong influence on the collective identity of each oppressed group, bringing power to social justice movements.

Some songs in this category like “This Land is Your Land” may seem like there's not much behind them, however, a closer look reveals a song about the working-class protest. Woody Guthrie’s song, a seemingly American past-time, is really a protest to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which he deemed offensive to the realities of the Great Depression and the plight of the poor people of the Dust Bowl. But due to a shortened version of the song being sung by schoolchildren everywhere in the 1950s, its roots became lost to history. Only in the late 1960s did the protest verses come b

ack into the public consciousness, but still are not largely performed. This ambiguous song includes tension in the American experience that is largely unheard of due to wealthier Americans’ unwillingness to reckon with the fact that not every American shares the same positive experiences.

Another good example of an influential song on justice is “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This song inspires emotion beyond what we hear in the poem that accompanies it. James Johnson the leader of the NAACP in 1900 wrote this poem as a hymn. It wasn’t until his brother, John Johnson, composed the music for the lyrics. This song is often referred to as the “Black National Anthem” and has deep roots in the protest of segregation. This song was first performed in the segregated Staton School in Florida by a choir of 500 schoolchildren to celebrate President Lincoln's birthday. In the early 1900s Johnson's lyrics eloquently captured the solemn yet hopeful appeal for the liberty of Black Americans. This song was later used as a rallying cry during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

These songs are just two examples of music’s deep roots in history and protest. In my research, for Professor Matsue I uncovered case studies about the impact of conscious rap music on racial discrimination. I learned about the role of traditional folk music in the Queer community. I even gained insight into how classical quartet music was an influencer of the hope of Holocaust survivors. Many of the influences of music are out there, and just need to be seen. This sociocultural influence of music is an important way music has shaped society and illustrates the sounds of social rebellion.

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