Music As A Tool Of Protest And Social Change

Abstract: Music is one of the oldest forms of artistic expression. It is a universal language that has a long history as a form of art used in activism. Dissent through music is a fairly common phenomenon and artists have been using it as a powerful tool to fight their battles for eons. This paper aims to understand the ability of music to effect social change. In order to understand music’s social power, the paper will briefly look into the history of music. While focusing on protest music, it will discuss the role of music in the American Civil Rights movement and protest music in India.


According to Beethoven, “Music can change the world.” There is an undeniable power in music. It is universal and transcends all boundaries. Its abilities cannot be put in words; it speaks directly to the soul. In most cultures, music is an essential and irreplaceable part of daily life. According to anthropologists, “Music is a typical encounter and an enormous piece of social orders. Every single human network consistently and, in all spots have occupied with melodic practices. Music as a method of human movement is a social marvel establishing an essential social substance as people make music and make their relationship to music. As social marvel, music is continually made and re-made to reflect evolving socio-social capacities” (Kelly, 2002). It is fundamental to the working of society. Societies have always agitated for change. This longing for change is constant. For decades now, music has been used as a tool for social change. The Greek people were among the first to understand the power of music and use it to rebel against authority. Some of the greatest minds including Plato believed in the power of music to affect and move the masses and suggested using it to inform and inspire people. The invention of radio channels, blues, gospel, jazz and classical music led to the emergence of popular music innovation in the 1960s which played a huge role in social movements across the world; the consequences of which can be felt even today (Robbins, n.d.).

Protest Music

Music can be an interesting way to mobilize the masses. Tunes that are related to social change are referred to as protest songs. Such songs are generally written and composed with the purpose of being a part of a cultural or political movement that seeks change. The songs are recorded in a way that attracts the attention of people and draws them together, inspiring them to take a stand (Henwood, 2017). Protest songs normally are of two kinds: “politically charged, topical songs taking issue with the government, or culturally focused songs aimed at injustices facing marginalized groups” (Henwood, 2017). Protest music is of varied styles; they can be simple and catchy, loud and boisterous or even quiet and daunting, either way, they manage to stir strong emotions (Henwood, 2017). Protest music has played an important role in numerous famous movements around the world like the Anti-war movement, the Women’s suffrage, LGBTQ+ movements and the Labour movement. The powers of protest songs are undeniable. Such songs were sung in England as early as the medieval times. In the United States, slaves sung songs like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ and ‘Steal Away’ as hidden messages of escape (McGuinness, 2019). Social movements in the 1900’s not only giving musicians a crowd of listeners, but also a feeling of mission well beyond business gains. At a time when society was seeking change, protest songs were especially important because they carried the message to global listeners along with uniting the different protesters together under a single banner. During the 1960s, music was the instrument that pushed subculture into the mainstream cognizance. (Robbins, n.d.). The most impactful protest songs are now used as national anthems to remind us of struggles past and give us hope for the future. After comprehending the potential of protest music, politicians started enlisting the help of musicians for their political campaigns. John F Kennedy famously procured the support of Frank Sinatra for his presidential campaign when he stood against Richard Nixon which helped him win more votes as Sinatra was able to mobilize bigger crowds (McGuinness, 2019). He modified his award-winning ‘High Hopes’ and changed the verses to support Kennedy. “Everyone wants to back Jack/Jack is on the right track/’Cause he’s got high hopes” (McGuinness, 2019). At a time when almost 90 per cent of the world tunes into music; it becomes an extremely important tool to influence the listener’s ideas, thoughts and emotions. According to TM Krishna, a Carnatic music vocalist, “The essence of art is to wake us from ethical slumber and in its real form it challenges status quo. Art is the soul of a revolution” (Ranjan & Krishna, 2018). Protest music is constantly evolving and over the years has taken various forms in folk, rap, indie, classical and underground rock amongst others. Artists like Neil Young, Patti Smith, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder continued to make socially-cognizance music much after the 1960s.

Role of Music in the American Civil Rights Movement

The mid 1900s was an era of great political and cultural upheavals in the United States of America. The Women’s Movement, Free Speech Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement and the Civil Rights Movement all took place in full power during the 1960’s (Robbins, n.d.). “John Brown’s Body”, which was sung to the popular tune of call-and-response camp meeting song or the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, ignited tensions that are believed to have caused the start of the Civil War in America (Henwood, 2017). “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave / His soul is marching on,” the lyrics repeat; while a later verse calls for hanging Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederacy, from an apple tree (Henwood, 2017). The lyrics were characteristic to most protest songs from the decade. Lyrics like those were simple and easy to understand. They brought to light the problems and were repetitive which made it easy to learn and spread to others (Henwood, 2017). The Civil Rights Movement was the African Americans fight to put a stop to legalized racial discrimination and race-related crimes against them in the United States of America. Music greatly helped those who were fighting for the African Americans (Reese, 2015). Black Americans expressed their emotions to the world through music. It provided them with emotional and spiritual support to get through trying times. Music acted as a tool for peace and brought all the African Americans together with a common goal to end the brutality faced by them.

The Movement saw the participation of some of the biggest names in music at that time. From Bob Dylan to Joan Baez, everybody leant their musical talents for the cause. Tracks like ‘The Times They Are-a Changing’ by Bob Dylan, ‘Woodstock’ by Joni Mitchell and ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye reflected the sentiments of the struggles during the Civil War (Robbins, n.d.). “Freedom songs” like ‘We Shall Overcome’ by Pete Seeger, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ by Bob Dylan became integral to the movement and reflected the power of the movement (Robbins, n.d.). These songs resonated so strongly amongst the people because of their universal lyrics and catchy melodies and are still sung, decades later. They not only became anthems during the Civil Movement but instilled hope in the people through their messages of peace (Robbins, n.d). Such songs helped bridge the gap between Civil Rights activists and members of the community. They brought people together during trying times and helped them put up a strong and united front against their violent opponents (Robbins, n.d).

The lynching of African-Americans had become a common occurrence in the 1960’s in certain parts of America. Bob Dylan, in his track ‘Desolation Row’ highlighted the plight of the victims. He sang “They’re selling postcards of the hangings”, to shed light on the distribution of photographs of three blacks hung in 1920 (McGuinness, 2019). Abel Meeropol of New York City was inspired to write the Best Song of The Century according to Time Magazine- ‘Strange Fruit’ after coming across a similar sight (McGuinness, 2019). When Meeropol saw a photograph of Thomas Shipp an Abram Smith hanging from a tree in Indiana, he wrote “Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” (Simone, 1965). Producer Ahmet Ertegum, called it “a declaration of war; the beginning of the Civil Rights movement” (McGuinness, 2019). Decades later, singer Rebecca Ferguson was asked to sing the very song that was blacklisted in the United States at the inauguration of American President Donald Trump in the Capital (McGuinness, 2019). She gladly agreed to sing the song that according to her, “has a huge historical importance” and “a song that speaks to all the disregarded and downtrodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world” (McGuinness, 2019). ‘Strange Fruit’, turned out to be a game changer for protest songs. Songs of dissent grew to be something beyond reportage, hoisting fight tunes to the degree of craftsmanship.

Protest Music in India

Music has always been integral to Indian Culture. Indian society is deeply rooted in tradition and cultural aspects are given much importance. In a country with a population of over 1 billion people, cultural activism becomes one of the strongest tools to mobilize such large crowds due to the innate crowd mentality where people tend to emulate others and follow the current popular trend. The growing resentment towards to government in recent times has seen a number of artists producing varied versions of protest music. Delhi based band Ska Vengers aim to inform people about different political issues through their music. Taru Dalmia, the lead singer of Ska Vengers says, “Music is a quintessential part of all many fundamental aspects of human life, and protest is no different. You will find that most protest movement and revolutionary movements have songs and their importance should not be underestimated. Music can effectively communicate feelings and forge a sense of unity, it can also galvanise people into action” (Ranjan & Krishna, 2018). Protest music in India is so important to help the various break man-made barriers that exist in the country like the caste and class system.

An increasing number of young individual artists are inspired to express their views on controversial topics. Students are far more politically active today than ever before. The availability of information and it’s easy to access due to technology makes them more aware of current affairs. The most recent Anti Citizenship Amendment Act or Anti CAA protests in the country led to a vast number of protest songs being produced. Mohak Kukreja, a student of FLAME University wrote a song titled ‘Ache Din’, a jibe at the current government’s slogan. By releasing the track on social media, he influenced a significant number of students owing to the constant shares and endless likes and comments. Students that were initially unaware of the situation were more interested in it after listening to their fellow student’s song. Unfortunately, with politics getting more intertwined with everyday life and increasing censorship, the fear of punishment and backlash has silenced many talented artists.

Power of Protest Music     

Protest songs continue to impact society to date. The bond of music is unique and unbreakable. Musicians like Neil Young continue to write songs that highlight the problems faced by people in recent times. Music has power over the mind and emotions like no other and can be used to influence people’s moods. It willingly and unwillingly makes its way into our daily life through radios, television, mobile phones, the internet and other technology. Protest songs echo collective sentiments and give a voice to the mute. Lynskey in 33 Revolutions Per Minute explains, “ The point of protest music is not to shift the world on its axis but to change opinions and perspectives, to say something about the times in which you live, and, sometimes, to find that what you’ve said speaks to another moment in history.” And only when this happens is Sam Cooke’s prophesy going to come true, and a change is gonna come” (McGuinness, 2019).

Artists can have such a big impact on society today because all they need is to find a few people with similar views to listen to their work. Individuals caught in a group having similar ideas tend to conform and change their views to match the majority. The Accommodation theory suggests that “music is an innately social encounter and music is normally performed with others (a gathering experience) as well as for other (a gathering crowd)” (Giles, Howard, and so on 2009: Pg. 293). Because artists perform for crowds, by virtue of human nature of conformity, individuals that otherwise do not share the same opinion are influenced into forming the same popular opinion by being present in the crowd. Shows are a perfect instance of how music focuses on society. Shows are a perfect instance of how music focuses on society. It is a perfect instrument to make regard for mass social affairs of people or even just little settings. It is a powerful instrument to show dissent and anger because uniting force and cognizance of shared points of view. (Heble, 2003). Social media and technology also aid musicians to spread their message globally in just one click. Every other day sees a new artist go ‘viral.’

While music is most things good, it comes with it’s share of negatives. Protest music has been used negatively in the past and finds negative instances even today. Oppressors like Hitler and South African dictators were known to use songs of dissent to influence public opinion and exploit the masses. The famous Radetzky March had disagreeable outcomes. Today, music is marketed and sold as a fashion statement. Famous artists sometimes seek to achieve inappropriate changes in society. They sell hazardous ideas of intoxication and suicide and portray it to be desirable. Their loyal fans that look up to them try and emulate them while making questionable decisions regarding their lifestyle.


As we enter a new era of protest music, music today is so much more than just entertainment. It is oftentimes considered ‘food for the soul’. For some, it is a way of life. One of the most powerful tools for social change; it is almost impossible to escape music in the 21st century. While many structural and technological changes have reshaped society, music has been the ‘soundtrack for these changes’ (Lemos, 2011). Protest music is especially relevant today, at a time when more change in society are required than ever before. Collective singing has an effect like no other. It reminds us of our strength and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It reminds us to be hopeful and that love conquers all. The world would have a different story today if not for the countless changes brought by music. A life without music; is a life half lived.



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Mehak Neel is a Sociology and Journalism at FLAME University. Her undying love for travel is rooted in her curiosity to learn about various cultures. She considers the knowledge of current world affairs a vital asset and is often found passionately discussing the same. Her hobbies include football, athletics and painting.