Culture | New songs, same old tune

Jessica Lukawiecki traces the evolution of music in protest

Protest songs are often considered things of the past, nostalgic reminders of a world where idealistic flower children used music to express their discontent with the injustices taking place around them. They are relegated to a time when Pete Seeger, Neil Young, and Edwin Star were singing about issues that mattered, to a time when people actually cared. These are pictures of a very different world in which women and people of colour were fighting for their rights using music and art, when thousands would gather in solidarity to protest against war and apathy and prejudice.
But does our world today really paint such a different picture? Has music really disappeared as a means of being heard in a time when individual voices are too easily drowned out by the larger powers of corporatization and globalization?
Are protest songs truly a thing of the past?
There is no doubt that there was a time when protest music was more readily accepted as part of the mainstream. Songs like John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” were comfortable on Billboard charts throughout the sixties. Today, we turn on the radio and hear popular stations playing songs centred on sex, alcohol and drugs, and it becomes only too easy to assume that the mainstream is an accurate reflection of the masses – easy to believe we are as apathetic and devoid of ideals as the music that dominates our media.
But to reach this conclusion is to make a gross misjudgment – one that ignores the thousands of grass roots movements bringing together suppressed groups around the world through music. Protest songs have not disappeared, folks – instead they have adapted to fit into a new and changing world. Out of the depths of inequality have risen some of the most unacknowledged and revolutionary forms of protest song the world has yet seen. This is not an instance of apathy – this is an exciting moment in time where pressures to keep silent have forced those at the bottom to use innovative ways to make themselves heard – turning defiance into brave, soaring gestures of solidarity and strength.
Songs arising from the labour Union Movement have been documented as far back as 1879, but the more recent incorporation of technology into this trend has resulted in an explosion of protest music fighting for union rights. Crying out against Republican Governor Scott Walker’s budget cut proposals for trade unions, protests in Wisconsin have resulted in a number of YouTube videos by local artists going viral. The Dropkick Murphys, an Irish-American Celtic band, have been leaders in this development, releasing songs like “Take Em’ Down” to support the struggles of the working class in Wisconsin.
Other protest groups, like the International Raging Grannies, have been incorporating satirical humour into their protest songs and chants since they first began in 1987. One of the original founders of the Raging Grannies in Montreal, Joan Hadrill, told The Daily over the phone that the Grannies have found that the most effective way of getting their messages across is by keeping people entertained and engaged. The Grannies will often go to places they haven’t been invited, dressed in outrageous getups, to sing and chant about issues ranging from sweat shops and Native land claims to environmental activism and unjust wars.
“Mostly what we do in our protests is sing, and mostly satirical songs to get our messages across,” Hadrill said. “We find it’s more effective than preaching to people because it keeps them entertained and interested. We use tunes from old familiar songs so that people can join in, and we share the songs we create across Granny groups.”
Similar movements toward incorporating music into protests have been witnessed in Montreal’s student population, where protests are quickly becoming more frequent and insistent. Representing more than 55, 000 students, the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) uses protests to fight against rising tuition fees and the loss of student rights. President Léo Bureau-Blouin told The Daily in an interview that he has noticed a strong musical presence in all their demonstrations. “The main objective of incorporating music is to make sure there is a rhythm to the protests, to create unity and to gain media attention,” he explained.
Mob Squad McGill member Sam Neylon and former Daily editor said in an interview that protest songs have heatured strongly in local student protests this year, particularly with the Arch Café and tuition protests in Quebec City. “A lot of times it’s just about creating noise and being heard,” he said, “but it’s really interesting the kinds of songs and rhythms that get going when everyone’s together. The idea of a lot of protests is to counter order, to take back the streets as our space through songs and chants and dancing.”
Neylon continued by explaining that he has seen two converging trends in current protests – one that is interested in taking the aesthetics of leftist sixties protest songs and reinventing them, and another that is focused on the online media and sound demo’s in order to be heard through any means necessary, including megaphones, pots, pans, and drums.
Perhaps our fast-paced, expanding world has led us to expect instantaneuous results, but if we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that movements don’t take hold overnight. The progressive folk movement which first emerged in the fifties took over a decade to develop, only really taking root when it was revived by singers like Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan amidst a population hungry for justice.
We loften ament the lost ways of the past, the fuel that drove protesters and musicians in the sixties when groups cried out against war and injustice. But new movements are taking this energy, recycling it, and spitting out something completely new and inventive. Let us paint a very different picture – one of a future without apathy and silence, where voices are heard and accountability is demanded, and where the voices and frustrations of an entire generation are understood through the power of music.