Music as a Method of Protest

by nehadosh

One of the earliest topics we discussed this semester was the power of music to serve as a “technology for amplifying a message” and a “technology for controlling and unifying groups of people”. Although we cited “We Shall Overcome” as a key protest song used in the American Civil Rights Movement, this is just one of many instances where music has played an integral role in protest movements. Nearly every large social movement has a song or collection of songs that encompass the main mantra of the crusade.

Interestingly enough, the first time I heard “We Shall Overcome” was not in its original English form, but rather in in its 1980s Hindi adaptation, “Hum Honge Kamyab”. The two songs are a literal translation of each other with the same melody. Although the political climates were different, the song served similar purposes in promoting equality for the underserved, underrepresented population. As much as it became iconic of the Civil Rights Movement, the song became equally resonant within the Indian population as well.

There has been debate as to who originally penned “We Shall Overcome”. It was originally accredited to Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, as the lyrics bear significant resemblance to his 1901 song, “I’ll Overcome Someday”. However, recent rulings from Sept. 11, 2013 give the rights to Louise Shropshire’s “If My Jesus Wills” noting the more striking similarities in its song structure and lyrics.

However, does it matter where it comes from? Of course, credit should be given where credit is due, but has the musician’s purpose been effectively served once their music outlives their own legacy? When the scope of its reach has transcended political, racial, and social boundaries and has helped fostered a movement, is it less important that Bob sang it first, and not Bill?

In light of music’s greater position in political movements, is music just a more appropriate way of giving speeches? The logic behind this is that when you have a tune stuck in your head, you inevitably have the lyrics stuck in your head too. Conversely, is it the technology of music in its core of wavelengths, pitches and the composition of the individual notes that evoke an emotional response from us? I argue that it’s a bit of both; you can’t derive meaning and identify with a song if the lyrics don’t resonate with you somehow, and the means of transmitting that information must elicit an appropriate emotional reaction for our feelings to align with the message of the song.