Music & Message

“One Thing About Music/When It Hits/You Feel No Pain!”- Bob Marley (Jamaica)

“Uncle Sam Ain’t No Woman/But He Sure Can Take Your Man!” – Denny Hall (USA)

“I Shot The Sherriff/But I Didn’t Shoot The Deputy!” – Bob Marley

“F—k tha Police!” – N.W.A (USA)

In a concerted effort to sell millions of records and create megastars, record label publicists have succeeded in labelling and categorising a specific genre of popular music in particular. This would not be possible without the collaboration of music critics, and with the aid of musicians themselves. The lyrics above – from reggae, country blues and hip hop artists – give an idea of this process.

This deliberate branding of popular music to create genres like protest music is all about manipulation and market forces that target the musicians and the fans (concert attendees and record/CD buyers) to be politically correct.  It’s all about mass faddism. And it’s also about generalisations.

It is also instructive to note that protest pop music, especially in America, evolved from ‘underground’ folk music. 

The world continually moves from one conflict to the other, one crisis to the other and, naturally there will be winners and losers in these conflicts and crises. Obviously, issues of right and wrong are brought to the fore and, logically, justice and injustice become talking points on the front burner daily. Simply put, the winners become the oppressors and the losers, the protesters.

It is instructive to note that the idea of protest and the sustained idea of an ‘anti-’ movement or very vocal opposition can be traced to the print media with the establishment of ‘small’ and persistent anti-government and anti-establishment pamphlets, magazines and newspapers in Britain. These were usually left-wing and socialist-oriented, with a few of them being outright communist. This phenomenon spawned the idea and proliferation of so-called ‘underground’ or liberal magazines and newspapers of the protest-generation/hippie-generation of America as from the sixties.

It is also instructive to note that protest pop music, especially in America, evolved from ‘underground’ folk music. The early propagators of this genre of protest folk music were a generation of wandering minstrels. These, angry young musicians moved from town to town by hitching rides and sang their protest/ ‘anti-’ folk songs – accompanied by just their guitars – to small rural audiences of workers, the down-trodden and disillusioned. In the classic tradition they played for free or for a few coins thrown into a hat or bowl.

They were the voice of this voiceless silent majority, and they were both white and black musicians in America. The revered grand-daddies of this folk-music-protest phenomenon are Woody Guthrie (white), Leadbelly (black) and Pete Seeger (white) to name a few. They sang against injustice (in the case of black folk/country blues musicians: against racial discrimination); the greed and selfishness of the rich and political class, and the general exploitative machinery of the capitalist society. Their protest music was simply and truly socio-politically oriented in favour of the ‘common folks.’

They roused and raised political consciousness. Their songs became the anthems for the establishment of labour unions and socialist movements in post-war America. This was national protest music.

As national conflicts and crises fuelled by the same motives began to expand beyond borders and become global issues, groups on either side of the conflicts also grew bigger and became world movements. By the sixties, the global issue that radically divided the world was the Cold War between the West (capitalism)] and the East (communism). Nuclear weapons became the threats of engagement between the West and the East.

This reality of possible nuclear war galvanised global anti-war movements: Ban-the-Bomb and Peace movements that attracted mostly the youths across the world. Whilst their predecessors like the Beatniks were anti-western culture activists, the new anti-war protesters, labelled Peaceniks and Hippies, rallied around their peace symbols, the reversed ‘V’ greeting, and, of course, anti-war protest songs which  – like wildfire – rapidly spread their anti-war messages across the world.

War thus became the golden target for protest songs globally. There were local wars that attracted protest songs from musicians not necessarily from the countries at war, and wars like the Vietnam War, which sparked intense global outrage and some of the most scathing anti-war protest songs, particularly in the United States of America.

Cover for Sonny Okosun’s Album

These anti-war protest songs could be subtle and hopeful, like Rita Marley’s “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a war with no bombs” (My Kind of War) and oblique like Denny Hall’s “Uncle Sam ain’t no woman/But he sure can take your man,” sung by Black American blues singers in protest against the compulsory drafting of men into the U. S. Army. They could be assertive like Emma Dorgu’s protest song against the Apartheid system in Southern Africa: “Free my people in Soweto/Free my people in Namibia/Freedom, Freedom” (Free My People) and sarcastic like Sonny Okosun’s “Who owns Papa’s land?” (from Papa’s Land) a dig at white domination in Zimbabwe.

Protest music can be communal, regional or global-oriented. It can also be personal and/or represent a select few or group and further still be graphic social commentary.

The greatest folk-protest-song composer and singer has been the American Bob Dylan. It is no surprise that he virtually learnt at the feet of great black and white American protest folklorists. An extremely brilliant poetic lyricist, it is most befitting that more than three decades after he wrote and sang many of his deeply poignant folk protest songs, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.

Bob Dylan with Muhammed Ali. Image credit: Ken Regan

Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, about injustice, racial discrimination and war has been performed and recorded by many popular musicians across the world: “How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man? […] How many times can a man turn his head/And pretend he just doesn’t see? The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.”

Dylan’s classic anti-war masterpiece Masters of War is a caustic indictment: “”You that hide behind walls/You that hide behind desks/I just want you to know/That I can see through your masks […] You put a gun in my hand […] And you turn and run farther when the fast bullets fly, Like Judas of old/You lie and deceive […]  You hide in your mansions/As young people’s blood/ Flows out of their bodies/And is buried in the mud […] Even Jesus will never forgive what you do.” ”

Protest music can be communal, regional or global-oriented. It can also be personal and/or represent a select few or group and further still be graphic social commentary. Protest music can be sloganeering and affirmative like James Brown’s Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.  It can be daringly provocative and confrontational, like N.W.A.’s F—k tha Police.

It can be for a personal-cum-group cause, like Peter Tosh’s Legalize it, a reggae music call for the legalisation of marijuana, which some consider a spiritual herb. It can be a social commentary complaint like Fela’s lament of “Dem kill my mama…” in Unknown Soldier.

The spectrum of what can now be classified as protest music is so wide and fluid in terms of the interpretation given to it by both musicians and listeners. This is where the record and CD labels continue to cash in heavily.

Like all creative endeavours, folk protest music has evolved and changed musically. Whilst there is still the unadulterated acoustic guitar-and-voice version that appeals to purists, we now have electric-band folk-protest music and, of course the subjects and themes have also drastically changed. It is the music labels, their marketing and publicity executives, music journalists and, to a smaller and rather passive extent, the musicians and music fans who have entrenched this rather amorphous brand and genre of music now known globally as “protest music”.

*Feature Image credit: Adrian Boot/*

About the Author

Tam Fiofori is a writer, filmmaker and photojournalist. He has written about music – Jazz, Blues, African popular music for five decades, and has been published in Britain, U. S. A., France, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Japan, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. He was the first Electronic Music/New Music Editor of the U. S.-based DownBeat magazine and, Manager of the Space Music pioneer Sun Ra, for six years. His documentary films on music include ‘Sun Ra LIVE in Europe and Egypt’, ‘FELA’, and ‘Peter King: AfroJazz Pioneer’-[on location]. He is also a Recording Engineer and his long overdue book on SUN RA will be published in 2017.


This article is published as part of Music (That) Matters, an initiative of Goethe-Institut Lagos in commemoration of the 2017 World Music Day. The series is aimed at documenting personal memories and social histories relating to the power of music. All rights reserved by the author.

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