Opinion: protest songs may not change the world by themselves, but they have the capacity to change the minds of people who in turn can certainly change the world

By Martin J. Power, Aileen Dillane, Amanda Haynes and Eoin DevereuxPopular Music and Popular Culture Research Cluster & Power, Discourse and Society Research Cluster, University of Limerick

Social protest is a form of political expression that wants to bring about meaningful social change. It does this by applying pressure to, and in the process influencing, the general public or the policies of a government organisation or institution. For us, mass protest represents the movement of democracy to outside of the formal structures of the political system and it is essential to a just society. In this understanding, protest is designed to disturb the dominant narrative, to promote an alternative understanding of the issue at hand and to demand an end to the way the issue is currently addressed. 

How protestors communicate their message is a key component in determining if their protest will be successful. Yet a body of research going back several decades shows how some media coverage has attempted to and undermined the legitimacy of protest movements and events by presenting their actions as violent and insurrectionary.

Sound is an integral part of protest and singing is a way for people to raise their voices in an appeal for justice. The intimate and sensuous activity of singing, in solo form or as part of a collective, has a power and persuasiveness beyond mere rhetoric. In that context, the ability to provide contradictory narratives has often been enabled by the "reach" of popular music. 

When song is mobilised to counter a myriad of anti-democratic, anti-human practices, the power of song is revealed as affective, persuasive, ethical and hopeful. 

Music as social protest is too far reaching to be neatly packed into a genre, geographic location or time period, and can take on different meaning for different people in a wide range of contexts. In 1968, sociologist Serge Denisoff was one of the first academics to turn his attention to the phenomena of protest songs. He decided that such songs were essentially one of two kinds of propaganda. While music has the potential to reach across social and political divides to inform, it can be used for malign propaganda purposes like any medium. It can misinform, incite and exclude. In fact, singers, song lyrics and performances may play a role in the reproduction of oppressive structures and behaviours

Yet when song is mobilised to counter injustice, to challenge inequality, to rise above hate and fear, to appeal against the normalisation of bigotry, racism, misogyny, homophobia and the myriad of other anti-democratic, anti-human practices, the power of song is revealed as affective, persuasive, ethical and hopeful. 

It is rarely in the economic interest of professional musicians to be seen exclusively as a protest singer and, where freedom of expression is curtailed, it can be highly dangerous. Yet most protest singers find a way to do it, sometimes concealing the very subversive nature of their message in beautifully crafted melodies and harmonies, metaphors or unthreatening performance contexts. Other times, the singing is loud, defiant and in unison, buoyed by the power of numbers, singing civil disobedience with pure, noisy exuberance. In the end, every song of social protest ever written has one aim: to bring the attention of the audience to an issue that needs redress.

Recent years have seen a renewal of mass movements as popular ways to respond to various issues. Previously taken for granted assumptions of development towards democratic and rights-based systems of governance have been challenged by shifts to the political right, on-going human rights abuses and numerous regressive developments in which state actors are frequently implicated.

For example In 2017, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued an early warning with respect to racial conflict in the United States. The public confrontations between white supremacists and anti-racists (as in Charlottesville in 2017, where an anti-racist protestor was killed) should be understood as contemporary manifestations of a deep-rooted history of racism in the US. Right wing movements and far right parties who have benefited from populism have also increased and have been making significant gains across Europe since 2014. On the southern and eastern borders of the European Union, a humanitarian crisis resulting from the displacement of huge numbers of people is on-going.

When song combines with social protest in these contexts, something very powerful is unleashed, particularly when people really listen to what is being said by the performer. Protest songs may not change the world by themselves, but they have the capacity to change the minds of people who in turn can certainly change the world

Dr Martin J. Power, Dr Aileen Dillane, Dr Amanda Haynes and Professor Eoin Devereux are the editors of Songs of Social Protest: International Perspectives which will be published in June 2018.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ