The Black Lives Matter movement – the culmination of years of escalating tension, rooted in systemic oppression of black Americans – has established itself as a powerful, lasting presence within modern discourse surrounding race relations in the United States. Since its rise to prominence following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, #BlackLivesMatter has constantly appeared atop national headlines. Most recently, Chris Christie claimed in an interview with CBS Face of the Nation that President Obama “encourages lawlessness” by justifying Black Lives Matter. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have issued public support for the movement — each asserting that “black lives matter” on their campaign websites. On Duke’s own campus, dialogue on race has been reenergized in the wake of the recent racist vandalism of a Black Lives Matter poster.
Historically, mass social movements have centered around calls for cultural change and shifts towards a more equitable society. Successful social movements have effectively leveraged both popular culture and the present political climate — garnering popular support for legislative action by promoting narratives of reform. Abolitionists demanded freedom and humanity for black slaves; populists during the Gilded Age called for the rejection of vast economic inequality; civil rights activists mobilized popular opposition to the brutality shown toward black Americans in the 1960s. Today, Black Lives Matter has solidified itself as the next major movement in a long history of American social justice activism.
Primary sources provide insight into how real people experienced and perceived these dramatic shifts. Music is a particularly captivating source, with all its emotional and symbolic meanings. Moreover, the lasting effect a well composed song can connect the past and present in a compelling way. Protest songs provide a lens into the experiences of those navigating times of social unrest.
It is too early to tell how history will look back on the Black Lives Matter movement. Still, current artists are constantly contributing material for the construction of a popular narrative. To explore this embodiment of the movement, I will quickly look at two iconic protest songs, separated by twenty years and associated with different social movements and issues. My aim is not to criticize or critique, but to use the songs as case studies to raise questions: Could the popularity of these songs over time lend itself to the construction of incomplete, uninformed popular narratives? And does remembering (or misremembering) our history according to those constructed narratives harm our ability to progress as a community?
This antiestablishment classic launched the careers of legends Stephen Stills and Neil Young. Perhaps Stills’ breakthrough hit is the best musical reflection of the Student New Left’s growing discontent in the ‘60s. The song’s lyrics describe a conflict at a mass protest of “Young people speaking their minds/ Getting so much resistance from behind.” Stills, the song’s primary author, does a particularly great job of capturing the shared confusion at a time of such intense change:
There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.
“For What It’s Worth” has long been associated with the so-called “Vietnam Era”. The song has been immortalized in this image through its appearance in famous Hollywood Vietnam movies — most notably Emilio Estevez’s “The War at Home” and, of course, “Forrest Gump.” The connection to Vietnam makes sense: the song’s imagery – a protest scene, the widespread “paranoia” and fear, the questioning, the man who can “come and take you away” – is widely interpreted as a critique of the motives behind America’s involvement in Vietnam.
The pervading narrative often associated with “For What It’s Worth” and the sixties in general evokes images of peace protests, draft dodgers, rock and roll, Woodstock, psychedelic drugs and hippies in the popular imagination. Though “For What It’s Worth” achieved major commercial success as a protest song (reaching number seven in Billboard’s Hot 100), we often overlook the song’s novelty. Very few anti-war rock songs were commercially released prior to 1967. And of those that were, very few attained any sort of commercial success. However, Stills didn’t even write the beloved song about Vietnam at all — in fact, it was written as a reflection on the Sunset Strip curfew riots of 1966.
The Vietnam War certainly energized the New Left, and the popularization of rock and roll served to direct the existing antiestablishment sentiments of the time. But does the misassociation of “For What It’s Worth” with Vietnam oversimplify the political motives of the New Left? And how do we reconcile the musician’s purpose when using this song to reflect on our past? Or maybe the emotional response the song invokes is the most important aspect to consider.
While “For What It’s Worth” established the commercial viability of political commentary in rock and roll, “Fuck Tha Police” represented a major breakthrough in the emergence of gangsta rap as a popular genre. Along with its openly confrontational lyrics and controversial themes, N.W.A. grew in popularity among young people in the late eighties. N.W.A. has regained relevance in recent months with it’s successful August release of the film “Straight Outta Compton.” And like Buffalo Springfield, N.W.A. was composed of young soon-to-be superstars like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. The group’s impact on the development of hip hop is unquestioned, and their hit “Fuck Tha Police” is evidence of the long lasting tensions between African Americans and the police. The group’s expression of frustration at racial profiling resonates strongly with today’s movement.
“Fuck Tha Police” was released in 1988, towards the end of the Ronald Reagan administration — an era of American policy responsible for the escalation of the War on Drugs. Reagan’s 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act established mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, directed $1.7 billion to fund increased policing, and ignited a campaign against specific drugs, especially crack cocaine, concentrated primarily within minority communities in the poorer inner-cities. Today, mass-incarceration in the United States serves as a potent reminder of Reagan’s anti-drug policies. We are still feeling the effects of this legislation in terms of mass-incarceration. In this context, the outrage of the six members of the band was surely rooted in the oppressive nature of Reagan’s war on drugs.
“Fuck Tha Police” is said to have been inspired by an incident where police officers arrested Dre and Eazy-E for shooting paintballs at bystanders at a busstop. The song’s popularity grew as N.W.A’s debut album Straight Outta Compton – which “Fuck Tha Police” was a single on – sold three million copies and went double platinum. Notably, the song sparked the FBI to write a letter to N.W.A.’s record company denouncing the violent lyrics. Not surprisingly, the record company used the letter to further promote the group and their “bad boy” image. The phrase “fuck the police” has since been referenced by many other artists over the years, including Ice-T, The Game, and Kanye West.
Does it take anything away from the song’s impact when you consider it’s inspiration draws heavily on the, probably, unlawful actions by Dre and Eazy? Besides that, the impact of such a violent, antagonistic message should also be considered. Does promoting the phrase “fuck the police” contribute too much to a “blue vs. black” narrative that ignores a more nuanced history that included real threats of gang violence? Regardless, the traction received by “Fuck Tha Police” stands testament to how deeply themes of police brutality, oppression, and the War of Drugs resonate with affected members of the American public.
Bringing things back
The ability to critically analyze how popular narratives have developed over history, and exploring where they are rooted, is crucial in understanding the development of today’s social movements. Music is just one contributor of many – literature, film, television, and art also play significant roles. Nonetheless, music is uniquely able to capture the emotion of a public in just a few minutes, giving it the potential to reach countless people. However, uncritical acceptance of a certain popular narrative formed in this manner is dangerous because it can be manipulated for specific partisan political gain. This is evident in how the Right has cited colorblindness as the objective of Civil Rights in order to pass legislation on issues like electoral redistricting and voter registration.
Protest songs have real political value. They have unified thousands behind a common cause and given movements energy to push forward. Even today, political music continues to impact social movements and its participants in powerful ways. Activists from Cleveland State University proved this when they began chanting Kendrick Lamar’s single “Alright” in protest of a police officer using pepper spray on a crowd in July. Last December, renowned Roots drummer Quest Love publicly challenged today’s artists to produce more protest music after the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not indicted.
America needs protest music. Black Lives Matter needs protest music. But years from now, looking back on the cultural shifts our country experienced as a result of this movement, hopefully we have the warewithal to reflect with a reasonable amount of prudence.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The original version inaccurately stated that the #BlackLivesMatter movement began following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The movement actually began following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting of Trayon Martin; it rose to national prominence after Brown’s death.