What makes a Black protest song? History suggests it can depend on who's listening

Fannie Lou Hamer singing

Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer singing to a group of people during the "March Against Fear" through Mississippi in June 1966.

Alabama Department of Archives and History

In the digital age, a song can go viral in just a few hours. But in the 1920s, hearing music made hundreds of miles away was revolutionary.

The advent of electronic recording about 100 years ago, and the industry it brought, changed American popular music forever.

Tyina Steptoe

Tyina Steptoe

But it also proved to be a watershed moment for using music to spark and sustain social and political change in Black communities, said Tyina Steptoe, an associate professor in the University of Arizona Department of History.

"For the first time, people in Georgia hear what people in New York sound like – and vice versa," she said, which helped create a cross-regional dialogue about racial justice that built movements and sharpened messages.

It was only one of several key periods in history for using music as a tool in Black protest movements, said Steptoe, whose research and writing explore race, gender and culture in the United States, often through the lens of music.

The music of enslaved Africans contained veiled messages about liberation, but those messages became more direct during the Civil War. A century later, the civil rights movement, with blues, rock 'n' roll and soul, brought songs about social change such as Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and Nina Simone's "To Be Young, Gifted and Black." And in the 1980s, hip-hop artists paired political messages with distinct dance beats, creating songs protesting police violence in urban communities.

In April, Steptoe will teach a course called A Racial Justice Mixtape that explores how music has shaped protests for racial justice across two centuries of American history. The course, open to all members of the Tucson community, will be offered through the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences' Community Classroom series, which invites members of the public to learn from university faculty about a range of topics.

Steptoe also hosts a weekly radio program called "Soul Stories," which highlights diverse forms of soul music and themes in soul music history. The program airs from 2-5 p.m. Saturdays on 91.3 KXCI Tucson.

Steptoe talked to University of Arizona News about the role of music in racial justice movements throughout history, some common themes of protest songs and one artist she wishes more people knew about.

Q: Why is music such an important lens for viewing history, particularly Black history?

A: Many people have theorized about why humans make music, but the one thing they agree on is that it's one of the oldest forms of human communication. So, it makes perfect sense to me that, as a way to study human populations, we would look at the music they make.

Q: Is there a distinct definition for "protest music," or is it too hard to define?

A: Like so many forms of art and communication, it's open to interpretation. In the history of people of African descent, a lot of the protest messages in music were sometimes veiled, especially before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The people who were making the music understood the secret messages, but outsiders would just think, "Look at those happy slaves singing in the fields," when actually they were protesting enslavement or protesting the slave patrols who would round up runaways.

Sometimes, musicians created a song they didn't intend to be a protest song, but then audiences used it as a protest song. As an example, there's the Motown Records classic "Dancing in the Street" by Martha and the Vandellas. Martha Reeves has said many times that she was making a dance song when the Vandellas went into the studio. When Motown released it, they were not thinking that it was a protest song. Nevertheless, people used "Dancing in the Street" during some of the urban uprisings during the late 1960s, and it becomes this anthem against police brutality and Black urban communities.

Q: What are some of the common themes in different eras of protest music?

A: One thing we can find across African American musical expressions is a protest of law enforcement, regardless of how law enforcement looks. If we're talking about the music of enslaved Africans, there's a lot of music that protested the slave patrols – people who were employed by slaveholders to police the woods near farms and plantations for runaways.

Then came the early blues and perhaps the first blues ever. One of the first blues songs that we know – the first lyrics we've been able to find – are about a police officer in the Mississippi Delta who used to target Black men and arrest them, and the judge would send them to prison farms. It's been dated to the 1870s or 1880s; we're not sure when it originated.

Then there's another explosion of this message during the summer of 2020 with protests after George Floyd's murder. So, this is a theme that we can trace across African American music – this protest of the patrolling of Black communities.

Q: Are there any artists in Black protest music that you wish were more widely recognized?

A: A person I've loved my entire life because my grandparents loved her is a singer by the name of Willie Mae Thornton, who went by Big Mama Thornton. I am always surprised and a little heartbroken that more people don't know Big Mama. A lot of her music protested how Black women were treated in this country. She has songs about domestic violence in her life.

She also presented herself in ways that went against the image of womanhood. In the 1950s, women are wearing pearls and high heels, they're vacuuming, they have two children and are married to a man. Big Mama Thornton, in her music and in her lifestyle, subverted all of that. She never married, never had children; all of her songs are really, in a lot of ways, protesting the way that men treated her. She also pushed against her record label, which tried to force her into dresses and heels and pearls in public and in the media. She favored suits, ties and cowboy hats in her personal life. So much about her life is the Black protest tradition, but especially where it intersects with gender and sexuality.

She's also the first artist to record the song "Hound Dog," which so many people remade – most famously, Elvis Presley. Elvis was a huge fan of Big Mama's, and when he recorded his own version of "Hound Dog," it became one of his first major hits. But in the process, people forgot about Big Mama Thornton. She's one of my favorite artists of all time. I really wish more people checked out her music.

Steptoe compiled some of her favorite songs from Black protest movements in a Spotify playlist, below. Click through and log in to Spotify to hear the full songs.

For more information or to register for the Community Classroom course A Racial Justice Mixtape, visit the Community Classroom website.

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