Protest music has a deep and rich history in the United States. One could even say it was born right alongside it.
From “Yankee Doodle” being sung back in defiance at the British soldiers who originally wrote it to ridicule the American Revolution, to the spirituals sung in fields, unifying and fortifying the voices of a people denied their own native languages, people who had been brought to a strange land to survive an insurmountable weight of violence: Protest music is American music.
The go-to material for marches and rallies has always been songs most well known by the crowd protesting.
During the Civil War, that meant the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a marching song based on a well-known hymn. New lyrics written by abolitionist Julia Ward Howe helped push the pro-Union, anti-slavery movement’s message by linking it to the word of God. This protest song has been used over and over again throughout history in different movements with slightly adapted lyrics. It’s still sung in churches, some with Howe’s original anti-slavery lyrics.
Music at protests reminds dissenters of their humanity, even when the powers-that-be attempt to strip away their personhood. It gives strength. It takes the mind away from a place of fear and pain, and focuses the body to resist. And at times, the music is the only way the message can be shared.
The Suffragettes, over 100 years ago, penned most of their speeches to music because they had to. Police and other government officials prohibited women’s rights activists from talking about voting rights at their own rallies, so they sang their messages while they marched, often to the melody of the popular songs of the day, sometimes even to the tune of Yankee Doodle.
In 2016 a Suffragette parody video of Lady Gaga’s song Bad Romance was widely circulated online. It honored Alice Stokes Paul, a leader of the American suffragist movement and one of the main strategists of the campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women (well, the white ones) the right to vote. But it also honored a Suffragette form of musical protest: political parody covers.
In 2015 Kendrick Lamar’s track, “Alright” off of his album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” became the unofficial anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. It was chanted in the streets of Cleveland to downtown Los Angeles.
The message “We’re gonna make it through this, we’re going to be alright” is reminiscent of the civil rights movement’s key anthem and old spiritual, “We Shall Overcome.”
Many of our modern protest songs originated as spirituals and gospels, some first brought to the United States by enslaved Africans.
But among today’s younger protesters, social media and viral video remixes have overtaken the more traditionally composed and distributed songs of popular music.
The Chilean protest song “Un Violador en Tu Camino” or “A Rapist in Your Path” became a viral anthem for feminists around the world in late 2019. First performed during Chile’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the song was picked up online and has been performed in feminist protests worldwide, from Barcelona to London to Berlin to Beirut — all sung in Spanish.
This viral video form of sharing and creating new protest anthems has become the preferred mode for younger generations mainly because it’s quicker but also because it’s more collaborative.
Take for example TikTok user Rynn Star and her now-viral song “Statistics.” On June 3, she uploaded a video of herself singing an impromptu jingle explaining why crime stats in Black communities are usually wrong.
As you can hear, it’s already pretty catchy to start, and it was getting around online. But after another TikTok user, Alex Engelberg, added his barbershop melodies, it went full-on viral.
A bop. pic.twitter.com/Pra2Hv5PZK— Lysol In E Flat (@GeeDee215) June 5, 2020
And people keep adding to it.
As well known as this song has become, it’s still a hard one to get a full crowd to sing along to. But that’s not the case with this other viral protest jam:
And its path to viral success is not too far off from Rynn Star’s TikTok song about police statistics. It’s reach grew through a collaborative effort and a remix.
But while it ended up in the streets, it started at a strip club.
Way back in February in a strip club parking lot in South Carolina, Johniqua Charles, a Black woman, was detained by a security guard named Julius Locklear. Locklear put Charles in handcuffs for appearing inebriated and attempting to go back inside the club for her purse. Her protests and cries to be let go soon turned into an ad-libbed song and dance that others at the scene recorded.
Locklear, who can be seen in the video trying not to crack a smile at Charles’ antics, took the recording and posted it to his own Facebook page with the following text, “Okay IM NOT POSTING THIS TO BE FUNNY TOWARDS THIS SUBJECT!!!!” Locklear wrote: “I’m posting it cause that rap was lit like I wish I could put a beat to it lol.”
The internet apparently agreed. Several DJs created remixes of Charles’ improvised song. Once the George Floyd protests erupted nationwide and defunding the police became a rallying cry, a new protest banger was born.
It hit its viral peak when veteran remix producers DJ Suede the Remix God and iMarkkeyz took it to its final form.
Something that could have gone embarrassingly awry for Johnniqua Charles has actually propelled her to a much better place. Formerly homeless and dealing with drug addiction, that video led people to create a successful GoFundMe account to get her off the streets, reconnecting Charles to her estranged family.
And it could be because of the spirit in which the security guard Julius Locklear posted the original video: one of admiration rather than ridicule. But it could also be because Charles’ song did that thing that all good protest songs do, it gave the right words, at the exact right time, to a group of people who desperately needed to hear them.