A conversation about the long and complex relationship between music and social justice movements, on our podcast The Pitchfork Review.
In a year of historic protests, on the eve of a critical election, we’ve been thinking a lot about the place of music in movements for social and political change. In this episode, Pitchfork Editor Puja Patel speaks with Jason King, professor at NYU and founding faculty member of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, and Allison Hussey, Pitchfork Associate Staff Writer, about the changing role of protest music across American history, from 19th-century Black spirituals to Public Enemy, Lady Gaga, and Janelle Monáe. They also touch on the secret history of a Bob Dylan classic, and the new ways pop stars have engaged with activism in the social media era.
Listen to this week’s episode below, and subscribe to The Pitchfork Review for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also check out an excerpt of the podcast’s transcript below. For more, check out Jason King’s features “Activism, Identity Politics, and Pop’s Great Awokening,” and “Can Pop Stars Be Political Organizers?”, and Allison Hussey’s feature “5 Songs That Took on Tyranny Around the World, and the Stories Behind Them.”
Jason King: I think an example of a protest song that completely transformed the way the community has moved through the world has to be “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown. It’s his 1968 anthem that addressed Black power, Black empowerment, and self-determination. Funky as hell, exuberant children’s choir singing the chorus. That song was galvanizing in the way that it, more than almost anything else at the time, helped change the way Black communities thought of themselves.
Part of the reason for that was because the word “Black” had such negative connotations for such a long time. Most people, including African-American people, were using the word “Negro” instead of “Black.” And so that song helped instill pride in Black communities at a time in which there was this burgeoning Black Power movement.
It encouraged Black people to make that shift and start calling themselves “Black” instead of “Negro,” and that Black would be something to be proud of. That was not like some symbolic thing—people actually used that song and deployed it in their lives to make a huge shift. I think that’s something that will go down in the history of protest music as one of those moments that was instrumental in terms of changing power relationships.