by Bryan Borzykowski
May 11, 2010
A couple of weeks ago a debate broke out on Twitter between Montreal
indie rockers Stars and Toronto hardcore band Fed Up. Stars wanted
to boycott playing in Arizona until the state's recently passed law
which allows police officers to search for illegal immigrants by
randomly asking people for ID was rescinded.
Fed Up thought that was the wrong approach. "Why not keep playing
Arizona, using the shows as an opportunity to engage the people there
to get involved," wrote the band's frontman Damian Abraham on his
I'm with Abraham on this. A boycott by a Canadian band, which is
mostly unknown in Arizona, isn't likely to have much of an affect on the law.
Playing the state won't do much either. But if enough musicians and
some high profile ones get together and galvanize the American
public they may just be able to get this policy changed.
It's happened before. History is filled with songs about injustice,
oppression and war. Not all protest music has worked, but songs and
artists have been responsible for inspiring profound changes to American law.
Here are three moments where the power of music has led to social change.
Slavery would probably have ended in the United States without the
countless gospel and blues songs that marked that era, but it may
have taken a lot longer.
Protest music took two forms in the 18th and 19th centuries whites
singing songs about abolition to other whites (like the Hutchison
Family Singers whose anti-slavery songs were heard by U.S. President
Abraham Lincoln), and African Americans singing spirituals, like the
passionate Go Down Moses.
Other songs, such as Wade in the Water, included instructions on the
path black slaves could take to freedom. It was these songs that kept
the fight for abolition going.
Most of us wish we could work less, but there was a time when long
hours and low pay were the norm.
Through the music of artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger,
and now Billy Bragg, songs about labour rights helped organize
oppressed workers and gave people a reason to keep pressing on.
One of the most popular pro-union tunes is Ralph Chaplin's Solidarity
Forever, which Seeger made famous. "Solidarity forever, for the union
makes us strong," goes the infectious folk chorus, which has been
sung by countless picketers across the world.
When most people think of protest music they think of Vietnam. This
was when some of folk and rock's most famous musicians took to the
streets to promote peace.
There was Bob Dylan's Blowin' In The Wind, a song that was used in
the anti-war and civil rights movements, Joan Baez's Saigon Bride
with the lyrics "How many children must we kill, before the waves
stand still?" and Jimi Hendrix's famously fuzzy version of Star
With many big name artists protesting the war, students across the
country demonstrating and American casualties increasing, the U.S.
government had no choice but to withdraw in 1973.