Music plays a powerful role in creative expression across all languages and cultures, and the role of music has played instrumental parts throughout history, from old protest songs played during the violent civil rights era, to those same songs being reinterpreted into rap music by Kanye West, music has no bounds to its alterations and its meaning.
As such, for my MUSC291 playlist, I wanted to explore the idea of inequality anthems from the specific frame of “protest anthems by artists of color that uses mass media to propel a movement” in which music is made to tell the story about the fight for representation, recognition, and paving the road for change. More specifically, I searched for tracks that not only focused on inequality, but served as symbols for protest and inspiration that utilized media fame as a major outlet for propelling the song to the public and as a means for spreading the message. Here are the top five songs I featured:
“Alright” by Kendrick Lamar
During the 2016 Ferguson riots following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the words “We’re Gonna be alright” in reference to Lamar’s hit single filled the streets as police in riot gear marched towards angry protestors. Lamar has never refrained from the media limelight regarding his political stance of racial inequality and police brutality in America, as seen with his Pulitzer Prize winning album, Damn, in 2018 and the release of “Alright” was no exception as it inadvertently created a protest anthem heard far and wide in the streets of Ferguson during this particular year of political turmoil. This song became a symbol of unity and hope through the chaos, and mass media played a major role in the spread and coverage of the beginnings of the police brutality debates as this particular verse resonated in that moment in history:
“When our pride was low
Lookin’ at the world like, “Where do we go, n****?”
And we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, n****
I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow
But we gon’ be alright”
“We Are The Children” by Chris Kando Iijima, Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto, “Charlie” Chin
“We are the children,” A single from the album, A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle of Asians in America, was written as an antiwar song in the early 1970s and historically recognized as the first album of Asian American music. This song was often used as a foundational track for contrafact songs in which many Asian American artists from Hawaii and other parts of the US used it to add verses and stories of their own experiences in America, as such, I chose to feature this track as it’s a major cultural shift that recognizes a population often ignored in mass media and American history. Behind the lyrics, in which the performers recount, “We are the children of the migrant worker / We are the offspring of the concentration camp. / Sons and daughters of the railroad builder / Who leave their stamp on America,” are symbols of immigrant pride in ones heritage and history, especially during a political period of time where people often fought for peace and unity.
“Borders” by M.I.A.
A single from her fifth studio album, AIM, “Borders” was released in 2015 accompanied by a politically charged music video that went viral and sparked controversy throughout social media for it’s lyrically and visual imagery that referenced the 2015 European Refugee Crisis. M.I.A. has often been known for being outspoken about being a women of color in the music industry, and has used her platform often to discuss personal plights of her immigrant family, racism, and the lack of representation for artists of color; for that reason I included this track on the playlist because of its symbolic messaging and intentional rebuttal of how western media portrays migrants and refugees. This music video features “real people” M.I.A. recruited from refugee camps and street-casting, and was filmed with replicas of the Melilla border fences found in southern Spain in a visually stunning video that challenges politicians and people to rethink the way they characterize and discuss migrants in mass media.
What’s up with that?
What’s up with that?
What’s up with that?
What’s up with that?
What’s up with that?”
“Safe” by Dumbfoundead
Like “We Are the Children,” this track by Korean-American rapper, Dumbfoundead, tackles the issue of representation for Asian-Americans, particularly on the Hollywood screen, in a song that satirically pokes at the idea that Asians are often overlooked in film, but also serves as a warning message for Hollywood as Dumbfoundead says:
“The other night i watched the Oscars and the roster of the only yellow men were all statues… Go ahead and pro-file em’ i aint pro-violence, shhhhh, silence is how yellow boys move… What you talkin bout there aint no space, guess i gotta go and make more space.”
This track was briefly returned to the media limelight, especially following the 2019 Oscar wins of Korean Director Bong-Jong Ho’s movie, Parasite, and the song highlights the generational media portrayal of Asians that are often ignored or downright unauthentic, as something that will soon be met with a wave of change. As such, I added this song to the playlist as Dumbfoundead is one of many Asian-American singers credited with bringing a new trend of Asian artists to fame – such as with the rise of 88rising, Rich Brian, Joji, etc. – and highlights the politics of new cultural trends that have sparked debates about cultural appropriation of rap music, to American’s suddenly jumping on Asian trends such as boba, BTS, and utilizing Asian culture for social aesthetics.
“Glory to Hong Kong” by ‘Thomas’
Last but not least, a song that I stumbled upon and caught my attention is a song that served as a literal political anthem during the 2019 Hong Kong Protests that challenged the Chinese Communist Parties attempt to implement sanctions that infringed on Hong Kong national’s independence. Written by an unknown composer, who goes solely by the name ‘Teddy,” this song was often played and sung through the crowds of people on the street, as depicted in the music video of masked protestors in gas masks and footage of the violent rebellion with riot police. This song was a song I chose to feature for many, many reasons, but most importantly for the purpose of exploring and sharing the impact of protest anthems that in this case, was not solely about representation, but for freedom and fighting for one’s identity. The history between Hong Kong and Taiwan versus China is one unlike the others on this list, and is one that is deeply rooted in the fight for independence and recognition not as a race or community, but one for national pride and freedom and I believe this song is an important example of a “protest anthems by artists of color that uses mass media to propel a movement.”