Music and Social Movements: The Soundtrack of Change

By  | 

From Woody Guthrie’s “Yankee Doodle” to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” music has long served as an agent of change. How?

Sociologists studying the relationship between music and social movements have traditionally followed an Old Left theory when exploring its intersection with lyrics that contain political subtext, deciphering their meaning for individual listeners.

Protest Songs

Music plays an integral role in social movements, and protest songs have an unparalleled ability to raise awareness, mobilize action, and rally support behind social justice issues. From IWW members’ folk activism to rap music of the ’80s serving as protest, protest music has long had a transformative effect.

Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger’s signature tunes of protest against Civil Rights movements and Vietnam war protests were “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “If I Had a Hammer”, respectively. These folk artists used simple, acoustic forms to share their politics across America.

Marvin Gaye’s 1971 song, which expressed outrage against violence against anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, has been covered by various performers as an expression of dismay with various social conditions. One such version is this country trio’s rendition, which references women’s rights, gun violence and more – making this song an exemplary protest song that transcends generations and struggles alike. The most effective protest songs incorporate universal themes to inspire future protests as time goes on.


Musicians have long utilized songs as tools to raise awareness, spur action and unite people in the fight for social justice. From early protest songs of the Civil Rights Movement to charity singles raising funds for those in need, artists such as Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke and Kendrick Lamar have created powerful anthems that address current issues and call for positive change through song.

Be it lament or celebration, the best anthems capture the spirit and essence of any movement – its struggles and triumphs alike. Anthems offer us an outlet to express our fears and hopes and give voice when words cannot do justice to what’s on our minds.

Many anthems honor national heroes such as Denmark’s King Christian or Haiti’s Jean-Jacques Dessalines; or highlight a nation’s flag, like France’s “La Marseillaise.” Others like U2’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” speak out against violence while U2’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” touches upon its human cost and violence in war; sometimes anthems become the iconic songs of movements; for example “Let’s Get it On”, which captured Russian anti-Putin protesters who banged pots and pans onto balconies to show their disapproval of Putin regime.


Folk singers such as Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez, as well as more contemporary stars such as Kendrick Lamar have used music as part of their advocacy work for social justice. Lessons in this collection explore the crucial role music has played in various movements from civil rights and anti-war protests to Black Power and women’s rights activism.

These lessons also demonstrate how improvisational musical protests have played an essential role in furthering social justice. For instance, Pussy Riot used popular Russian songs as inspiration to highlight Vladimir Putin’s undemocratic electoral wins and advocate for greater democracy within Russia.

Finally, these lessons illustrate how musical performances can act as social movement anthems such as Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit or John Paul Lederach’s song “When Blood and Bones Cry Out.” Anthems such as these can help build community unity while providing an emerging vision of a better society and providing emotional motivation that propels individuals towards taking action.

The Power of Music

Over time, music has long been utilized to increase awareness, stimulate action and unify people in the fight for social justice. Music allows marginalized groups to be heard and their stories to be told more freely.

People typically associate musical activism with protests or rallies; however, activism can take many different forms – musicians such as Nina Simone and the Staple Singers embody musical activism by showing their support of nonviolent civil rights movements through song.

Public Enemy have used their platform to speak out against racial injustices such as the barbaric practice of lynching. Their song, “Fight the Power,” recorded for Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, spoke directly to black American struggles while condemning racism and lack of social progress – becoming a rallying cry for civil rights activism. But music should also be recognized for being an influential source for social change; conversely it can also reinforce negative stereotypes against certain groups and individuals.