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Protest songs fueling movements then and now

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Posted: Monday, April 17, 2017 7:00 am

Music has always filled a void for those who are oppressed and has found a way to unite people. From slavery to the Civil War, protest songs have been used for social movements throughout history and have made it to present day events like the Women’s March.

Kelly Jakes, a professor at Wayne State since 2014, has devoted her research to social movements and resistance music while broadly covering issues of rhetoric and culture. She teaches students about protest singing and more in COM 2160, Campaigns and Social Movements and COM 7250, Rhetorical Criticism.

Jakes, who also teaches argumentation and debate, says that if we look historically, protest singing has been a feature of many social movements.

“The example that most students are familiar with is the American Civil Rights Movement, where singing was a major part where the meetings of that movement tried to galvanize support and a commitment to the cause,” Jakes said.

Jakes spoke on how protest singing helps fulfill a role that serves in rhetoric terms as a constitutive purpose. Meaning, it helps build collective identity by reinforcing shared values.

In the wake of the 2016 election, protestors like Jakes took many different methods of uniting recruiters; however, protest singing wasn’t really a role and Jakes says she isn’t sure why.

“Maybe we could look at how the protest singing is more commercial [today] rather than grassroots,” Jakes said. “We can look at Kendrick Lamar and Jay Z and Beyoncé and look at the political messages in their music and the public’s embrace of that message.”

As one of the most used methods, Jakes also broke down as she would in her class, saying it is a great tool because songs don’t leave a paper trail and they’re easy to memorize.

“I think that protest singing’s purpose is it’s an in-group type of rhetoric, its goal is not to persuade outsiders to adopt the demands of the movement—it’s to persuade people who are engaged in the movement to continue fighting,” Jakes said.

In her rhetoric class, she educates her students on an analysis of protest songs from the Vietnam War era, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” She says the song was a negative take on the war, but Jakes said it’s widely misinterpreted.

She says the band Drive By Truckers are relevant right now with protest music and events like “Postcards and Protest Songs” are currently active in Detroit.  

Audra Kubat, a Detroit native folk singer for more than 25 years, hosted the event on March 22, building off the Women’s March. "Postcards and Protest Songs" gave a space for folks to listen to protest songs and send thoughts to representatives of Michigan and Washington.

“We had over 30 songwriters perform that night. It is also important to me to be active in the community and create safe spaces for folks to gather and speak out,” Kubat said.

She said that she created "Postcards and Protest Songs" and hopes the event will catch on as she continues to organize more events.

“I have a feeling that there will be more reasons to write our government,” she said. “Protest songs often help to put an issue at the forefront. Music has a way of calling to action, moving people to stand up and has the ability to shine a light.”   

Specific songs Kubat relates to are, “The Times They Are a Changin’” by Bob Dylan, “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell and more.

Jakes added that there is science behind what brings singers together.

“There was a study that came out that in a chorus,” she says. “All the singers’ hearts all adjust to the same rhythm even if they’re singing different parts. There’s a literal part of the body that puts you in sync with other singers,” Jakes said.  

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