By Jenay Ross
Music has been responsible for reflecting and helping to shape the most important civil rights movements and social issues in American history. It has provoked tenacious people to raise their voices against inequality. It's a weapon for survival.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s GRAMMY Hall Of Fame-inducted "I Have A Dream" speech and the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, GRAMMY U presented Civil Rights Radio: Music As Politics on Aug. 13. This second lesson in GRAMMY U's educational Crossfader Lecture Series, hosted at Red Bull's headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., put a new spin on the topic of music as an influential platform for social change.
DJ/producer J.Period and University of Southern California professor Josh Kun facilitated the program, echoing the timeline of civil rights radio by presenting remixed protest music and '90s hip-hop records. Pairing the music with an eloquent spoken word lecture was my favorite aspect of the night, allowing for a fluid presentation.
Together they traced political-minded music's influence back to the gospel of black churches and the '20s jazz era while citing specific references to Louie Armstrong's version of "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black And Blue" and Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man.
"It is worth remembering this more than ever before. Invisible Man had it right," said Kun. "To survive the fight, to be free, to force democracy to live up to its promises, we got to put a record on."
Protest music is about conveying a message, creating a connection between the oppressed, raging against the unjust and feeling hope, pride and, eventually, peace.
Great examples outlining this point during the lecture included James Brown's hit "Say It Loud — I'm Black And I'm Proud" and how a live broadcast performance of a Brown concert at Boston Garden in April 1968 helped prevent riots in the city following the assassination of King.
Thanks to a Google+ Hangout, GRAMMY U members from around the country and special guests such as GRAMMY-nominated rapper Wale joined the conversation. Wale posited that it's more effective to talk about social issues in a less preachy way, citing Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" as an example.
"There's more that we can do to uplift," said Wale.
Kun invited guests to spin the dial to the year 2040 and ask what our future may look like, if the Occupy movement will return and if we'll continue to see challenging cases and debates as those as we've seen recently in Florida and Arizona.
"Tune in to the civil rights radio of the future. Because as Dr. King said back in 1967, 'Tomorrow is today,'" said Kun.
Whether it's hip-hop, punk, R&B or any other genre, I believe music will continue to be one of the most universal forms of communication to spark change. Kun said maybe more radical LGBT- and feminist-minded songs will be written. I wonder if the EDM trend will find a way into this movement?
So the agenda of protest music does not end today. We will all have to wait and see what the next "freedom song" will be.
(Jenay Ross is a GRAMMY Camp alumnus currently studying print journalism and the music industry at the University of Southern California. She also contributes content for Buzznet.com and interns for the Keep A Breast Foundation in Los Angeles.)