Teaching With Protest Music

Teaching With Protest Music

(Original article: Michael Gonchar & Katherine Schulten, NY Times, Feb. 4 2016)

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

The simple, aspirational lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” have been sung by everyone from churchgoers to civil rights protesters to Southern labor activists to the United States president. The song is part of a long history of protest music that has helped to open eyes and awaken consciences since the earliest years of American life, and the tradition continues today.

Studying the protest music of the past or present can be a powerful and engaging teaching tool for students, whether the goal is to better understand a historical time period, analyze the power of lyrics and poetry, understand forces of social change or respond to current issues.

In this lesson, we provide teaching ideas from The Times and around the web for incorporating protest music, from the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter, into your social studies or language arts curriculum. It is, however, only a starting point: We hope you’ll suggest additional songs, artists and articles in the comments.

Ways to Incorporate Protest Music Into Your Humanities Curriculum

Music can be a primary source for studying history, just like a photograph, newspaper article or diary entry. And listening to music can be an engaging way for students to learn more about the attitudes and culture of a particular time period.

Below, we outline a lesson template that can be used to incorporate any protest song into your class. Note that the assumption is students have some background knowledge of the time period — whether it’s the Great Depression or apartheid-era South Africa.

Write and Discuss: Why do you listen to music? How does music make you feel? Does music serve a different role in your life depending on your mood, who you are with or what you are doing? Does music ever cause you to think differently, to feel a part of something larger or to want to rise up and take action?

Then, respond to this quotation by Pete Seeger, a champion of folk music, who died in 2014:

One of the purposes of music is to help you forget your troubles; another, help you learn from your troubles (some do), and, some will help you do something about your troubles.

Do you agree? Why?

Listen and Annotate: Next, listen to ____________, a protest song from the time period we are studying, while reading along with the printed lyrics. As you listen, annotate by underlining, highlighting or writing in the margins — reacting or responding to anything in the lyrics or in the music itself. (You may want to play the song a second time, if it would be helpful.)


  • What did you notice in the song as you listened? How did it make you feel?
  • What did you hear that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

(The above three questions are adapted from the facilitation protocol we use in our regular Monday feature “What’s Going On in This Picture?“)

Then, once students have responded to the song, ask the following questions (if they haven’t already come up organically):
How does the song connect to the time period we’re studying?
Do you think the song is effective as a protest song? Why?

Ideas for Going Further

Repeat: You can assign students to small groups to listen to other protest songs from that time period and annotate the lyrics, and then report back to the class about what they heard.

Write Your Own Protest Song or Verse: If you are studying specific content, like the Great Depression or the civil rights movement, students can write their own protest song about that event, or they can compose an original verse for an existing song.

Bring in Contemporary Music That Speaks to an Issue or Era in the Past: What songs today have something to say about the past, whether because people are still struggling with the same issues, or because the lyrics seem symbolic or ironic when seen through the lens of the past?

Create an Annotated Playlist or Podcast of Protest Music That Matters to You: Throughout the unit or as a culminating project, invite students to bring in protest songs that matter to them, from any era and about any topic. As a class, they might then create an annotated playlist or a podcast that features discussion by the students and snippets of each of the songs.

Examples of Protest Music From Different Times, Places and Genres

The Civil Rights Movement

In the midst of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told The Times in this 1962 article: “The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle. They give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.”

Five decades later, Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts reflect on how the story of “We Shall Overcome” illuminates the rich history of the black freedom struggle. In their Op-Ed essay, “Birth of a Freedom Anthem,” they write:

Fifty years ago today, on March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced plans to submit a new voting rights bill before a joint session of Congress. His speech came after several weeks of violence in and around Selma, Ala., that had taken the lives of two civil rights activists and left dozens of others bloodied. Seventy million Americans watched on television as Johnson, a Texas Democrat who had supported segregationist policies early in his career, proclaimed racial discrimination not a “Negro problem” but “an American problem.” It is not, he said, “just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Then, after a pause, he added, “And we shall overcome.”

Few Americans could have missed the significance of these four words. Since the early 1960s, “We Shall Overcome” had served as the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement. Protesters sang the song during the 1963 March on Washington, the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign and the demonstrations in Selma. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. watched the broadcast in a Selma living room, a tear ran down his cheek.

Rock and Roll: An American Story, a free online curriculum presented by Steven Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, provides a detailed lesson plan that explores the significance of “We Shall Overcome” in the civil rights movement. Included in the lesson are video clips of President Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech and the March on Washington, when the crowd broke into song. The lesson also asks students to listen to “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday and “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone, as well as other movement songs.

The above Op-Ed essay could easily be embedded in that lesson as a way to better understand how “We Shall Overcome” first came to the civil rights movement and how it found its way into the president’s speech.

South Africa and the Songs of Freedom

Can songs be more powerful than speeches? This is the question that Angélique Kidjo, a Grammy award-winning Beninese singer-songwriter and activist, addresses in her Opinion piece “Songs of Freedom.” She writes:

IN 1974, I was a young girl watching the Nigerian newscast on our blinking TV set, sitting on the patio of the family house in Cotonou, Benin. Suddenly I saw Winnie Mandela in the middle of a crowd, talking about her husband in jail in South Africa. That was the first time I heard about apartheid.

My whole world collapsed.

I had been raised with nine brothers and sisters in a modest and loving family, protected from the harsh realities of my continent. My parents had told me that you don’t judge people by their color and that we’re all born equal. Every day, we welcomed expatriates from all corners of the world.

That day, on the TV screen, I could see the anger and the despair in the eyes of the South Africans. I was learning about the injustice of apartheid. I felt a sudden rage.

I had been singing on stage since I was six; music was the center of my life. My first reaction was to write a song: instead of screaming my rage I would sing it.

The song that came to me was a harsh and hateful song. When my father heard it, he told me: “ You can’t sing this, music is not there to preach hate and violence. I understand your frustration and your pain, but you can’t use your songs to add fuel to the fire. Music is supposed to bring people together and fight for peace, because it is art and beauty, not politics.”

Many years later, I truly believe that music helped free Mandela. Johnny Clegg’s “Asimbonanga” comes to mind, as does Peter Gabriel’s “Biko.” So many artists wrote songs for Mandela, putting much international pressure on South Africa.

The songs were stronger than speeches. Who will remember a politician’s speeches? But everyone can sing Bob Marley’s lines, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery.” The few political speeches that have made a mark in history — from Haile Selassie, Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy — sound like songs!

That is the power of music. The mix of melodies and words carries a message much more powerful than spoken ideas.

Why? Maybe because when someone sings, truth speak directly to your heart.

What do you think? Read the entire article and listen to some of themusical tributes to Nelson Mandela to which she refers.

Then consider whether you agree that “music in itself is the expression of freedom.” Do agree that “universal access to music must be cherished”?

Hip-Hop as Protest, Yesterday and Today

In the ’80s and ’90s, hip-hop artists like Public Enemy protested over social issues, urging black solidarity and an end to compromise.

Though they were often condemned for violent words or images, today Public Enemy is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and the gangsta rap group N.W.A., then seen by outsiders as “aggressive, profane young black men talking about mayhem,” is the subject of ahit, mainstream movie.

Some are nostalgic for the early days of hip-hop and question whether music today still has “something to say.” But, as Stereo Williams wrote in 2015 for The Daily Beast:

We love to look back at when hip-hop “meant something.” The block parties that birthed hip-hop were intended to bring black youth together under a banner of unity and creativity, and the uber-classic hip-hop single “The Message” was released all the way back in 1982, but socially conscious rap music didn’t become consistently visible until the late 1980s, when acts like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions were discussing everything from the prison industrial complex to the hypocrisy of the war on drugs in their songs. Against a backdrop of Reagan and Bush, the murder of Yusef Hawkins and the Rodney King beating, rappers raged on wax, and it gave voice to a lot of the frustration that was felt in the community. Hip-hop stars like Chuck D, Ice Cube, and 2Pac were often asked by the media to offer commentary on what was going on — giving credence to Chuck D’s famous adage that hip-hop of the time was “CNN for black people.”

In the last year, the seemingly endless proliferation of racially charged incidents and ongoing civil unrest has kept the national conversation fixed on race. And there have been several high-profile releases from hip-hop and soul artists that have been reflective of the tension, frustration, and anger. From D’Angelo’s Black Messiahto Run the Jewels 2 to the latest album from Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly, there are a growing number of releases that are attempting to express some of what the streets appear to be feeling. Beyond the standard musings about the hard-knock life or abstract stabs at “commentary,” these projects are somehow both artistically focused and thematically conflicted. This is no strident preaching; this is emotional, and confused. This is not “Fight the Power” nor is it “A Change Is Gonna Come.” This is “something’s gotta give — and we’re getting tired of asking.” And a lot of it is brilliant.

Last March, Jon Caramanica reviewed Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” an album that has already been annotated on Genius by hundreds of people. He wrote:

At its best, it’s a howling work of black protest art on par with Amiri Baraka’s incendiary play “Dutchman,” or David Hammons’s moving decapitated hoodie “In the Hood” (seen most recently on the cover of Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection “Citizen: An American Lyric”) — works rooted in both pride and fear.

On “For Free? (Interlude),” he’s indignant, lashing out at a society that gave him only the barest essentials and dared him to thrive: “Like I never made ends meet eatin’ your leftovers and raw meat.” On “The Blacker the Berry,” he returns time and again to a wounded question — “You hate me, don’t you?” — and calls out the structures of power that suggest that black lives don’t matter:

It’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society

That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me

Salamishah Tillet declared in The Atlantic that, “for the first time since the late-1960s, the U.S. is seeing the revival and redefinition” of protest music. She, too, is talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. Here are three of the songs she mentions:

Be Free,” sung by J. Cole.
Black Rage,” sung by Lauryn Hill.
Glory,” performed by John Legend and Common.

Is hip-hop music still “CNN for black people“? Is it a positive force for change in society? What role has it played in politics around the world — from Egypt to France to Cuba? Why is it such an effective form of expression and protest?

Invite students to make their own annotated playlists that look at particular themes, ideas or metaphors in hip-hop history, or that trace the social history of or the public reaction to the genre from its earliest roots.

Protest Music Around the World Now

In 2003, Brent Staples expressed his concern that protest music might never again be the force of change and solidarity it once was.

He wrote that “independent radio stations that once would have played edgy, political music have been gobbled up by corporations that control hundreds of stations and have no wish to rock the boat.” But in the dozen years since, a digital revolution has upturned the global music industry. iTunes, YouTube and Spotify completely altered how we discover new music. And protest songs, once again, have a way to reach the people, here in the United States and all around the world.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s song in support of gay and lesbian equality has been streamed over 150 million times on YouTube.

And Beyoncé’s “***Flawless,” featuring the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has become a feminist declaration for many.

Shahin Najafi, an Iranian rapper living in exile in Germany, uploads his songs to the Internet and reaches his countrymen living in Iran(if they find a way around the Iranian government censors).

And Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk group, whose anti-Putin stunts landed them in prison in 2012 and made them a global cause célèbre, can also release a song in English about police brutality in America.

Have students listen to one or more of the protest songs included in this post. They can listen, annotate and discuss, as we outlined above. Then they should choose the issue or issues they care most about, and write their own protest lyrics. Music is optional.

For more inspiration, students can consider that musicians have sung about almost everything, from standing against domestic violence, to supporting birth control for women, to fighting against poverty, to assailing common attitudes toward Latinos in the United States.

A Beginning Library of Protest Songs

We’ve put together the following abridged list of protest songs from different eras. To provide lyrics, and in most cases annotations and the song itself, we linked to Genius, the crowd-sourced lyrics annotation site.

Do you teach with protest songs in your class? If so, please share the titles in the comments section.

Great Depression
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime, sung by Bing Crosby

Labor Movement
Tom Joad,” sung by Woodie Guthrie
1913 Massacre,” sung by Woodie Guthrie
Joe Hill,” sung by Joan Baez
The Ghost of Tom Joad,” performed by Bruce Springsteen

Civil Rights Movement
We Shall Overcome,” sung by Louis Armstrong
A Change Gonna Come,” sung by Sam Cooke
Strange Fruit,” sung by Billie Holiday
Lift Every Voice and Sing, written by James Weldon Johnson
Birmingham Sunday,” by Joan Baez
Mississippi Goddam,” sung by Nina Simone

Antiwar Movement
Ohio,” performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation,” by Tom Paxton
The Times They Are A-Changin’,” sung by Bob Dylan
For What It’s Worth,” sung by Buffalo Springfield
War,” sung by Edwin Starr
Fortunate Son,” performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Anti-Apartheid Movement (a Times special feature)
Free Nelson Mandela,” performed by The Specials
Asimbonanga,” sung by Johnny Clegg
Biko,” sung by Peter Gabriel
Black President,” sung by Brenda Fassie

Additional Resources

Rock and Roll: An American Tradition | The Protest Tradition
Facing History and Ourselves | The Sounds of Change Resource Collection
Smithsonian Folkways | Protest Songs: A Musical Introduction(PDF)
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame | Digital Classroom
EDSITEment! | The Freedom Riders and the Popular Music of the Civil Rights Movement
POV | Music As Social Protest (PDF)
Gilder Lehrman | Analyzing Protest Songs of the 1960s
The Choices Program | Songs of the Vietnam War
Teaching Tolerance | The Sounds of Change


This resource may be used to address the academic standards listed below.

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