Creating Music With a Message: 10 Artists Who Used Their Tunes to Inspire Change in Society
The Musicians who showed us that Music and Activism can go hand in hand
At times, we may overlook the fact that immensely popular and accomplished musicians have lives beyond the music they create for our enjoyment. Today, let's acknowledge the human side and empathy from musicians whose activism has left us in awe.
Apart from creating music, Noname stands resolutely as a champion for dismantling oppressive systems that have inflicted enduring harm on people of color throughout history. She has also pioneered a book club that selects and spotlights two books penned by authors from marginalized backgrounds each month, while also ensuring that these literary resources find their way to incarcerated individuals, promoting both literacy and enlightenment within these communities.
2. Nina Simone
The 1964 was a turbulent one after the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the heinous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. But the unyielding Nina Simone showed her resistance by writing and recording the iconic protest song "Mississippi Goddamn" as an impassioned response to the horrifying events that shook the nation's conscience. Her fiery lyrics, "Keep on saying 'go slow,' to do things gradually would bring more tragedy. Why don't you see it? Why don't you feel it?" struck such a powerful chord that the song even faced censorship and was banned in multiple states. Simone's fearless words clearly challenged the status quo with her unwavering call for justice during a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
3. Stevie Wonder
At the tender age of 15, a young Stevie Wonder crossed paths with the esteemed Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during a pivotal Civil Rights rally in Chicago. Their encounter left an impact on Wonder, but tragically, just three years later, the world mourned the loss of Dr. King due to assassination. This momentous event fueled Wonder's determination to embark on a protracted campaign spanning decades, dedicated to securing national recognition for Martin Luther King's birthday as a significant holiday. In the year 1981, Stevie Wonder unveiled a groundbreaking rendition of the classic "Happy Birthday" song in Washington, D.C., on Dr. King's birthday. His rendition bore a revolutionary message: "You know it doesn't make much sense/ There ought to be a law against/ Anyone who takes offense/ At a day in your celebration." Through this powerful reinterpretation, Wonder sought to emphasize the importance of honoring the legacy and ideals of Martin Luther King. This musical tribute became a pivotal part of the movement to establish Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday in the United States.
4. Rage Against the Machine
True to their name, the music of Rage Against the Machine remains undeniably provocative, and the band has actively engaged in protests. In 2008, following their headline performance at the Tent State Music Festival to End the War during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the band aligned themselves with uniformed veterans associated with Iraq Veterans Against The War. This alliance led to a significant five-hour confrontation with the police, ultimately compelling Barack Obama's campaign to agree to meet with the veterans and listen to their concerns.
5. Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad
Originally produced in 1989 as part of the soundtrack for Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing," Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad's "Fight the Power" has consistently served as an anthem for social justice causes. Comprising a range of samples, including speeches by Civil Rights leaders, combined with elements of jazz, soul, reggae, and more, the song reverberates wherever individuals confront oppressive systems. It echoed across American student protests and even found its place in the broadcasts of Serbian dissident radio stations, resonating as a unifying call to action against injustice.
6. Pete Seeger
Folk singer Pete Seeger is widely recognized for his pivotal role in co-writing and popularizing the Civil Rights anthem "We Shall Overcome." This iconic song, adapted from a hymn originally penned by Lucille Simmons, was enhanced with additional verses by Seeger. All royalties generated from this anthem are directed towards grants supporting African-American activists fighting for their rights in the Southern United States. Beyond music, Seeger established the nonprofit organization Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which has succeeded in compelling General Electric to undertake the cleanup of toxins it had previously discharged into the Hudson River. Pete Seeger's contributions span both music and environmental advocacy, leaving an enduring mark on the pursuit of justice and environmental protection.
7. Josephine Baker
Known for her daring stage acts, singer and dancer Josephine Baker courageously used her fame as an advantage while residing in France during World War II, in order to provide shelter to resistance fighters. She gathered crucial intelligence on German military activities and ingeniously smuggled classified documents out of France by inscribing them on her sheet music using invisible ink.
8. Joan Baez
Folk singer Joan Baez's activism has left as much of an impact on the world as her musical contributions. In 1963, she performed "We Shall Overcome," a Civil Rights anthem originally penned by Lucille Simmons and Pete Seeger, at the historic March on Washington, while sharing the stage with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then in 1965, she founded the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence in California, to promote peaceful change and social justice with efforts beyond music.
9. Eartha Kitt
Eartha Kitt, famous for "Santa Baby" and her role as Catwoman, was also a bold activist who linked juvenile crime to opposition to the Vietnam War draft during a discussion with First Lady Lady Bird Johnson in 1968. Her candid remarks got her blacklisted by President Johnson and forced her to work in Europe for the next decade. Kitt fearlessly stood by her beliefs, even when it came at a significant personal and professional cost.
10. James Brown
In another act of resistance with the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for racial equality as a backdrop, James Brown recorded the song "Don't Be a Drop-Out" in 1967. This song sent out a powerful message to young people, urging them to stay in school and pursue education. The track was inspired by Brown's understanding that education was not only a path to personal empowerment but also a means to challenge systemic inequalities. Beyond the recording studio, James Brown took his message directly to the students with his series of school tours, visiting educational institutions across the country. Through these visits, he passionately conveyed the importance of staying in school, stressing that education was not just about individual success but also a collective tool for change. His dynamic presence and the resonance of his music made a profound impact on the students he interacted with.
More from MARKETREALIST