Generations of human beings have taught and learned valuable lessons from songs that are created within the community and are immersed in our collective cultural identity. Popular forms of music have developed within every known culture and religion (see: Wallin, Brown and Merker, 2001). The history and practice of music, like all other forms of art, is an experiential process, determined by a culture’s social structure, everyday experiences, geographical location, access to materials, development of technology and whatever spiritual and ritual customs are observed.
During periods of discord, songs uplift collective souls and are an impetus for driving social change. Hymns and spirituals have foundations as pedagogical and political resources, which inspire marginalized voices to amplify themselves above their oppressors (Lawrence-McIntyre, 1987). Many of the spirituals and hymns initially sung by enslaved Africans are embedded with religious symbolism that diverted the attention of their white persecutors, while spreading inside knowledge and enduring understandings that spurred resistance and rebellion. Religious overtones in Black music has carried on through the present day, and as Katy Khan (2010) describes, has “offered a veiled critique of the capitalist system that forcibly brought blacks to America.” Spiritual messages with social, cultural and political intent can be heard in the musical stylings of such dynamic artists as Ella Fitzgerald (I Shall Not Be Moved), Nina Simone (Sinnerman), Paul Robeson (We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder), William Onyeabor (Good Name), Lupe Fiasco (Muhammad Walks), Nissim Black (Motherland Bounce) and Kanye West (Jesus Walks).
These aforementioned songs express overcoming oppression and finding redemption by embracing community and feeling proud of our personal and collective identities. Music is one of the most fluid art forms because of the ease in which it can be passed down and appropriated. Many of the aforementioned spirituals have roots in Black culture during slavery and Jim Crow (the 18th through 20th centuries), when they were sung to raise communal spirits and encourage action against the injustices they faced. Therefore, music is arguably the most populist form of art. It has the ability to both entertain and enlighten without being pedantic. Everyone can become one nation under a groove.
Songs have continued to be a key component of peaceful protest marches, where they are utilized for spreading messages of social justice in a joyful and spirited manner. These types of musical incantations are at once entertaining, educational and empowering, which is why a diverse genre of music that seeks to move listeners to take action towards environmental and racial justice, has been given the name ‘entertainment justice’ (see: Fazeli, 2020) by Detroit-based musician and activist, Bryce Detroit (aka Bryce Anderson-Small). Detroit and other artists are composing songs that have become anthems for the oppressed, giving a large portion of the population the means to sing out against the predatory and corrupt practices of local government officials and public figures. Some potent examples come from the artist Will See, whose songs include Water Power and Take Tha House Back. Water Power addresses the ongoing devastating public health crisis caused by contaminants within public water supplies; while Take Tha House Back exposes the predatory lending practices of banking institutions, which have displaced many longtime residents, especially low-income working class families. Documentary filmmaker, Kate Levy, created videos for each song. Water Power can be watched here and Take Tha House Back is featured above this paragraph. The songs and the accompanying videos present a diverse BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of color) population, coming together in unison to call attention to these serious issues.
Musical entertainment has also driven the socially engaged art-centered work of Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, the Resistance Revival Chorus and the global phenomenon of Complaints Choirs. The Resistance Revival Chorus (see their performance of Hallelujah above) is a collective of women and non-binary artists and activists who sing protest music in the spirit of joy and resistance. Their performances invoke the words of important Civil-Rights leaders and groups throughout history, and continue the legacy of educating and uplifting generations through song.
The Reverend Billy (an artist named William Talen) and his choir of activists, engage in guerrilla theater style civil disobedience through performing gospel-style songs that have messages in support of labor rights, access to quality public health and the anti-consumerist movement. Similar to Will See, The Church of Stop Shopping’s lyrics take on large institutions whose predatory practices disenfranchise their own workforce and have negative social and cultural influences on government, the environment and the quality of life for the general public. They often perform inside the lobby of banks or corporate headquarters, in order to disrupt and subvert corporate messaging and promote progressive critiques, which favor shifting social, cultural, political and economic paradigms away from plutocracies.
Complaints Choirs offer cathartic relief and camaraderie through a musical airing of grievances. Songs are composed with crowdsourced lyrics that address topics pertinent to the everyday life of a specific society. The community art project was initiated by Finland-based artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, and the first choir performance took place in Birmingham, United Kingdom in 2005. There are Complaints Choirs on nearly every continent (and they are constantly growing), which speaks to its unifying structure for cultural expression. While not everyone may agree on an issue, they can find common ground in this form of social activity centered on a passion for singing.
As evident in the aforementioned examples, the prowess of entertainment justice is embedded in the collaborative nature of musical performance. Educational frameworks such as teach-ins and problem-posing models are replete in choirs and call and response musical performances. These types of teaching and learning make the transmission of knowledge more open-ended and democratic (see: Freire, 1970/2007) because they emphasize critical thinking and pluralism for the purpose of liberation and social equity. These are the songs that never end.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Freire, Paulo (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.