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The many ways protest music supplements Black social justice movements

Lots of movements, and groups of people have created or adopted music as a form of protest. Tyina Steptoe studies protest songs that are specific to the Black community.

Steptoe is an associate professor of history at the University of Arizona and has taught a community class called A Racial Justice Mixtape.

The Show spoke with her and asked about the impetus behind the course looking at the role of protest music in the Black community over the years.

Full conversation

TYINA STEPTOE: Writing about protest music in Black history is something that I’ve been doing for a long time. It’s been a part of my research. I even started my first book, which is called “Houston Bound,” with a song by Lead Belly that mentions police brutality in the city of Houston. That’s the opening chapter.

So this has been a topic that I’ve been very interested in for years, and the events of 2020 — and especially the protests of that summer following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis — kind of rekindled that interest for me. And I thought back to that Lead Belly song, which is “Midnight Special,” and it mentions the name of some police officers who were known for their brutal tactics.

[Clip from “Midnight Special” by Lead Belly plays.]

I started thinking about the connection and the very long history of police brutality, especially being an issue in Black music for much of the 20th century and even dating back to the earliest blues music of the late 1800s.

MARK BRODIE: So what, to you, makes a protest song that sort of is motivating and is resonant within the Black community?

STEPTOE: You know, one thing that’s important is, of course, the intent of the musicians behind the song. Sometimes there are artists who decide, “I’m going to make a protest song.” But equally important is the way that audiences and activists interpret a song’s lyrics or even the production of it as having a layer of protest. So what we’ve seen throughout time and also in the recent movement for Black Lives, is that sometimes Black audiences and activists have taken a song that wasn’t intended to be a protest song and made it into one.

BRODIE: Can you give me an example of a particular song that maybe wasn’t intended to be a protest song but kind of turned out to be one?

STEPTOE: Sure. One example from the 1960s is the Motown classic “Dancing in the Streets.” That was intended to be a kind of summer party anthem when it was released. And that song was, of course, recorded by Martha and the Vandellas.

But during some of the urban uprisings in the second half of the ’60s, some people were actually playing that song as they took to the streets in protest.

[Clip from “Dancing in the Streets” by Martha and the Vandellas plays.]

There are numerous examples, then, of people from the ’60s up until now who take a song and apply it to their specific moment, even if it wasn’t originally a protest song.

BRODIE: What are some of your favorites in terms of songs that were intended to be protest songs?

STEPTOE: Well right now, one song that I’m especially into is a song that is by the artists the Isley Brothers, and it’s actually a remake. What the Isley Brothers did in 1971 is they took two protest songs and kind of mashed them up into one. And on their 1971 album “Giving It Back,” half of the song “Ohio Machine Gun” is an interpretation of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Ohio,” which is a protest song against the killings of students at Kent State University.

[Clip from “Ohio Machine Gun” by the Isley Brothers plays.]

The second half of this song is Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” And the Isley Brothers put both of them together for this epic nine minute protest song.

[Clip from “Ohio Machine Gun” by the Isley Brothers continues.]

BRODIE: How has protest music in the Black community evolved? I mean, you mentioned the Isley Brothers. Obviously there’s a lot of protest movement in the ’60s into the ’70s. How has it evolved from that time to now?

STEPTOE: I think that one thing that really strikes me is the messages are very similar. And one of the reasons why I wanted to teach this class is to point out that for generations, African Americans have been protesting some of the same things. The surveillance and patrolling of Black communities is so old that it goes back to the slave patrols of the antebellum era before the Civil War.

So I think first is the continuity. I think in terms of change, it’s just genre. So, of course, with the creation of hip-hop by the early 1970s, some of the protest music is rapped instead of, you know, performed melodically, like through soul music.

I guess with hip-hop, for example, there’s that space for words and lyrics that previous generations would have considered too profane maybe to even put on a recording. So with a lot of hip hop protest, you have a lot of lyrics in everything that come across using the language that young people would be using in urban Black communities. So in some cases, to some people, the language used sounds stronger and more forceful just because hip-hop music has that space for it. And you wouldn’t necessarily find that, say, in gospel music of the 1950s.

BRODIE: Do you find that there is protest music in sort of all genres? You mentioned, gospel music — I’m even thinking back to some of the spirituals that were sung back even in the 1800s, which clearly had some elements of protest to them. Do you find that each genre sort of has its own form of protest music?

STEPTOE: It does in many ways. I think that thinking back to the spirituals, in a lot of the spirituals, there was a kind of masked protest. So, for example, a lot of spirituals make reference to the River Jordan, which on the surface is a biblical reference, and the River Jordan linked to the Promised Land.

However, many musicologists and music historians have pointed out that when enslaved Africans would sing about the River Jordan, many times they were referring to the Ohio River, which separated states where enslavement was a legal practice versus where it had been banned by law.

Of course, by the time we get to the Civil War, a lot of the songs’ lyrics become unmasked, and people literally start singing about Abraham Lincoln and emancipation, especially in places where the Civil War was being fought.

[Clip from “Ohio Machine Gun” by the Isley Brothers resumes.]

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.