Social Justice Music

The arts play an important role in inspiring people to act, understand and make change.  Music has played an important role in social justice movements for a long time.  Slaves in the Americas called each other to rebellion with drums and conch shells.  Below are selections of social justice music from the 2009-2010 class.

 

 

Selections from the class of 2010

"Sunday, Bloody Sunday," US (Megan Corrigan)

I chose "Sunday Bloody Sunday" by U2 because it was written in response to Bloody Sunday, an incident in Northern Ireland where civil rights protestors were shot by the British army. It's important to me because the lyrics are in response to one incident of injustice, but they can apply to many. I think the most moving line is "There's many lost, but tell me who was won?" Though speaking to one massacre, the words relate to all violence and war. This song inspires peaceful action.

 

"Redemption Song," Bob Marley (Sarah Lejeune)

I chose "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley not only because it is one of the last songs Marley wrote and preformed before he died, but because it is also one of my favorites. All of his music is inspirational and revolutionary, and I definitely think he is one of the greatest musicians of all time, but this song especially sticks with me because of its emphasis on not living in the injustice and pain of the past, but not forgetting it while working to change the future. This song made me think of the "Cycle of Cynicism," and the importance of not getting weighed down by everything that is wrong with the world, and remembering that it is possible to make a difference. He sings, "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; None but ourselves can free our minds," which is a reference to Marcus Garvey, who was an advocate for African American cultural pride and civil rights. Marley also later sings, "How long shall they kill our prophets, While we stand aside and look? Some say it's just a part of it: We've got to fulfill the book." I think this is incredibly powerful, and it really inspires me to work to change the world despite any obstacles or failures that will stand in my way.

 

"Hey World (Don't Give Up)," Micheal Franti's (Isabela Brown)

I chose to add Micheal Franti's song, "Hey World (Don't Give Up)" for many reasons. One is because I really admire Micheal Franti as an artist and as a person. He is a strong social justice activist and uses his fame to spread messages that many people aren't hearing in today's pop culture. I really love this song because I feel I can relate to it in so many ways as a young activist trying to make change. As young activists, we are partly at an advantage because everything is new to us and we can be progressive and proactive without the worries that many grownups deal with. But at the same time, we are at a huge disadvantage. Though many grownups support the idea of young activists, in reality they don't take high school students seriously when it comes to making change in the world. This song talks about the strength that is needed to continue in social justice work. It reflects on that moment that I feel every activist comes to when they question their own strength and ask themselves, "Am I really doing anything? Can I really change the world?" The song asks all these questions, "Tell me why I need to know, sometimes I wish I didn't have to know...Tell me why they closed the borders, tell me how to fight diseases." I know personally, my eyes have been opened to so many of the huge problems in the world through this class and I've been very intimidated. It sometimes seems impossible to make any change with such overwhelming problems. Yet the song reminds us not to give up, to stick around for another day, and continue fighting these problems no matter how long it will take. I feel now like I can do that.

 

"Give It Up," Thes Ones & J-Live (Olivia Hallstein)

"Give It Up" by Thes Ones & J-Live addresses the issues of global warming with hilarity. Its part of a political movement CD called "Impeach the Precedent". I think this album and especially this song is important because of how drastic our environmental conditions are becoming, yet denial of these issues seems to be the response of choice. Music is the ideal form of communication, and has such an influence on all of us. Personally I'd rather listen to these images, promoting the earth and her beauty, than many of the other things being portrayed in the media. I consider pollution one of the most important issues of our time, and am grateful for a song, which expresses that need for appreciation and response.

 

"Where Is The Love," The Black Eyed Peas (Lili Welch)

The song "Where Is The Love" by the Black Eyed Peas is strong and compelling. When I first listened to this song, the lyrics went over my head, but when I started to listen to it more, the lyrics started to stick out. "But if you only have love for your own race, then you only leave space to discriminate And to discriminate only generates hate." This particular part of the song moved me. It shows how by disliking or liking something, can cause a chain reaction that could potentially make the world a negative place. One way this song caught my attention was because the artists were able to bring awareness to the world of the conflicts, by putting it into lyrics that caught peoples attention. By doing so it helped bring awareness to others, that may have ignored the issues around the world. This song helped me question the world and how it stands in equal opportunity. The song helped inspire me to act and continue working on Social justice issues and bring awareness to others.

 

"Ye'hiyeh Tov (It'll Be Alright)," by David Broza (in Hebrew) (Maya Beit-Arie)

This song is very special because although its melody and mood are light and mainstream - with a hint of a popular love song that could be on any radio station - its words are loaded with a radical political view of Israel. The part that strikes me, and angers me, most about this song, is that it was written in the 1970s, and with all the changes (technological, political, social, environmental, etc.) that have occurred since then, the situation between the Israeli government, military, and people, and the Palestinian peoples hasn't changed a bit. This song addresses a facet of Israeli culture that I notice every time I'm in Israel- that even while everyone is sick of the violence and the hatred that has become embedded into Israeli life, they continue to support and push for violent and racist practices. The fact that what is essentially apartheid has been going on in a developed country, and a US ally, for over 60 years, and the community remains silent and abiding is analyzed in this song, but in a way that appeals to everyone, even those who disagree with the politics behind the lyrics.

 

"Imagine," John Lennon (Sarah Plovnick)

This song convinces me that making change is really possible when people work together to achieve it. In my experience with social justice this year, I've at times felt overwhelmed by the number of problems in the world that need to be solved.  By raising some money or signing a petition, am I really making a difference?  This song reminds me that there are other people, or "dreamers," in the world who are also working to change it for the better.  I can't change the world much by myself, but by working with other people, real change can be accomplished.

 

"Imagine," John Lennon (Rachel Sandalow Ash)

I picked "Imagine" by John Lennon because it is radical, courageous, idealistic, hopeful, and communal.  It is radical in that it suggests drastic changes that would alter our entire society.  The lyrics do not just express pity for those who are suffering from injustice.  Rather, they makes listeners question some of the most fundamental values of their own society (such as religion, capitalism, and nationalism) and view these institutions as the potential root causes of war, hunger, inequality, etc... This song is courageous because it expresses ideas that were/are unpopular (especially considering that it was written during the Cold War) because of their radical challenge to the established order.

 

However, even while it is denounces so many aspects of society, "Imagine" is not angry or divisive; rather, it is idealistic and invites communal action.  The melody itself is calm and uplifting.  Perhaps this is a way of "sugar-coating" difficult ideas, but perhaps it is also a way of showing listeners that radical changes need not be scary.  Furthermore, the most important of the potential changes (that is, the one that is repeated in the chorus) is that, "someday, you'll join us/and the world will live as one."  And this, really, is the ultimate ideal; that all people will live and work together in harmony.  In conclusion, I picked this song because when I feel frustrated and want to give up, "Imagine" reassures me that even the most far-fetched and idealistic dreams can come true.

 

"Ella's Song," Sweet Honey in the Rock (Emma Zack)

"Ella's Song" by Sweet Honey in the Rock was written about Ella Baker, an influential activist during the Civil Rights movement. I first heard this song two years ago, and its simple rhythms and harmonies allowed me to clearly distinguish its beautiful lyrics. Each verse presents a new aspect of social justice; the first verse is about racial equality, the second verse is about social justice education, the third verse is about courage, etc. The most powerful part of the song, however, is the chorus: "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes," depicting the strength and determination needed to fight for a cause. Although I don't normally listen to this musical genre, its inspirational message and the passion in the singers' voices makes me want to hear more.

 

"Yeah Yeah Yeah Song," Flaming Lips (Michael Segel)

Liner Notes: The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song by the Flaming Lips is a classic Social Justice Song. The repeated 'yes's' and 'no's' help the listener formulate opinions on the hypothetical questions asked by the singer. The question that most sticks out as a social justice advocate is, 'were you given the power, what would you do?'. The song literally just asks the audience questions about the redistribution of money and ideas of power. For me, this song is a social justice song because it motivates us to rethink our values, and it makes us realize that we all do have the power to make change. I also really like this song because it is not like most other social justice songs which are down-trodden, angry, or depressing, but rather this song is motivational as if it is asking us to go make the change we seek.

 

"Here Comes the Sun," The Beatles (Aisha Simon)

I chose the song, "Here Comes the Sun", by the Beatles. I love this song because it's upbeat, happy, and a classic that can make everyone smile and sing along. It inspires me in a social justice way because of the feeling expressed that something better is coming; it acknowledges that "it's been a long cold lonely winter", but also the approaching sun and "the smiles returning to the faces". I like the message that once the sun is coming, "It's alright"; I hope that through my social justice work I can acknowledge the difficulties of the present and past but have faith that a brighter sun is in the future.

 

"Waving Flag", K'anaan (Zoe Hirsch)

When I first heard the song "Waving Flag", quite frankly I felt uplifted and inspired. It's like this song grabs you and makes you want to nod your head and smile. Every word of it is said with such passion I always want to sing along. The lyrics are so powerful, "But out of the darkness, I came the farthest/ Among the hardest survival/ Learn from these streets, it can be bleak/ Accept no defeat, surrender retreat" that they just seem like they embody and exemplify the suffering and the struggle of so many people so perfectly that I can feel it. "So many wars, settling scores/ Bringing us promises, leaving us poor/I heard them say, love is the way/ Love is the answer, that's what they say," The song talks about the empty promises made to so many people, and how these people who have next to nothing have to find a way to survive. They survive on love. "But look how they treat us, make us believers/ We fight their battles, then they deceive us/ Try to control us, they couldn't hold us/ Cause we just move forward like Buffalo Soldiers" So many are exploited and used by corrupt governments, but these people don't stop fighting for their own rights and charging forward. That's how I interpret the song: like someone struggling to walk forward because something is holding them back, but then the person finally breaks free. They struggled, but finally had success and broke loose. "When I get older, I will be stronger/ They'll call me freedom/ Just like a waving flag" And in the end, those struggling people will come out more free, stronger, and prouder, breaking free of any restraints by government and oppression...just like a waving flag.

 

"Milonga de andar lejos," Daniel Viglietti (Sylvie Rosenkalt)

Milonga de andar lejos (Milonga about traveling far away) by Daniel Viglietti (Uruguay)

Milong de andar lejos is a song of unity throughout Latin America. It is part of the Nueva Canción movement. Nueva Canción was a movement in Latin America of political music that was a big part of the resistance against the tyranny in the 70s. His own government in 1972 imprisoned Viglietti, as were many of the Nueva Canción musicians, for supporting the resistance and often socialist movements fighting against military rule. This is song is important to me because it shows the power music can have to change. It has all the aspects of social justice in it. Hope for the future, empowering the oppressed and educating the masses about problems that we need to fix. I also feel a personal connection and passion to the Nueva Canción movement and to Latin America through my mother and therefore my upbringing. A vague translation of the song: the first verses talk about how much distance there is between the countries but how poverty is the same everywhere. The first chorus says that Viglietti wants to destroy the map and make a new one with mestizos, blacks and whites all together. The second verse talks about the interconnectedness again and then says, we are not the strangers, they are the vendors and we are the slaves. The last chorus says he wants to destroy his life as he knows it, and asks for help. Viglietti ends with, don't give up, while one drop seems like a little, with others it makes a waterfall.

 

"Good People," Jack Johnson (Yifan Zhao)

My song is called "Good People" by Jack Johnson. I really like the melody and lyric. The lyric seems to reflect a current social problem to me that we often see and experience. "How many train wrecks do we need to see? Before we lose touch of we thought this was low. It's bad getting worse so." Some times people make mistakes but do not recognize they are wrong, and we experience loss. In today's society, the distance between people is getting further and further. In the old days, we fought together for our common goal, but now we more focus on our personal gain and care less about others. Turn on TV; we see all kinds of problems that we face in today's world. People's hearts are away from each other, "Sitting round feeling far away."So far away but I can feel the debris. Can you feel it?" This sentence really touches me. People become fake to each other even between country and country. The leaders all sit down together, but in their minds; they only worry about their nation's benefits, but not for the benefits for all human kind. Who can judge us? Who can give us a just world? "Where'd all the good people go?" Some people might not think about this problem at all, but some people want an answer to this question all the time. Good people are not easy to become, because it is not judged by law, but by humanness.

 

"Crime to be Broke in America," Spearhead, Roger Grande

Spearhead is one of my all time favorite social justice musicians.  As with most Spearhead tunes, especially the ones on his earlier cds, this is a funky track laced with metaphor and heavy with political analysis: 

Livin on the tracks

The tracks in my arm said

It all depends which side of the tracks you're on

Tellin' me what to wear

Tellin' me to cut my hair

And tryin' to convince me that they

Really, really care

All about my health and about my wealth

But still they built the stealth [bomber]

‘cause everybody's

Just looking our for they self

So then I ask ‘em

Can I have a clean needle

"hell no that's illegal"

Here the lead singer and songwriter Michael Ferranti rails against the duplicity of caring for the poor while denying drug users clean needles, and moralizing about what is "proper behavior" while spending money on expensive military hardware-what is illegal anyway?  To Ferranti, being poor and broke is illegal, subject to punishment, especially for black men who have been legally disenfranchised from society:

They say they lockin' us up in cells

To protect us from ourselves

It smells like they got anotha

Plan in store house

Or should I say warehouse

Fulla niggas and other misfits

That couldn't turn tricks in the courthouse

It's a justice whorehouse

He goes on to illustrate that being black and poor-or other disenfranchised group--is a ticket to prison and a barrier to education:  poverty is criminalized.

 

"A Change is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke (Talia Abner)

Sam Cooke's "A change is gonna come" song resonates with me in so many ways. First, it has a beautiful melody that is wonderful to listen to. However, I feel that its lyrics are especially pertinent to today's times. It tells the story of a person whose life is full of hopelessness, yet he manages to find the hope that things will be better. He believes that, in spite of insurmountable odds, change will come. Because of this course the social justice program, I've had my eyes opened to so many injustices, many of which seem intractable. However, like this song, I've learned to keep an ardent belief that change will happen. A line I especially love is, "Then I go to my brother And I say 'brother, help me please" but he winds up knocking me back down on my knees ," because it clearly shows the effects of ignorance, but at the same time displays the fact that every person can make a difference

 

"Uprising," Muse (Elana Ben-Akiva)

"Uprising" by Muse is a great song, especially as it pertains to social justice. It's a lot about the process of social justice and breaking free of what the establishment wants you to believe in. It presents a bleak description in the beginning of people continuously being fed lies to sustain the greediness of those in authority, and people being completely controlled by this authority. However, in the chorus it says that we won't let them control us and that "we will be victorious". The message that we will revolt successfully against those who want to "control", "force", and "degrade" us is an inspiring one, and one that is very closely related to social justice work. The song also tells people to "rise up and take the power back", and that we must unify in order to win and change the relations of power. This song's message of rising up to challenge authority and unifying to fight for a cause is one that we, as social justice activists, can really learn from and translate into our work effecting social change.

 

 

"Are my Hands Clean?" Sweet Honey in the Rock (Lia Gallitano)

I chose "Are My Hands Clean?" by Sweet Honey in the Rock because it reminds me of where all my stuff comes from. We are so detached from everything we buy, from food to clothes, that we forget it's history. This song tells the story of a blouse from the cotton field to the store. It is shipped all over the world, formed by poorly paid workers, and the woman who buys it asks, are my hands clean? Is she guilty of perpetuating cycles of poverty for the workers who made the shirt for a few dollars a day? Is she guilty of the crimes of the corporations who employ these people? Or is she just an innocent, unaware sale shopper, looking for a new shirt?

As social justice advocates, we are all aware and we know that these problems the song speaks of can be fixed. But who will fix them? Most people would say no, I wouldn't know what to do or where to start. But we must say yes, we will go and fix these problems and try to heal the world.

 

 

Track 17: Cody Berman

I feel a personal connection to this song, not just for identifying with the singer's specific views, but with what he says about the emotional difficulty of "having a fucking heart that beats".  I'm sure many other people in the program, as well as justice-minded folks I know, sometimes feel drained from caring so much about the issues we do.  In focusing on the activist as a human individual, it is important to take a step back from everything and breathe.  No single action can change the world, but it can effect some change, the former being something that I tend to get caught up in.  Lastly, I sincerely believe that social justice is about 'fucking shit up' in the abstract sense; justice is about turning over the social structures of power and oppression that exist in our insular and world society.

 

Track 18: Bianca Sena

I chose this song because it is not only the kind of music that I grew up with is the music that even today inspires me to carry on when not everyone agrees with me. It helps me take control of my opinions and attempt mediation between people of different views. This has been one of the hardest tasks during my work as a social justice advocate.  One line in the song is: "Não tem que fazer nada basta ser o que se é". This is in Portuguese and it means there's nothing to do but just be yourself. I think this is one of the most important aspects of anyone trying to push for some sort of just cause. This is because one cannot change a lot of things without knowing what exactly it is they stand for. What the Social Justice Program has really taught me is to stand back and establish some key goals. By doing this you are able to figure out what it is you want to be done and simultaneously what you stand for.

 

 

 

 

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