Protest music in the United States can be traced back as far as early southern slave music. Even before the folk activists of the 1950’s and 60’s, slaves sung about freedom from oppression and used their music and dance as an escape. Later generations of African Americans were among the first to see music as a means of mobilization for mass social movements. The Civil Rights and counterculture protests of this era provided an ideal springboard to test ideas and use music as a platform for change. Early folk revivalists and political activists such as Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, and Bob Dylan saw music as an opportunity to do more than just entertain.
Like the artists of the 60’s, generations of musicians continue to raise their voices and preach their concerns through song and while significant research has been doneon the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, much more could be said and done about the relationship between music and social change today.
Music has grown in popularity, audience, genre, style, and purpose since these early generations. The twenty-first century has seen significant technological advances and the boom of entertainment media. Now more than ever, artists are able to spread their music and their messages to a world audience – and with just the click of a button.
But what exactly are artists singing about today? Twenty-first century American music has seen the rise and decline of music television and music videos, the birth of a new kind of pop superstar, and changing trends in the pop music market. With the boom of “pop-music” and without necessarily clear generation-defining social and political movements, many argue that activist music is fading fast when in fact it is just beginning to redefine itself. Instead of freedom marches, artists are giving benefit concerts, transitioning to green touring, and using their celebrity to speak up and speak out.