During the 1963 March on Washington, folk, blues and gospel singer Odetta unleashed her melodic and powerful voice for the cause of civil rights. She is just one of the many artists who have used music as a force for social change.
Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording “Strange Fruit” was a groundbreaking statement against the horrors of Jim Crow, decades before the Black Power movement began to take shape. “A change is gonna come,” sang Sam Cooke in 1963, and those words played out throughout the decade. The musical revolution of the sixties mirrored the social revolution happening in the streets, as marchers protested the Vietnam War, women stood up for equality and the Stonewall Riots gave gays and lesbians a cause to rally around.
In the 1970’s and 80’s, punk rock and hip-hop carried the torch for social change forward, pointing a finger at all forms of social injustice and oppression. In her new book, Denise Sullivan shows how none of this would have been possible without the explosion of the Black Power movement, and how music helped fuel social change by bringing people together, lifting their spirits and giving them a common voice. But for artists whose bravery inspired a generation, there was often a cost. For many, their controversial stance meant diminished label support and a fading career.
Sullivan interviewed dozens of artists, including Len Chandler – who, along with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, galvanized the crowd at the 1963 March on Washington – Buffy Sainte-Marie, Solomon Burke, Yoko Ono, Janis Ian and Richie Havens. And she asks the question, where have the voices of protest gone in today’s music? What forces – social, political and corporate – have conspired to silence the sounds of freedom, justice and equality?
Denise Sullivan, author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop (Lawrence Hill Books), freelance writer and online columnist for Crawdaddy! Her previous books include Rip It Up! Rock ‘n Roll Rulebreakers and The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues