5 protest songs that have taken on new meaning post-Roe
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last week, many have turned to music to express the emotion that has overwhelmed them in this moment.
It's no surprise. Musicians have long provided the soundtrack to these kinds of dramatic shifts, using their artform as a means of political expression. Some songs find new relevance, while others seem to have lyrics that speak for the mood of a generation.
All Things Considered spoke with Columbia University professor Shana Redmond and NPR music critic Ann Powers about how music in these times of change can reflect attitudes and speak to the perspectives of those living through them.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Note: The embedded videos contain language and lyrics that some may find objectionable.
On the legacy of Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam"
Redmond: I think there's only a sense of continuity that we can take from its legacy, from its usage in this very moment. The structures to which Nina Simone was responding have continued to face us in the future that she hoped would be free and clear and beautiful.
So the rage that she brought to the production of that song, the moment at which she said, "I'm either going to take up arms, I'm going to buy a gun, or I'm going to write this song," is precisely where so many people see themselves fitting in today.
On whether today's protest music can stack up to that of the past
Powers: Well, it's tempting to say, "Oh, they just don't do it like they did back in the '60s." But in fact, the lineage of protest music is one of constant dialogue and constant reinterpretations within these songs. One song that really stood out for me after the Supreme Court decision came down on Friday was a rewriting of a patriotic song, "America (My Country, 'Tis of Thee)" by a young singer songwriter who goes by Reina del Cid, who rewrote the song to have these incredibly cutting and almost despairing lyrics.
That is another example of how to engage with protest, is to engage with history. And musicians can do that so artfully by rewriting songs themselves.
On historic protest songs that have become relevant once more
Redmond: One of the songs that has come up for me, that was brought to mind again through social media, was Digable Planets' "La Femme Fetal." That song, which is very explicitly about abortion 30 years ago, is actually now making the rounds again. Not because it's new, not because it uniquely speaks to this moment necessarily, but because of its documentation of a certain kind of prophecy. That Clarence Thomas is already represented in the song, that the stories they're telling about fascism and the ways in which this is not about your protection or safety, this is about control — all of those things are at the pitch point, the fever pitch point of discussions around this decision this week. And so I'm drawn back here very solidly.
On what modern music is continuing this tradition
Powers: After the murder of George Floyd, there was a huge groundswell of songs, of music being made to bring into the light the experience of people of colour in the U.S. and beyond under the threat of police violence. One particularly poignant one was by Anderson .Paak. It's a song called "Lockdown." And the song and the video really represented not only the spirit of resistance, but the exhaustion that overcomes people when, you know, life itself requires resistance.
On what makes a great protest song
Redmond: I think it has to be connected to people's experiences. So you have to be pulling your information, your sentiments, but also your sound from the people around you. You have to have a real sense of the ground and be able to demonstrate that you're in community with people.
Powers: I will say humor can sometimes be a strong force within protest and something that brings people together. After Friday's ruling, at the Glastonbury Music Festival, which is a huge music festival in England, Olivia Rodrigo joined Lily Allen to perform the Lily Allen song "F You," dedicated to a certain group of Supreme Court justices. It was funny, it was powerful, and it was quite direct.