Making noise: the paradox of protest music

Is the protest song dead? I don’t think so. There’s been a lot of discussion about the ‘death of protest music’ recently with too much focus on a nostalgic view of the past. I wanted to show that protest songs are very much alive, by talking to the numerous artists making insightful music today.

I’d been making radio programmes with the Roundhouse in Camden - which runs media projects for under 26s - and met Sue Clark, who encouraged me to put forward some ideas to the BBC. For Radio 1, clichéd as it may sound, I wanted to find a topic that would be both entertaining and inspiring for a young, music loving audience. I thought protest songs were the perfect vehicle, and Make Some Noise! will be my first documentary for BBC Radio. 

If I had to choose one thing I’ve learned through making the documentary, it would be that music and protest always have and always will go hand in hand. This does create a paradox about what term to use, however. The word 'protest' suggests an angry reaction against the system that’s most often associated with punk rock. Yet some of the most powerful pieces of music which are now 'protest songs' are stories of personal struggle against injustice, such as Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit

There are many ways of making an impact - you can choose to be direct and explicit in the style of Enter Shikari, take a more subtle approach like PJ Harvey or speak from personal experience like George the Poet. The message could even be hidden within the music, as in the case of dubstep band Engine Earz Experiment.

A related issue - and something I wasn’t expecting - was that several artists I approached were wary of being associated with 'protest' because of possible negative overtones.  Even more disliked was the word 'political'. We live in a time where politics is a dirty word because it suggests ‘party politics’, which many people are turning away from. Musicians don't want to be viewed as exceptional - or get sidelined - for talking about certain issues. Music from any genre or style can contain important messages and raise awareness - it shouldn’t be seen as something unusual.

Another crucial point is that people won't listen to a song just because it has great lyrics - if you really want to catch people's attention you have to hone your musical craft. Songs like The Specials’ 'Ghost Town' or Plan B’s ‘Ill Manors’ are memorable not only because of their subject matter but because of the catchiness of the music.

It was a brilliant experience to attend the Amnesty protest song competition along with presenter Ricky Norwood, and I was intent on including the students’ voices in the programme. Meeting so many mature, engaged and enthusiastic young people of all ages confirmed to me that making this documentary really was worthwhile, and above all that we shouldn't underestimate the appetite amongst young people for access to more meaningful music.

I would encourage anyone who feels passionately about something to use their voice. Music is just one outlet for this but it can be an incredibly powerful way of changing hearts and minds - perhaps more effective than the words of a politician or public speaker.

However in order to truly make a change, art has to be accompanied by activism. Many of the musicians I spoke to considered themselves activists across all kinds of different issues, from working with charities to running educational workshops to taking part in strikes and public protests.  Whatever you choose to make some noise about, honesty and openness is key - if you believe in something, go and shout (or sing!) about it!

Naomi Mihara is the producer and creator of the Make Some Noise! documentary on Radio1 - listen to it tonight at 9pm.

You can make your own noise by entering the Amnesty Youth Awards, with categories for songwriting, reporting, photography, campaigning and fundraising. Find out more, download resources and enter today

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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2 comments

I recall Blowin' in the Wind and We Shall Overcome.. Guess it shows my sixties roots. Also Joe Hill sung by Amnesty supporter Joan Baez. Wonderful memories and stirring as well.

Peace Yank 5 years ago

I'd recommend The Agitator. Let's Start Marching is really good. Though Joe Hill is always hard to beat...

Ruth B 5 years ago