“Where has all the protest music gone?” After witnessing the remarkable Black Lives Matter protests staged in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a series of prominent music scholars posted various versions of this question to an academic music listserv. For them and many folks of an older generation, a particular model of musical protest associates it with collective singing in public spaces, as large crowds deliver renditions of “We Shall Overcome,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Solidarity Forever.” Iconic figures may come to mind: Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, and Sam Cooke. Many may think of songs with explicitly political lyrics, such as Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” or Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
Popular music crafts communities of mutually invested participants, fostering activism far beyond the physical spaces where protests take place.
The idea that current movements lack their own protest music may simply stem from ignorance of the many artists whose music has explicitly responded to this moment—from Beyoncé’s “Black Parade,” released last week on Juneteenth, to Run the Jewels’ early release of their new album RTJ4. But popular music’s political power does not solely reside in its ability to mobilize protests or address political subject matter. Indeed such a view can be far too narrow for understanding the widespread political impact of popular music beyond these explicitly political contexts. Instead, we should recognize popular music for the ways it crafts communities of mutually invested participants, fostering activism far beyond the physical spaces where protests take place.
One need not look far to see the significant impact popular music communities have had on recent activism. When the Dallas Police Department asked protestors to snitch on others who might be looting via their iWatch app, which allows users to send anonymous tips to law enforcement, fans of K-Pop—a global pop genre from South Korea with an extensive network of dedicated fans—took matters into their own hands. As Dallas Police promoted the app on Twitter, K-Pop fan accounts began calling upon followers to overwhelm the app with images of their beloved artists, effectively crashing the app for a period of time. The following day K-Pop fans proceeded to derail the trending white supremacist hashtags #WhiteLivesMatter and #WhiteoutWednesday, by linking these to K-Pop fancams and a torrent of K-Pop fan posts.
Likewise, on TikTok, a social media app that allows users to circulate short video clips of singing, dancing, lip syncing, or just straight vlogging, black creators have navigated a complicated web of censorship, shadow bans (whereby the app makes content invisible to others without telling the creators), and disappearing hashtags to circulate messages that affirmed Black Lives Matter. Examples include @Rynnstar’s didactic and widely shared jingles turning serious arguments about racism into songs, countless recreations of rapper Childish Gambino’s hit song “This is America” from 2018, and @joyoladokun’s sung criticism of bad faith corporate-pandering produced as a response to recent protests. As was widely reported this past weekend, many TikTok users also took to the app to encourage people to reserve tickets that they didn’t plan to use in Trump’s Tulsa rally on June 20 as a kind of choreographed act of resistance. And as Confederate monuments fell across the country, the hip hop duo Insane Clown Posse re-released “Fuck Your Rebel Flag!” T-shirts in their digital store, leading to a flurry of their online fans affirming that, despite stereotypes that circulate in popular media, they remain aligned against white supremacy.
In isolation these various fan practices may seem trivial and anecdotal, yet their cumulative power provides an important counterpart to the more explicitly political protests that appear in physical spaces across the country. Perhaps philosopher and music scholar Robin James put it most succinctly via Twitter: “music isn’t just political in its content,” she wrote, since its “primary political function is the way it organizes relations among people.”
Certainly many examples exist of people singing protest songs in recent days. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has been a regular refrain at Black Lives Matter protests. Many historical protest songs have continued to be tragically relevant for our current moment—from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” But songs do not need a political theme to be political. As Tricia Rose points out in her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994), hip hop’s sonic qualities have had many political functions beyond lyrical content, as a result of the listening contexts it creates, the assertion of space it offers, and the forms of labor and pleasure it can invite. Given the fact that many of the most popular music genres today do not necessarily involve singing (at least, not the type of singing found in the folk music of the past century), we must look beyond outdated models of musical activism and toward the many digital music platforms that serve new forms of political action.
TikTok offers a model of how remix can give music political significance beyond the original intent of the musicians, in ways that can reimagine the subject matter of the songs. With over two billion downloads, the app allows people to appropriate popular music for new performance contexts, giving a new meaning to songs that might not feel political in origin. In one poignant example centering around the death of Breonna Taylor, the #BirthdayforBreonna hashtag circulated on the app, as people sang “Happy Birthday” to her on what would have been her twenty-seventh birthday. TikTok can offer a diverse landscape of political views and activism (leading some to segment the app into various subcultures like black TikTok, straight TikTok, queer TikTok, and alt TikTok), but the app offers opportunities to form solidary across identity differences and physical distances, in ways that often foreground the interplay between bodies, music, and social movements. (This is not to say the app is without flaws. The Chinese-owned app has faced serious criticism for censoring content at odds with the Chinese government, as well as allegations that it collects vast amounts of data on users without their knowledge. Others have objected to its biased algorithms and moderation strategies.)
These prominent forms of popular music activism online occur in what media scholar Henry Jenkins calls “participatory cultures,” cultural contexts where lines between production and consumption break down to allow consumers to collectively participate in the creation and circulation of media. The pandemic has devastated live music venues, and the concomitant rise of screen time on digital platforms has allowed popular music activism to thrive, bringing about new and updated modes of political engagement. These online contexts not only forge connections between physically dispersed people who might otherwise never interact, but also sustain communities that can be mobilized for strategic tasks. As Karen Yuan points out in a tweet about fans of the K-Pop group BTS, they “didn’t achieve #2MforBLM out of luck. the structures, methods, and practices for this type of collective action have been in place.” In other words, these political mobilizations came from well-established networks of activism that have been present in these fandoms long before the contemporary round of protests. As with nearly all contemporary popular musical traditions, K-Pop has its own troubled history with racism, but K-Pop fans have been important in holding artists and labels accountable too.
Digital platforms not only forge connections. They also sustain communities.
Beyond K-Pop we can see the power of fans to exert pressure on artists and the music industry at large, as evidenced by recent backlashes to Lana Del Rey’s Instagram post that appeared to call out the musical content of black artists or Lady Antebellum’s name change to Lady A (a name that already belongs to the black blues singer Anita White). Digital platforms have challenged the power players in the historically exploitative music industry. For example, the online music platform Bandcamp recently announced that it would donate 100 percent of its share of music sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on this Juneteenth and every Juneteenth from now on. The Recording Academy, parent organization of the Grammy Awards, announced it would no longer use the category of “Best Urban Contemporary Album,” as a result of the way “urban” has historically functioned to segregate black artists (part of a longer history well documented by Karl Hagstrom Miller and criticized by many artists including, most recently, Tyler the Creator).
Of course, fandoms are hardly utopias; they often reproduce structural inequalities that exist elsewhere. But they are always political, and dismissing them as unimportant plays into a longstanding cultural ideas about highbrow art as opposed to popular entertainment. Fandoms, particularly those of girls, women, and people of color, are often dismissed as unimportant, especially when compared to fandoms dominated by white men. As media scholar Suzanne Scott reminds us in her book Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry (2019), many male-dominated fandoms are viewed as inherently serious, artistic, and sophisticated, while girl and women fandoms often get labeled as unserious, unsophisticated, and mere entertainment. Such stereotypes of women as superficial fans perpetuates gender-based discrimination in media industries. This prejudice affects how seriously people engage creative content created by such fans and also leads people to dismiss the political value of digital communities, including TikTok or Black Twitter, as spaces that appeal to people excluded from traditional forms of media. As many have pointed out, the New York Times repeatedly referred to TikTok teens’ trolling of Trump’s Tulsa rally as a “prank” rather than as activism or protest.
Popular music fans also exemplify how social movements must exist in digital and physical spaces simultaneously. In her essay “Sick Woman Theory,” Johanna Hedva considers models of political activism for those whose chronic illnesses and impairments might render them unable to participate in physical protests: “How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?” Such a question reminds us that political labor occurs in ambiguous and sometimes invisible acts beyond the public sphere, which can nonetheless grease the wheels of more obvious forms of political mobilization.
We miss the impact of everyday activism when we look away from more popular, participatory, and less star-driven forms of political production.
During this day and age, physical, in-person protests depend upon important work that takes place online, including relational forms of support, aid, and labor. These include bail fund donations, cash app redistributions of wealth, and real-time communication of police tactics in order to evade arrest during protests. All of these activities make use of pre-existing networks of connections online, and popular music fandom provides a kind of ready-made network of collaboration that transcends any single platform, giving these communities stability and flexibility.
Many believe popular music’s political efficacy lies in the power of famous musicians and the subject matter of explicitly political music. This belief is not entirely wrong, since both can have significant power. But they’re only part of the picture. We miss the extraordinary creativity and impact of everyday activism, protest, and resistance when we look away from more popular, participatory, and less star-driven forms of political production.
Popular artists can shift political views, make missteps, or reveal disappointing political viewpoints that they once shielded from their listeners (think: Kanye West). The meaning of a given song changes with context. And the relational power of popular music fandom and online communities can last far longer than individual artists and songs. Acknowledging popular music’s political function as something that binds people can also call us to look back on political anthems of the past differently, acknowledging that the lyrical meaning of the songs may have been less important than their role as a bonding agent during and beyond protests. Whether online or offline, these participatory networks can mobilize political movements through surprising and sudden acts of deeply creative collective action.