With the UK’s right to peaceful protest under threat, protest music is more important than ever

In this week’s subtweets, Jenessa Williams admires the current vibrancy of protest music, and wonders how a police crackdown on gatherings might alter creative expression


The news agenda has been a hard one to stomach these last few weeks (months, years…), and it’s difficult not to feel like each day doesn’t bring some fresh reason to feel down. Normally, we gather round our friends and comrades and hash it out, but between social distancing rules and a new looming court bill, that might not be an option.

Having taken issue with both the actions of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protestors as well as recently vigils from Reclaim These Streets and Sisters Uncut in the name of Sarah Everard, a new Police Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been raised in UK Government as a means to allow police more discretion in determining protests and public gatherings as ‘disruption’. Potentially, this will give police the right to dismantle even peaceful assemblies, utilising stop-and-search powers that are thought to disproportionately affect people from marginalised groups. 

Having been favourable voted in by a Conservative majority of standing MPs, there is still some hope – at time of writing, it appears that public pressure may have suspended it’s final review until later in the year, which will require further stages of approval or amends. Nonetheless, protests for the right to protest are still ongoing – ironic to say the least.  

As a fundamental value of free speech, the concept of protest is nothing new. The right to gather around a cause goes back further in history than many of us can contemplate, and indeed, a great many of them involve music; chants, anthems, emblems that help to make a cause heard. From the early emotion of ‘We Shall Overcome’ to the civil rights rally of ‘Strange Fruit’ and the anti-establishment of ‘Fight The Power, there have been countless songs throughout history that have triggered widespread solace and embodiment for marginalised communities, putting overwhelming emotions into words. At this years Grammy Awards alone, both H.E.R’s ‘I Cant Breathe’ and Anderson .Paak’s ‘Lockdown’ were honoured as thoughtful reflections on the events of 2020, creating space for an array of complex emotions in a peaceful way. 

Not all protest songs start out with the explicit intention of becoming so, either. They come from the heart of an artist, but take on new life in the hands of the people, sometimes appearing right when we most seem to need them. ‘Born This Way’, released in 2011 by Lady Gaga, has gone on to be an emblem of LGBTQIA+ rights and advocacy, giving fans a space in which to feel acknowledged and encouraged. The chorus for Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ came about by near accident following a conversational studio uttering by Pharrell, but gave voice to the struggles of Black Lives Matter protestors, emotionally exhausted from the fight and needing some sort of hope. As its chant was heard at more and more youth-led protests, its role was cemented, and Kendrick was able to rise to the challenge – taking the mantle and continuing to speak out about important issues, putting on high-profile performances of the song that rammed home its message.

Sometimes protest comes from more unexpected artists. Lil Baby, a rapper mistaken by many as just another frivolous party rapper, delivered a stunning performance at the Grammys of his song ‘The Bigger Picture’, a cry for unity and recognition around race and class that proved the conversation around Black Lives Matter to be just as important today as it was last summer. For some, it might have been an uncomfortable watch, but it was an important moment for both the Grammys and Lil Baby, coming into his own as a young artist with a point to make. 

While some of these songs mark the moment where an artist evolves from star into icon (see Beyonce with both ‘Flawless’ and ‘Formation’), protest doesn’t always guarantee an increased fanbase. When you’re a popstar with an enormous following, it can be scary to speak out on anything, knowing that any socio-political opinion will run the risk of dividing the crowd. Music is often thought of as an inherently left-leaning industry, but the way in which some artists hemmed and hawed their way through the last UK and US elections suggests that voting affiliation is still one area that many feel cagey about. Artists who are particularly vocal about causes – like Chicago rapper NoName – can find themselves resigned to the underground, perceived as too outspoken or ‘troublemaking’ for the big stage. Based on her undeniable talent, NoName should be a household name, but by constantly putting her head above the parapet and staying involved with conversations around politics and equality, she has been subject to endless criticism and condemnations to “stay in her musical lane”, totally undermining her potential as both an artist and a leader. 

If police officers will indeed have the ability to break up a peaceful protest, it also begs the question as to where they might draw the line. Music relies on large gatherings by its very nature – will a crowd of people singing along to ‘Alright’ leaving a UK Kendrick Lamar show now be labelled as threat? Will there be further precedent of racially profiling artists based on their lyricism? Cracking down on the ‘acceptable’ forms of protest will likely disengage musicians from political music or comment entirely, not wanting to rock the boat or get their fans in trouble. Already we can see the polarisation of social media and the threat of “cancel culture” creeping in to certain artists consciousness – in recent months alone, there have been notable bands who have used socio-political progressiveness in their music as a means to grow a progressive fanbase, but who shy away from comment when the conversation is most charged. Where this falls on a spectrum of performativity and genuine activism is a difficult one to call, not without knowing what goes on behind the scenes.   

Musicians, like the rest of us, will not get it right every time. But it’s important to back them when they do, and show our support to those who dare to stand up for what’s right. Though these songs might be difficult to listen to, they give voice to issues we all need to face, and remind us that our struggles are so much larger than our own. This right to use music as a vessel for enacting social change needs to be protected, elevating those who put both their emotional vulnerability and their careers on the line. 

With the fight to retain our right to gather peacefully in person still underway, we need to remember how much can be achieved by coming together with a common cause, each voice larger when it’s part of a team. Protest, done peacefully, can achieve amazing things. But where that option isn’t available, let’s also gather through shared song – until they take away our headphones, there will always be a place in which to feel part of moment. 


READ MORE: The most powerful Black protest songs from the last decade


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