Music, in lamest term, is nothing more than different vocal or instruments notes perfectly go together creating beauty that can only be seen with minds and ears. It is something abstract but, yet, powerful when expressing at the right time, right place, and right audience. Protest music is music that rallies people to fight for a common goal, a change, a movement has been known as protest songs and United States is no stranger to it. As a matter of fact, protest music has been around since the beginning of this country itself (Ruehl, 2019). There are many great songs throughout the United States history. This paper will discuss two songs from two different eras about their themes, the differences, and the goals of each era. These songs are “With God on Our Side” by Bob Dylan in 1964 and “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar in 2015.
From the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song, audiences can clearly tell he’s talking about the U.S. history of different violent event, God-Duty-Country, and skepticism to the idea of God. The lyrics in this song were well written and masterfully delivered by Bob Dylan. With Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” lyrics, audience can see he was conveying the idea of oppression, racism, and reassurance of a better day. The lyrics used in both songs were shrewdly constructed and precisely penetrated the intended market.
The 1960 was a time of orderly chaos. There were many events the U.S. was facing internationally and changes she was going through in her backyard. “With God on Our Side” (1964) starts the first violent event with “The cavalries charged. The Indians fell. The cavalries charged. The Indians dies”. Bob Dylan could possibly be referring to the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Year’s War in Europe; however, this could very well be any post-Revolutionary-War conflicts with the Native Americans. Then, the song goes on to the Spanish-American, the First World Wars, the Second World War, and the last war in that era was the Cold War with Russia. Even though the country was young; and the U.S. does not count the dead; and forgive the Germans; and possibly kill many more with push of a button, Bob Dylan tells his audiences that these Wars are justified because God is on their side (Bob Dylan – With God on Our Side, 1964). He also plays the devil’s advocate in telling his audiences that, even after the Germans kill 6 million people and Judas’ betrayal to Jesus, God must have been on their side, too. However, as an American, you must fight for your country at any cost without knowing “the reason for fighting” (Bob Dylan – With God on Our Side, 1964). Toward the end of the song, Bob Dylan skillfully let the audiences question their [own] God. The line “I’m weary as Hell” raises consequences awareness to the audiences and makes them asking themselves “all of these fighting and lost of lives, was God even on our side? Are we truly an “In God We Trust” nation?”
Let’s look at Kendrick Lamar’s song, “Alright”. Gilbert, businessinsider.com writer, states “’Alright’ is the national anthem for the modern civil rights movement” (2016) after numbers of assembly cried the song’s chorus. Oppression was clearly stated in the very first line “Alls my life I has to fight, nigga. Alls my life I…” (Kendrick Lamar – Alright, 2015). He referenced this line to the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker. Similar to “With God on Our Side”, Kendrick Lamar believes that he will be “aright” if God is on his side. He pains a sad picture about his life with low-paying jobs, unexpected homicide, and life of gangs. He wants the world to know in the line “tell the world I know it’s too late” that he’s aware of them but there’s no way out from the life. Being black and in a gang from Compton, Kendrick inherited hatreds toward law enforcement and he felt as if the feeling is mutual. The line “my knees gettn’ weak, and my gun might blow. But we gon’ be alright” (Kendrick Lamar – Alright, 2015) might be mistaken for a violence response to the police brutality. However, his audiences have a different vision; a picture of a tormented soul who kneels in front of his preacher and thinks his ending his own life. Kendrick was saved and reassured of a better day with God on his side and he was going to be “alright”.
Naturally, words choices and constructions from both songs are different from each other because of their eras. Bob Dylan lyrics are more graceful and benevolent compare to the angry and violent lyrics of Kendrick Lamar. Nonetheless, both songs successfully penetrated their intended audiences which provided momentums to the movements that supported by both artists. Bob Dylan took the lead in folk-protest movement (Scheurer, 1991) by using music to unify Americans and making them start thinking about the state of the country. He narrates the song as an ordinary American who believes in God – Country – Duty asking for answers. He summarizes his up bringing childhood had always “Has God on [his] side” as long as he was a law-abiding citizen who fights and protect this country. Scheurer (1991) points out that eventually, even with God on his side, Bob Dylan was getting “weary as Hell”. Similarly, in Kendrink Lamar’s lyrics, he expresses that even though he believes in God, he is affirmed that he will not be going or allowed in Heaven because “the evils of Lucy [Lucifer] was all around me” (Kendrick Lamar – Alright (2015). Both songs have succeeded their goals of reaching out to the audiences and adding momentums to the movements.
In conclusion, regardless of time, protest music has been generally been the same: expressing an issue needed to be address, unifying people who share the same ideology, breathe air and add fuels to the movement. As stated before, choices of words are different because of different eras but the end states are always the same. This paper finds that protest music tends to gains more tractions when the lyrics are powerful. Social movements, of course, also gain more awareness and exposure times because of protest music. In 1960’s, songs were distributed through air times on the radio, newspapers, and rallies. Nowadays, social movements had the advantage of social media. Media contents are sharing exponentially with a touch of a finger.
Scheurer, T. E. (1991). Born in the U.S.A: The Myth of America in Popular Music From Colonial Times to the Present. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.libauth.purdueglobal.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=25880&site=eds-live
Gilbert, B. (2016, October 25). Kendrick Lamar’s civil rights anthem ‘Alright’ almost didn’t happen. Retrieved July 19, 2019, from https://www.businessinsider.com/kendrick-lamar-alright-2016-10
Ruehl, K. (2019, May 23). All About the Protest Music Genre. Retrieved July 19, 2019, from https://www.liveabout.com/all-about-protest-music-1322475
Bob Dylan – With God on Our Side. (1964, January 13). Retrieved July 19, 2019, from https://genius.com/Bob-dylan-with-god-on-our-side-lyrics
Kendrick Lamar – Alright. (2015, March 15). Retrieved July 19, 2019, from https://genius.com/Kendrick-lamar-alright-lyrics