A couple of weeks ago a debate broke out on Twitter between Montreal indie rockers Stars and Toronto hardcore band F—ed Up. Stars wanted to boycott playing in Arizona until the state’s recently passed law — which allows police officers to search for illegal immigrants by randomly asking people for ID — was rescinded.
F—ed Up thought that was the wrong approach. “Why not keep playing Arizona, using the shows as an opportunity to engage the people there to get involved,” wrote the band’s frontman Damian Abraham on his Twitter account.
I’m with Abraham on this. A boycott by a Canadian band, which is mostly unknown in Arizona, isn’t likely to have much of an affect on the law.
Playing the state won’t do much either. But if enough musicians — and some high profile ones — get together and galvanize the American public they may just be able to get this policy changed.
It’s happened before. History is filled with songs about injustice, oppression and war. Not all protest music has worked, but songs and artists have been responsible for inspiring profound changes to American law.
Here are three moments where the power of music has led to social change.
Slavery would probably have ended in the United States without the countless gospel and blues songs that marked that era, but it may have taken a lot longer.
Protest music took two forms in the 18th and 19th centuries — whites singing songs about abolition to other whites (like the Hutchison Family Singers whose anti-slavery songs were heard by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln), and African Americans singing spirituals, like the passionate Go Down Moses.
Other songs, such as Wade in the Water, included instructions on the path black slaves could take to freedom. It was these songs that kept the fight for abolition going.
Most of us wish we could work less, but there was a time when long hours and low pay were the norm.
Through the music of artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and now Billy Bragg, songs about labour rights helped organize oppressed workers and gave people a reason to keep pressing on.
One of the most popular pro-union tunes is Ralph Chaplin’s Solidarity Forever, which Seeger made famous. “Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong,” goes the infectious folk chorus, which has been sung by countless picketers across the world.
When most people think of protest music they think of Vietnam. This was when some of folk and rock’s most famous musicians took to the streets to promote peace.
There was Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind, a song that was used in the anti-war and civil rights movements, Joan Baez’s Saigon Bride with the lyrics “How many children must we kill, before the waves stand still?” and Jimi Hendrix’s famously fuzzy version of Star Spangled Banner.
With many big name artists protesting the war, students across the country demonstrating and American casualties increasing, the U.S. government had no choice but to withdraw in 1973.
Bryan Borzykowski is a business and entertainment writer. Follow Metro Music on Twitter @TheMetroMusic