Art as a Vehicle for Change
Every unified movement needs a rallying cry.
Protest music, art, and satire have been a crucial element of humanity’s subversive history. As long as people have found themselves tired of the status quo, they’ve been expressing it. Yet since up-ending accepted social norms requires disrupting a government system at ease, this expression is uniquely innovative, powerful, and assertive.
In this sense, art is the most adept at unleashing one’s creativity and innovation, breaking barriers, connecting across cultures, and actively engaging the shared values of a group. It forces the observer to slow down, think, analyze, and wonder. Then, all at once, art galvanizes the movement for which it was created by drawing people together and inspiring them to take action. It does not wait for permission for any political act – instead, it recognizes that the political agency belongs to the people. It does not hesitate to address discomfort; rather, it encourages it as a mechanism for progress.
Particularly in light of recent events, we’re going to trace a few ways art has advanced the civil rights movement. This process is not bound to any time, place, or environment – from the stage, the streets, to your car radio, here are some of the greatest voices of creative protest throughout history.
Michael Jackson - “They Don't Care About Us” (1995)
In the United States, Michael Jackson’s revolutionary song “They Don’t Really Care About Us” sets the tone for a profound criticism of government injustice, prejudice, and neglect. One could hardly miss the implications behind the lines “I am the victim of police brutality, now/I'm tired of bein' the victim of hate/You’re rapin’ me of my pride” and “Black male, blackmail/Throw your brother in jail.”
Though its accompanying music video is rarely shown on television, it was set against the backdrop of prison. In the video, Jackson is seen handcuffed. It also contains real footage of police attacking African Americans, the military crackdown of the protest in Tiananmen Square, the Ku Klux Klan, war crimes, genocide, and other human rights abuses.
When discussing the intentions behind the forgotten anthem, the King of Pop said it best: “The song in fact is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them.”
Eddie Murphy in The Distinguished Gentlemen (1992)
Civil protest is not limited to a couple of hard-hitting songs with driving beats. Sometimes, humor is the most effective way to draw in an audience.
In the 1992 political comedy The Distinguished Gentlemen starring Eddie Murphy, the star plays a U.S. congressman. At one point, he calls the chairman of a PAC and inquires the following:
“Chairman Dodge, please? Would you tell him that it’s Mr. Joshua Benjamin from the NAACP on the line? I have a few minor questions. I would like to know how many members of the chairman’s committee are African American?...None.”
In less than thirty seconds, he discovers there are no Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, disabled, or gay individuals either, after which he politely says “Okay, forget I even called, thank you!”
A.B. Original - “January 26”
Much like in the United States, minority groups in Australia - such as Aboriginal Australians - are subject to disproportionate instances of police brutality, low socioeconomic status, and compromised access to health and education, among other concerns.
Hip-hop duo A.B. Original, a wordplay on Aboriginal and an acronym for Always Black, Original, is not content to passively accept such conditions, writing songs laden with bold, brash, and unapologetic messages. Interspersed among many references to Australian colonialism is a fierce address to their black culture, forging an anthem for equality and justice.
“I can't get in my whip, I get a ticket for that/I get a DWB, and that's a "Driving Whilst Black"/I turn the other cheek, I get a knife in my back/And I tell 'em it hurts, they say I overreact,” raps A.B. Original member Briggs on their song "January 26."
These are just a few of the ways artists have challenged us to think, to laugh, to question, and often, just to be daring enough to open our eyes. Not just to look, but to see, whether the message beyond the institutionalized veil is packaged in humor or purposely laid raw and uncensored. From there, it is up to us to unite behind their rallying cries and march together towards change.