Music and social justice from Kendrick Lamar to Nancy Sinatra

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Professors Thomas Rozinski, Robin Attas and Jacob Hertzog served as guest panelists for the Music and Social Justice panel hosted by the Community Outreach Dialogues Program. The event explored the degree to which music and the music industry plays a role in social justice movements. Photo courtesy of the author.

On Jan. 27, the Community Outreach Dialogues program hosted the Music and Social Justice panel.  

The year 2020 has met its narratorial calendar end, but the discourse spurred from its political and cultural campaigns still reigns indefatigably. This aforementioned discourse of the recent past penetrated mass popular culture largely through creative artistry, with music history serving as popular political culture’s predominant artistic influence. With Professors Thomas Rozinski, Robin Attas and Jacob Hertzog serving as guest panelists for the Music and Social Justice panel, the program propose that although music has had a powerful impact on social justice, the barriers faced by art creators of marginalized backgrounds within the music industry means the popular culture of music has yet to reach its peak. 

“Through examining the music of both the past and present, we have created a juxtaposition of how far we have in the United States to achieve peace, equity and true freedom,” Grace Burns, a sixth-semester finance major and program director for Community Outreach Dialogues, said. 

The barriers that artists of marginalized backgrounds struggle to break through have historically been gatekept primarily through identity discrimination by the music industry’s tastemakers. The ignition of racial tensions arising from the George Floyd protests of 2020 has led the issue of race discrimination specifically to receive special focus in popular cultural discourse. 

Speaker Tom Rozinski demonstrated how music can help listeners understand issues of social justice within the context of political science. Rozinski created this multifaceted declaration regarding the state of music and social justice by basing his argument around historical American political figures such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke.  

Tocqueville theorized mass culture is resistant to that of written law, which Rozinski proved in the poignant protest song “Society’s Child,” written by singer Janis Ian in 1966. “Society’s Child” paints a colorful portrait of a country still sensitive to the colors of other people’s skin: Ian sings of a romance that is torn apart by her peers’ judgement because of its interracial nature. Doubling as both a torch song and a protest song, the mere fact it was released two years after the Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination in the United States proves the validity of Tocqueville’s reasoning. The vivid memorability of the song’s lyric and melody to guest attendees proves the validity of Rozinski’s argument of music being an important tool to understand issues of social justice. 

Professors Thomas Rozinski, Robin Attas and Jacob Hertzog served as guest panelists for the Music and Social Justice panel hosted by the Community Outreach Dialogues Program. The event explored the degree to which music and the music industry plays a role in social justice movements. Photo courtesy of the author.

Regarding the reappropriation of Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 “These Boots Are Made For Walking” by female voters in the 2020 election, Rozinski stated, “Whose boots are made for walking? Everybody’s boots are made for walking! In November, we saw which direction Americans walked.” 

After Rozinski laid out the foundation of music’s sociocultural impacts through Enlightenment-era thought and Civil Rights-era music, speakers Hertzog and Attas discussed the contrasting limitations of impact imposed upon musicians of marginalized backgrounds. They explained the origins of music coming to the forefront of social justice movements in the 21st century. 

“It felt like a natural extension of other eras in our history when music has played a very front and center social justice protest role, and the two that come to mind are some of the anti-war movement music in the 60’s and 70’s in relation to Vietnam,” Hertzog said. “When we look at this trend specifically for music that’s protesting racial injustice, this goes to the very beginnings of music being made in our country…To me, it seems like an unbroken stream all the way back to early blues and jazz before that.” 

Attas, a musical theorist based in Canada, discussed the history of protest music with a Canadian contextualization favoring protest music’s cyclical nature rather than its consciousness expanding evolution.  

“The music that’s used to promote social justice is often also used to oppress people,” Attas said. “A really important instance of that emerged in Canada towards indigenous peoples when there was a huge residential school system that indigenous peoples were forced to take part in mostly run by religious organizations…[In response] through the early 2000’s to 2015, we had indigenous peoples using music and round dances as a form of disruption and protest…So there’s this back and forth with music as both a tool for social justice…but then that unification can go the other way, as well.” 

All three panelists agreed the lack of equal representation and popular recognition in the music industry has negative repercussions not only to music as an art form, culture and social justice, but also to societal logical consistency and epistemology. 

Professors Thomas Rozinski, Robin Attas and Jacob Hertzog served as guest panelists for the Music and Social Justice panel hosted by the Community Outreach Dialogues Program. The event explored the degree to which music and the music industry plays a role in social justice movements. Photo courtesy of the author.

“If we truly believe in democracy, how can we limit the message to just the members of the favored class?” Rozinski asked. 

Because of these conflicts of representation in matters of social justice, the Music and Social Justice panel concludes music’s zeitgeist has not quite been reached. Anyone could vindicate the world of music as being adequately diverse by referencing the musical contributions of popular artists and genres with backgrounds in marginalization, such as rap and hip-hop. However, this vindication must be refuted, as these artists have yet to be seriously examined and studied as valued works of “high art” in intellectual contexts, such as music theory classrooms. Take Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly”, for example, a rap album that Atta states deserves the same artistic appreciation as the grandiose works of composer Ludwig van Beethoven but has yet to receive it. 

“Why are we not talking about the herd of elephants in the room of the fact that Kendrick Lamar’s music is not taught in the classroom?” Attas asked. “The race of the music, the race of the composers, the fact that Kendrick is not identified as a composer!” 

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