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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Fit to be king
Lilli Dellheim, Special to the Hawk • July 13, 2024

Change in the rhythm

Graphic by Kaitlyn Patterson ’20.

How music has tackled social justice throughout generations.


For as long as it’s been around, art has been a platform for social commentary. From depicting religion in medieval painting to racial issues in Broadway musicals, art has always reflected the history of humanity, showing both its values and its problems.

Artists have a unique position in society to address issues such as race, gender, violence, war and hate, as art is something that people can legitimately respond and relate to. Of course, everyone knows  popular songs like “Imagine” by John Lennon and “One Love” by Bob Marley, and value them as anthems. However, there are endless amounts of songs and albums which tackle issues that have haunted America for generations. Social justice seems to be a part of pop culture now more than ever, and speaks not only to a small fan base, but to the whole world.

During the Civil Rights Movement, many musicians wrote songs that shed light on racial issues sweeping the nation. Musician Bob Dylan is known for using his talent to protest war and violence and speak out in solidarity with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. In “Blowin’ in the Wind” from his 1963 album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” he laments “how many years can some people exist/ before they’re allowed to be free,” pleading to Americans to speak up for human rights. Another track from the album entitled “Oxford Town” addresses the riots that occurred in Oxford, Mississippi after the first African American student was admitted to the University of Mississippi. 

In 1984, the Irish band, U2 released a song titled “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which is a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. With lyrics like “One man come in the name of love/ One man come and go/ One man come he to justify/ One man to overthrow,” King is honored as the social justice hero he is still seen as today. Although this song was released years after the Civil Rights Movement, it still made a huge impact on society. Even today, U2 continues to make social justice commentary in their music, most notably in “Ordinary Love,” a tribute to South African leader Nelson Mandela.

Despite the amount of progress the country has made over the years, social   commentary is still prevalent in the music industry. In his 2013 album entitled “Yeezus,” rapper Kanye West makes references to modern American racism. In the track “New Slaves,” he raps, “I know that we the new slaves/ I see the blood on the leaves.” The line alludes to current racism in the United States and references singer Billie Holiday’s 1939 song “Strange Fruit,” which describes the lynching of African Americans.

Similarly, artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole use their platforms as rappers to address racism and violence towards  African Americans and speak out in unison with the Black Lives Matter movement. On his 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar discusses the police protests that swept the nation at the time, and provided  hope for communities affected by the protests, proclaiming “we gon’ be alright.” In “The Blacker the Berry,” he speaks out against those who try to oppress African Americans in America. J. Cole, who performed at Philadelphia’s Made in America festival, also talks about police brutality and racism. In his track “Be Free,” he says “Can you tell me why/Everytime I step outside I see my ni**as die/I’m lettin’ you know/That there ain’t no gun they make that can kill my soul.”

It’s amazing how music can bring people together. There’s something magical about thousands of people singing the same words, words that resonate and mean something to each individual person, in unison. Artists we all know and love like Beyoncé, Chance the Rapper, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Lady Gaga, Madonna and many more have released music in recent years that address these social justice issues.

From war and violence to climate change, LGBTQ+ rights and feminism, music has shed light on many of the social justice issues that have been haunting Americans for generations. Pop culture appears to be at a point where it is calling Americans, and human beings of the world, to step up and make a change.

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