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Fight the Power: Music as a Social Force, a guest post by Lisa Krok

There is no doubt that teen activism is on the rise in today’s political climate. Options including peaceful protests via marches, boycotts, petitions, blogs, books, artwork, and more are popping up across the country. Looking back to the Civil Rights Movement, music was a catalyst in voicing messages of resistance and hope. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (RRHF) in Cleveland, Ohio hosts programs to inform teachers, librarians, and students about how music was used in the past as a change agent, and how we can apply that to present day.

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On a bitterly cold and blustery January day, RRHF Education Instructor Deanna Nebel shared ways music can be used as a social force with an auditorium full of students. She began with a very recent release by The Killers, “Land of the Free”. A sampling of the song was played, and then the audience was asked to break down the message in the lyrics.

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Pictured: Deanna Nebel

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The message of mass incarceration of people of color is clear: the “Land of the Free” has “more people locked up than the rest of the world”. While this was one of the more recent uses of music as a social force, many other examples were covered in class. Below are some related artists that encompass a variety of marginalized voices that teens can research on their own.

  • Joan Baez (Latinx heritage) promoted social change and became friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of the most memorable songs she sang are “We Shall Overcome” at the 1963 March on Washington, and “Birmingham Sunday”, which was used in the opening of Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls (1997). The latter references the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by the KKK, which resulted in the tragic deaths of four children. Baez was inducted to the RRHF in 2017.

See Joan Baez’ 2010 White House performance of “We Shall Overcome”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14DQJS2vw2I

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  • Bob Dylan (Jewish heritage) was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, and took the name Bob Dylan when he began performing. Contrary to popular belief, his name was not chosen based upon the poet, Dylan Thomas, but from a character on the television show Dylan is still performing to this day, and some of his most well-known songs include “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “The Times They are a Changin’”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, and “Hurricane”, which told the story of what some felt was the wrongful conviction of boxer Rubin Carter. This story was later made into the movie The Hurricane, featuring Denzel Washington. Dylan was inducted into the RRHF in 1989.

Click here for Bob Dylan writing prompt for teens:

https://www.rockhall.com/fight-the-power

  • Buffy Saint-Marie (Piapot Plains Cree First Nation) witnessed wounded soldiers returning from the Vietnam War. This inspired “Universal Soldier” in 1964, which was a protest song. Saint-Marie was an active philanthropist and started the non-profit fund Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education in 1996. The word “Nihewan” comes from the Cree language meaning “talk Cree”, implying “be your culture”.

See “How to write a protest song” by Buffy Saint-Marie, (2017)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mDvukMvttU

  • Aretha Franklin (African-American) was the Queen of Soul and the first woman inducted into the RRHF in 1987. Her powerful voice continued the fight after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although segregation was no longer legal, some still did not regard African-Americans as equals.  Aretha addressed this in a song that was not asking for respect, but DEMANDING it…and just in case you missed it, she spelled it out for you:

Respect Live, (1968)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0L4Bonnw484

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Aretha Franklin

An admirable quality of using music as a social force is its versatility. Different time periods and genres all lend themselves to advocacy for change. Song lyrics are basically poetry, so teen activists need to select the ones that express the message they are looking to convey. Any style of music:  rock, country, hip-hop, folk, and more can be used.

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Deanna Nebel shows examples of different albums with societal messages.

Education Programs Manager, Mandy Smith, shared more information about RRHF program offerings. “Fight the Power” is part of a larger umbrella of programs entitled “Rockin’ the Schools”.  The RRHF also partners with the Roots of American Music (ROAM) and the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage (MMJH) for a “Stop the Hate Youth Sing Out” collaboration. ROAM is a non-profit organization whose mission is to facilitate learning in diverse communities by providing customized arts programs, workshops, residencies, and performances through the use of traditional American music. Students begin by taking the “Stop the Hate” tour at the MMJH. Considering biases they have experienced in their own lives, they reflect upon what they have learned and how to use their voices to stand up to hate. Students are then partnered with a ROAM musician back in their classrooms and work on writing their own original protest songs. The songs are later performed at the RRHF in front of a panel of judges and other students learning about protest via music. The winners are then invited to perform their original songs during the “Stop the Hate Youth Sing Out” award ceremony on the RRHF main stage, in front of about 500 audience members and can win anti-bias education grants. Additionally, the MMJH encourages participation in their “Stop the Hate” essay writing contest to win scholarships.

Smith also suggested the RRHF Library and Archives as a great resource for teens. Those local to the Cleveland area can contact library@rockhall.org  or (216) 515-1956 to schedule visits. If not in the area , items are searchable at  http://library.rockhall.com/home and use https://rockhall.on.worldcat.org/discovery to find materials near you. Best of all, teachers and librarians can sign up for a FREE account to access Rock Hall Education resources at https://edu.rockhall.com/about.

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More resources:

https://www.rockhall.com/fight-the-power  (Teacher resources from RRHF)

https://www.rockhall.com/learn/education/rockin-schools

http://rootsofamericanmusic.org/

http://www.maltzmuseum.org/blog/stop-the-hate-at-rock-hall/

Special thanks to Gretchen Unico, Education Coordinator, for assistance in setting up the RRHF visit.

 ROCK ON!

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-Lisa Krok is a library manager, member of 2019 and 2018 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers team, and a Ravenclaw. She loves Queen and all things Freddie Mercury. Lisa can be found being bookish and political on Twitter @readonthebeach.

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