Music as Protest

If I have had the pleasure of joining any of you readers in person for a workshop recently you will know I am a big fan of Grace Petrie, the self-proclaimed ‘lefty scum, protest singer’. In April I was blessed enough to go to her gig in Birmingham with my cousins and mother, and of  course, there I found my muse for this month’s creative protest blog! Music can include everything  from  writing some of the best music of the 21st century, like Grace Petrie (in my humble opinion), to banging drums on marches, to changing lyrics to songs to generate new meanings. So, how can we keep using music as a form of protest? Let’s find out together!

Music can be great in drumming up support (pun absolutely intended). To create eye  catching protests in public spaces,  live music can be a great way to incorporate performance and protest once again. In my final year of university there were many UCU (University and College Union) strikes where lecturers were demanding better working conditions and pay. These included marches through towns and cities across the UK, but here in Liverpool we wanted to engage people in a more interesting way- and not just because we were from a drama school! This meant a couple of friends and I organised a samba band to be present for the marches through town. We took the instruments from university the day before the strikes (cramming them into my Peugeot was quite the task!) and brought them to the picket line the next day. We had routines learnt and performed both on the picket line and through the streets as we marched. The beat caught the attention of many passers-by,  and even got us on the regional news. It was commented by many on the march how the presence of the drums lifted the energy of the day. We also brought other instruments and changing the lyrics to a popular Beetles song (as we were in Liverpool!) sang of picket lines, workers' rights and the strikes. We had the lyrics written on large boards so people could join in, and it meant people could begin getting educated on why we were there in a way which was engaging, eye-catching and earworm inducing. There’s no better way of getting people to remember a political message than using a catchy tune!

Using music in the street, as well as producing it, has the ability to reach new audiences. Running the risk of this blog just being an outlet for me to relive  some of the best protest music I have witnessed, I would like to track back to 2018, when I saw one of the most famous protest music bands in a gig at Greenbelt festival; Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot are a punk rock band based in Moscow, Russia. They perform ‘guerilla gigs’ on the streets in provocative performances and grew to notoriety after a public performance demonstration in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The performance was in opposition to the influence the Orthodox Church has in politics in Russia, particularly their support of Putin during his re-election campaign. It led to several members of the group being arrested and caused many to re-evaluate the state of freedom of speech. Their lyrical themes in general consist of feminist rights, LGBTQIA+ rights and opposition to Putin. When the war in Ukraine broke out in 2022 they raised millions for Ukrainian relief.

It is the notion of ‘Guerrilla gigs’ that I would like to dwell on for a moment, as this is one of the most exciting and radical elements of their work. These gigs can appear a lot like flash mobs and are often held in public spaces for passers-by to be engaged with. Similarly, to  points made in the ‘Street Art and  Graffiti’ blog, where protest art is placed in public settings, the public have no choice but to engage with it, and thus it becomes a powerful tool for education and reaching those who would not otherwise take part in political demonstrations. The nature of Guerilla Gigs involves them being in unconventional spaces, often without the usual elements such as ticketing, and are unexpected or unannounced such as Pussy Riot’s most famous performance in the cathedral in Moscow. I find this element of the work interesting as it forces people to engage in a political discussion, using the arts as a vessel to do this. There is also something to be said for the spectacle of this kind of performance. Music, by its nature, is non-violent but can be catchy and effective in spreading messages to the masses.

Moving on from punk-rock in the streets of Russia, we have perhaps the opposite of that with the folk singer, Martyn Joseph. As activists who are inspired by their faith to take action, it is unavoidable that music’s influence on our spirituality will also subsequently have an impact on our struggles against injustice, which is something I believe is encapsulated in Martyn Joseph’s work. In addition, looking at the work of Bonhoeffer, we can also see how intricately linked music and spirituality can be. When we look into Bonhoeffer’s life and theology we can see the influence of music shining through. In a sermon written in prison in May 1944 for the baptism of his godson, Bonhoeffer addresses the power of music in creating clarity and joy;

“Amid the general impoverishment of spiritual life, you will find your parents’ home a treasury of spiritual values and a source of inspiration. Music, as your parents understand and practice it, will bring you back from confusion to your clearest and purest self and perceptions, and from cares and sorrows to the underlying note of joy.” 

I myself have often turned to music when I feel in need of empowering or am feeling ‘spiritually cold.’ I Searched For You by Martyn Joseph is a song I often turn to. In the song he tells the story of his search for God. One line in particular often inspires me when planning or taking action; “In the eyes of the broken I thought I saw your face”. Not only does this speak to my Quaker roots of ‘that of God in everyone’, but also inspires me in taking action which stems from compassion. For me working with charities and taking small actions to help others in the community is as much a protest as shouting in the streets.

Our final spotlight moves us into the word of pop with one of the most famous singers who created protest through their work; Irish singer, Sinead O’Connor. O’Connor created several performances for the public with political messages and undertones. One of her most famous actions of public protest was during a performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992, where she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II in protest of the actions of the Catholic church in covering up the abuse of children. For the majority of her career Sinead O’Connor spoke out about her faith being a Christian stating; “ I am a person who is in a relationship with the Holy Spirit, that is really important to me… I believe music is the Holy Spirit”. She later converted to Islam in 2018.  Her relationship to her faith was intrinsic to a lot of her life and music making and in the late 1990s was ordained as a priest by Bishop Michael Cox of the Irish Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I could write for hours about the hundreds of protest singers, and music events which are designed to inspire social change. The ever-evolving landscape of music means it is a diverse tool in creating change.  From the guerilla punk rock gigs of Pussy Riot, to the folky melodies of Martyn Joseph, to the pop of Sinead O’Connor, music can be powerful in inspiring your personal journey, or being used as a spectacle in itself. There are many more artists in addition to the few I have mentioned. If you ever find yourself in need of empowering, inspiring or even angering, have a listen to the SCM protest music playlist for even more suggestions and songs to get you in the mood for changing the world!


Call to action:

Download the SCM playlist; Songs to change the world to here.

Make your own playlist of songs which inspire you to take action.