Student Question

Many musical groups express in their songs a discontent with existing social conditions and a mistrust of those in positions of authority. What effect, if any, does such music have on the broader society? How might such protest songs paradoxically reinforce the very social order they aim to criticize?

Quick answer:

Musical groups frequently write songs that bring social injustices to the attention of a wide audience. Oftentimes the messages of such songs resonate so much with listeners that they motivate people to take action. However, sometimes these songs can elicit such a profound response that the situation they critiqued gets worse. For example, political hip-hop has historically had a significant influence on American urban identity, but has also contributed to increased tensions between urban youth and the police.

Expert Answers

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Music that critiques existing social conditions can often expose important injustices to audiences that were not previously aware of them. For example, consider popular contemporary rappers like Kendrick Lamar. His music discusses cycles of violence and poverty in urban communities, yet it is popular with listeners from a variety of backgrounds. Musical artists like Lamar often use their influence to bring attention to unnoticed suffering. Their music can impact society in many ways, in particular because it can motivate people unaffected by certain injustices to work with the affected in advocating for change.

For example, consider the influence of the American hip hop group N.W.A.’s famous song speaking out against the police. The song quickly became a piece of music that people from urban communities, especially people of color, identified with. The lyrics from that song were often chanted by rioters and written throughout cities in graffiti to protest police violence and interference. Even though the song did not tell people to protest, its message had a direct impact on the urban atmosphere of the time.

However, sometimes these types of songs reinforce the social order they criticize by provoking a response from authority. For example, consider how hip-hop groups that encouraged critique of the police could have played a role in increased violence. With more people motivated to resist police influence, officers may have been motivated to crack down harder in their surveillance of low-income communities.

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