Artists protest through song in the wake of Ferguson shooting

BY Ruth Tam  August 22, 2014 at 4:07 PM EDT
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has authorized a second autopsy of Michael Brown to be conducted by a federal medical examiner. Scott Olson, Getty Images News

File photo of protests in Ferguson by Scott Olson, Getty Images News

What does a 21st century protest song sound like?

If you’re folk musician Ezra Furman, it has echoes of Bob Dylan. If you’re legendary songwriter Lauryn Hill, it borrows from Rodgers and Hammerstein. If you’re hip-hop artist J. Cole, it’s an elegy with a beat.

Though these artist span the musical spectrum, the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have inspired them all to release singles independently on Soundcloud.

Read the lyrics from the third verse of Ezra Furman’s song “Ferguson’s Burning” below. The full lyrics can be found on his blog.

Ezra Furman’s Ferguson’s Burning
When the fires burn out
And the tear gas disperses
When the work is all done
For the doctors and the nurses
The cops may stop shooting
And the street get less wild
But Michael Brown’s mother
Will never get back her child
And the hatred and fear
That America harbors
Will only grow bigger
Beneath big body armor
So keep a close eye on our laws and our leaders
No justice for Mike Brown
There’s none for you either

Ferguson’s burning
And the world’s turning away
Turning away


Read the lyrics from the first verse of Lauryn Hill’s song “Black Rage” below. The full lyrics can be found on her website.

Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage”

Black rage is founded on two-thirds a person,
Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens,
Black human packages tied up in strings,
Black rage can come from all these kinds of things.
Black rage is founded on blatant denial
Squeezed economics, subsistence survival,
Deafening silence and social control.
Black rage is founded on wounds in the soul!

When the dogs bites
When the beatings
When I’m feeling sad,
I simply remember all these kinds of things and then I don’t fear so bad!


Read the lyrics from the second verse of J.Cole’s song “Be Free” below. You can also read the full lyrics.

J.Cole’s “Be Free”

Can you tell me why every time I step outside
I see my n***** down,
Ooh, I’m letting you know
That it ain’t no gun they can make that could kill my soul
Oh, no

All we want to do is take these chains off
All we want to do is break the chains off
All we want to do is be free
All we want to do is be free

For generations, Americans have relied on music to criticize everything from the Depression to the Vietnam War. These anthems have become landmarks for public thought, indicating the highs and lows of civil discourse.

In 1940, renowned Depression-era songwriter Woody Guthrie, now best known for ”This Land Is Your Land,” saw the film adaption of John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” Struck by the plight of Steinbeck’s protagonist, Guthrie reportedly sat down with a half-gallon jug of wine and spent an entire night writing “The Ballad of Tom Joad” on a typewriter. Guthrie later took to “People’s World” to explain his work: it “…shows the damn bankers men that broke us and the dust that choked us, and comes right out in plain old English and says what to do about it.”

Men walkin’ `long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back
Highway patrol choppers comin’ up
over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the
southwest
No home no job no peace no rest.

Between 1962 and 1963, when the U.S. was embroiled in the Cold War and the beginning of the Vietnam War, Bob Dylan recorded “Masters of War” as a blunt denunciation of nuclear armament between America and the U.S.S.R.

“Some people say this one song I wrote is very naive,” Dylan said at a live performance of the song in 1963. “Well, I got to stand here and really not care because I do actually hope that the masters of war die tomorrow.”

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

A year after Dylan recorded “Masters of War,” Nina Simone sat down at her piano and wrote an uptempo response to the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and the deaths of four black children from a bombing at a church in Birmingham, Alabama. “Mississippi Goddam” was released as a single and became a protest anthem even though several Southern states banned it. Simone went on to perform the song during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches.

Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

…Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer

Now, with the immediacy of protest hashtags, observers of current events do not necessarily need public figures to lead cultural protests. But modern musicians are nonetheless composing.

“I think it’s a perfect time for protest songs,” musician Ezra Furman told Art Beat.

“The day I wrote this, I was able to put it on YouTube and share it really quickly with a ton of people. It’s not on a record so people might not hear it as many times. But I think it’s better that I don’t have to wait for it to be pressed to wax before people hear it. Things are still happening and people have more energy and urgency.”

Furman received criticism from fans for posting the song before the investigation of Michael Brown’s death concluded, but the musician believes the story is bigger than the case.

“I’m not trying to convict [the officer who shot Brown],” said Furman. “I’m calling for his arrest and trial. Even if Michael Brown wasn’t murdered for racist reasons, this song is worth it regardless because it’s true of other cases.”

Furman, Hill and Cole’s songs were all released around the events in Ferguson but speak largely to the experience of being marginalized in America. Centuries after the first protest songs, it appears the themes are still the same.