This museum exhibit will focus on how popular music in America displayed the political views of the general public from 1877 to present day. Specifically following the music during the times of Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam war, and close to present day with music from the “War on Drugs”. Music during these events discuss different political topics, but are all important as the music is able to show the political atmosphere of their time.
Music is one of the most interesting and critical facets of human culture. It can tell a story about a time period that can be relevant for over a century. It can plead to the masses over a systemic issue going on. It can also represent a country. For America specifically music has been embedded into our culture in large part because of the diversity, the gap between social classes, and because quite honestly the country has a lot of problems. Topics such as slavery, war, and drugs can be illuminated to the public because of masterpieces that are indicative of either a group of people or a problem. An artist, genre, or band can dictate an era while at the same time exposing a certain American time period. Within the years Jim Crow laws were in use, African Americans were separated from using the same property and equipment as white people. Jim Crow laws started as early as 1865, and during the time it was constitutionally legal to separate people based on race. During the era of Jim Crow laws, African Americans often turned to jazz and blues music as an outlet to protest their circumstances (Zabel, 2014, page 4). Many African American artists used blues or jazz music to convey their emotions and to express their unhappiness with the laws that discriminated against them. While white people were able to segregate African Americans from water fountains, restrooms, and even building entrances, they were unable to discriminate against music. This meant their jazz and blues music was African Americans freedom, they could sing about political topics, their culture, or whatever else they found appealing. Grace Elizabeth Hale in the chapter “Hear Me Talking to You” beautifully expresses the mindset of African Americans from about 1880 to 1920 saying, “With their sounds and words, blues musicians created a rebel persona, a romanticized black figure who said no to hard work and yes to personal pleasure. The blues rebel announced that transformation was possible, that individual black lives could not be contained and controlled by whites” (Hale, 2011, page 239). This quote exemplifies how jazz music inspired its community and acted as more than music. It shows how African Americans used it as a way to fight through the systemic oppression that was affecting their community.
Similarly to the the time period of Jim Crow laws, music during the Civil Rights Movement was used by African Americans to express their disgust with the racial inequality within the United States. Before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, many African Americans had to deal with segregation of school districts, racial discrimination and white flight, the moving of whites to the suburbs to avoid having minority neighbors. During the Civil Rights Movement, which started around 1954, jazz and blues music was still the most popular genre of music. Jazz music in this era conveyed the deep pain and anger African Americans felt on an everyday basis. The music acted as a way to unify African Americans across the country by singing lyrics of disgust and anger, and helped lead to the idea of Black Nationalism by encouraging the fight for equality (Feldstein, 2013, page 85). The songs seen in this era often set to empower African Americans and inspire them to break free of the racial discrimination they were facing. Songs like “Mississippi Goddam” and “I Wish I Knew How It Felt to be Free”, by Nina Simone are good examples of inspirational songs in the time, as the lyrics of both pray for the day African Americans will be treated as equal. Jazz music from 1954 to around 1968 was very indicative of the emotions and political uprising of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. By using the jazz music to express their emotions of the time, many others were inspired to stand up and fight against racial discrimination. Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” were very important to the movement, as it helped unify white and black to sing together, as well as empowered African Americans to feel hopeful about their future (Roy, 2013, page 20). Jazz music during this time not only displayed political views of African Americans, but was able to help the Civil Rights Movement gain popularity.
The United States involvement in the Vietnam war began in 1965 and were involved in the war until 1973. Their reasoning for involving themselves in the Vietnam Civil war, was to help stop the spread of communism in the area. As the American death toll continued to rise, the public became increasingly against the war. During this time period, rock and roll music was very popular around the country. The genre of music was very representative of the war protestors of the time as it was very rebellious. During this time, many popular rock artists such as Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan were very openly against the Vietnam War (Kramer, 2017, page 133). Their music largely reflected that, and acted as a way to express disgust with the war. Rock and roll music during this time was very important as it was a way to protest against the war. Many Americans listened to rock and roll music, and using it as a way to show disapproval against war and promote peace was a fascinating way to lead the movement against the Vietnam war.
“The War on Drugs” features the evolution of another new genre of music, hip-hop. Before President Nixon declared a War on Drugs in 1971, drugs were very popular within the United States youth and were a symbol of youth rebellion. With the “War on Drugs” came dramatically increased drug enforcement agencies, hard on drugs laws, and other organizations fighting the distribution of illegal drugs in the US (Robinson, 2014, page 28). From 1971 to the present day, people in poverty stricken areas are more likely to be incarcerated than anywhere else. Hip-hop became a very popular genre of music during the “War on Drugs”, as it usually depicts the lifestyles of the people most affected by the change in drug policy. The genre of music is able to reach a large demographic. In songs like “Changes” by Tupac, the artist touches on the inequalities of the application of drug enforcement, and asks for change. Hip-hop during this era allows the artist to tell their story, and express their disapproval for the harsh laws and the discrepancies seen between white and African Americans in the use of drug laws.
Hale, Grace Elizabeth. Beyond Blackface. University of North Carolina Press. (2011).
Kramer, Michael J. The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Feldstein, Ruth. How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Robinson, Matthew B., and Renee G. Scherlen. Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2014.
Roy, William G. Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.
Zabel, Manuel. “Fight Jim Crow! A Jazzy Protest Born in the U.S.A.” 2018. MLA International Bibliography with Full Text.