This week, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was honored to host an international discussion when BBC World Service's World Have Your Say broadcast live from the Museum's Alan Freed Studio. The program brought together a diverse panel of guests, including Rock and Roll Hall of Fame President and CEO Terry Stewart and Rock Hall Vice President of Education and Public Programs Lauren Onkey, who traded insights with remote guests English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, Egyptian rapper and poet Mohamed El Deeb, Yoko Ono and more. Host Ros Atkins posed the question that fueled the program's discussion: Has protest music disappeared?
"We had a spirited discussion about whether music can bring about social change," says Onkey. "It's a difficult thing to measure. The easy thing to do is to pull out a topical song, like an anti-war or anti-apartheid song, and measure it against whether or not something changed about that specific issue. But I think that change is harder to measure, and much broader and sometimes more subtle than that.
"Songs can educate us about an issue or a point of view from the past – The Specials' "Ghost Town," Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio," Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" – that can affect how we see the present," adds Onkey. "Songs can elicit an emotional reaction, or a sense of community between people, that can manifest in action, or a change in consciousness. These are the issues that we talk about in classes like "Fight The Power" and "Ball of Confusion," in our award-winning K-12 programming. We use the music as a lens on the past, and those voices continue to resonate."
Listeners from Akron to Zambia referenced a number of artists whose voices inspired change – and continue to inspire change – such as Anti Flag, Buffalo Springfield, Joan Baez, The Clash, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Green Day, Woody Guthrie, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Rage Against the Machine, Sex Pistols and more. Deeb joined live from Cairo, reflecting on the role of music in the Arab Spring, allowing people to express themselves – a revolution in itself. "All the rappers that came out of Libya were criticizing Gaddafi. The first person from the Arab Spring was El General, who actually came out with a song talking about the Tunisian situation and criticizing [Tunisian President] Ben Ali, and he actually got in jail because of that," said Deeb, who cites Talib Kweli among his inspirations. "It's very interesting to see that all the countries [where] revolutions happened, hip-hop was one of the languages there."
As the program drew to a close, a 23-year-old woman in Baghdad recommended that Atkins play Sam Cooke's 1964 track "A Change is Gonna Come" as an example of protest music. The woman's request was a compelling indication of the timelessness of certain songs, the cross-cultural appeal of music and how songs continue to be reinterpreted by generations and defy geographical boundaries. "With the BBC in the house and broadcating around the world, we were able to underscore – in real time – the impact of the music that we call rock and roll," says Stewart. "Calls from all corners of the globe validated the role that music plays in inspiring and shaping the events and culture that change our lives."
Yoko Ono, who with husband John Lennon helped shaped the social and political agendas of the Sixties, also spoke to music's continued potency. "Music is still the most powerful vibration we have for communication," she shared via email. "It sometimes works quietly so not to get blocked. Sometimes it makes itself loud, so even the people who are now not wanting to hear the message, can't help hearing it. Yes – music works."