In May, Prince released “Baltimore” in response to incidents of police brutality in black communities across the United States. “Can anybody hear us pray,” he asks, “For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?” Like J. Cole’s “Be Free” or Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” “Baltimore” is a protest song that urgently gives voice to anger and grief.

But it also has a great groove.

“Baltimore” calls for justice. But it also calls for dancing. The string section sounds like the best of the soul music that came out of Philadelphia International Records in the 1970s. Prince’s multi-tracked voice creates irresistible harmonies, and Eryn Allen Kane’s supporting vocals are gripping and soulful—a perfect complement to the electrifying guitar licks for which Prince is famous.

It might seem contradictory for a song to urge listeners to both mourn and dance, but that combination of pain and grooviness ties “Baltimore” to an older history of music that moves people to resist.

Music historians recently gathered at LA’s Hammer Museum to discuss how music that moves and motivates — that’s both a call to action and an invitation to get down — has been a crucial tool in black freedom struggles in the United States and beyond. People need a reason to get up and keep protesting, explained Duke University’s Mark Anthony Neal. Music can provide that reason. Songs that make you feel good give you “a reason to march,” Neal says, because they put “rhythm in your stride.”

And it’s precisely because black music-making helps people keep on fighting that USC’s Shana Redmond calls it a “fugitive practice that refuses containment.”

1960s civil rights activists recognized music’s political potential. They developed two particular styles of song, which, musicologist Tammy Kernodle notes, connected, moved, and motivated people: topical composed songs and group participation songs. Both types combined politically charged lyrics with irresistible melodies. And “Baltimore” continues their legacy.

Topical composed songs often revealed the inequality and violence that news media failed to accurately convey. Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town” and Phil Ochs’ “Ballad of Oxford, Mississippi” told the stories of activists like James Meredith, who enrolled at the previously-segregated University of Mississippi in 1962, in spite of rioting and threat of violence.

But beyond folk troubadours like Dylan and Ochs, musical groups emerged out of grassroots activist organizations. In 1962 members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed The Freedom Singers, and they recorded a song that sounded like the chart-topping rhythm and blues of the era. Only it was about one of the most racially polarizing politicians, Governor Wallace, who instigated a violent police crackdown against peaceful civil rights protesters in Alabama:

The freedom fighters

They are on their way

They are coming by bus and an airplane too

They would even walk if you would asked them to

So governor Wallace,

You never can jail us all

Governor Wallace,

Segregation is bound to fall

It proved that doo-wop and vocal harmony could be harnessed to serve the movement. As with “Baltimore” now, listeners got the message of “Governor Wallace” over 50 years ago in part because the beat made it stick.

As topical composed songs told some of the most important stories of the Civil Rights era, group participation songs created solidarity by urging voices to join together in one voice.

Activists Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Reagon directed choruses of “We Shall Not Be Moved” at protests. Composer Carlton Reese led the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir in dynamic, interactive, call-and-response performances of “99 and a Half Won’t Do.” These songs adapted words and melodies from spirituals and gospel music – songs that the people they were organizing with would have known well and could easily join. Participatory music helped motivate people and get them involved, and, as Kernodle notes, they also conveyed key values and tactics. The collective language “we” instead of “I” in songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved,” for instance, reminded people that acting as a community could be the ticket to self-empowerment.

Today’s group participation songs use similar tactics: they draw on the familiar to communicate to a wide audience. And musicians have a new source to draw on: online activism. Twitter hashtags work almost like musical choruses: they’re easy to remember, they’ve become the slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement, and they’re used to voice both solidarity and shared experiences of anger and grief. “I Can’t Breathe,” a song created for rallies by the poetry collective, The Peace Poets, uses the now familiar hashtag and rallying cry #ICantBreathe as a participatory chorus. Salamishah Tillet , of the University of Pennsylvania, describes what makes the song so effective:

“The simplicity of the work not only makes it easy for the everyday protestor to pick up immediately and repeat on march after march, but the very presence of the song indicates that we’re in the midst of a movement in the making, one that needs its own voice and accompanying soundtrack.”

“Baltimore” inherits the legacy of both topical composed and group participation songs. It puts into music the parts of the story the media missed and it makes the listener want to join in. A few minutes into the track, a group of singers join Prince and begin to chant: “If there is no justice then there is no peace.” These voices remind us of refrains like “We Shall Overcome.” And they transform the hashtag #NoJusticeNoPeace into song.

Singing along connects individuals to one another: the act of singing and hearing other voices singing with you involves your whole body. Your muscles, your lungs, your vocal folds engage to produce sound. When you listen, you can feel sound waves vibrate in your ears, your skin, your bones. When people sing together, they’re moving each others’ bodies in very literal ways. By singing and listening together we can connect to each other and move each other.

But songs like “Baltimore” call on listeners to do more than connect. They ask you to fight. In joining a protest song, you help create a sonic presence, a loud disruption in the face of authority.   And as you fight, and as you connect to the collective, you participate in a long history of black musical resistance.

Further Reading:

Image Credit: Forsaken Fotos via flickr

About The Author

Alexandra Apolloni
Lecturer, UCLA; Academic Correspondent, Hippo Reads

Alexandra Apolloni is Hippo Reads' Academic Correspondent for Music. She holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from UCLA and is a lecturer in the UCLA Music Industry Program. She studies voice and identity and has written about singers including Dusty Springfield, Martha Reeves, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Beth Ditto, and others for The Toast, the Oxford University Press music blog, and a variety of other publications. She is currently working on a book about girl singers in 1960s London.