Poetry in Music: Singing for Social Justice

Poetry vs. Music?

Many of the greatest writers use poems of witness, and advocacy to call for social justice. Some poets attempt to recognize marginalized groups by converting their struggles into powerful metaphor and symbolism. Others choose to use documented accounts and historical fact as a basis for their social criticisms. In Rukeyser’s Book of The Dead, she uses actual interviews and statistics from the Hawk’s Nest tunneling disaster to broaden our knowledge of the event, then offers saddening insight into the state of the U.S. working class. Espada, on the other hand uses vivid imagery and biblical metaphors in Ezekiel to depict the tragic death of a shepherd boy as a result of U.S. drug policing of the Mexican border. The NY Times article about his death can be found here.

Traditionally, poetry has been a go to tool for social commentary and non-violent protest. It seems that the public is most likely to take social action if the following conditions are met:

  1. The movement is portrayed by a poet in a way that uses factual accounts, appeals to the audiences emotions, and offers empathetic insight.
  2. The movement is covered by less serious, satirical papers, comedians, and news interviews (the daily show).
  3. The general public is up to date with the events, and other members with similar views are involved. In other words, the situation has become “pop culture.”
  4. Each of the above must be found relatable by the target audience.

With some similarity, author Adam O’Riordan offers his point of view of poetry’s role in protest politics in his blog here.

Now, if you consider this to be a viable formula, think again about your favorite advocates of social justice. You may sway towards Whitman or Angelou, but I ask that you consider other artists too! Musicians have been advocates for social justice since the birth of folk music among farmers and servants. Working class individuals sang of injustice and hardships during the industrial revolution. Blues developed out of African slave folk songs (brief history of blues here). John Lennon shared his song “Imagine.” Music has been a constant catalyst for social movements across history!

Jazz: Wordless Justice

The jazz era was one of the most iconic historical periods in American history, to which the “roaring twenties” owes a great part of its name. Kansas City even became one of the largest hot spots for famous jazz musicians at the time, attracting names like Count Basie, Jay McShann, Lester Young, and even the legendary Charlie “Bird” Parker (All the Things You Are). The streets and over 100 night clubs were always booming with jam sessions and gigs performed by iconic musicians (read more about KC’s jazz history here).

Jazz has roots in foxtrot, dixieland, and blues. The African slave trade brought with it the sorrowful laments of an oppressed culture. Even after free black men had their chance to chase their american dreams, institutional segregation seemed to stop them in their tracks. This is where music spoke for the minority.

Jazz became a quintessential element in the development and recognition of the new, free African American culture in the north and south alike. Jazz was a segregationist limbo where black and white didn’t represent opposites, but merely ink on an “Count Basie Orchestra” poster on 18th and Vine (Here is his orchestra conducted by Thad Jones). It advocated for the lives of marginalized black men, women, and musicians. In many ways, it reflected the new culture reformation that arose in the Harlem Renaissance just years before (read more here). Famous musicians began to gather the attention of the dominant culture, though they were still not considered equal. However, in cities that thrived on the nightlife scene, black musician experienced much more social and economic prosperity. Kansas City, MO was one of these.


The difference between music and other forms of poetry is that it doesn’t need lyrics to evoke empathy. The human condition is expressed through the subtle inflections of the musicians horn., and his struggle becomes yours, even if for two minutes. I believe that the cross-cultural communication of music made it possible for jazz to create such a dominant culture in the U.S. at the time. Here you can find and interesting blog article about the relationship between music and how it effects emotions and physical responses to events.

Billie Holiday’s Sweet Suffering

One of my favorite songs from the era, which painted a disturbing image of black workers being hung on plantations, is Holiday’s Strange Fruit:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar treesbillie-holiday

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Holiday suffered a difficult life full of abuse from both past lovers and spectators alike, and her songs were certainly full of harsh and uncensored truths. She describes the hangings as a “bitter crop” that is representative of the injustice and dehumanizing effects of segregation. Here is a brief bio of her difficult life.

Jazz was unbelievably successful in providing opportunity for a previously marginalized culture. With or without lyrics, music has the potential to move people to social action, commentate, and reflect on injustices. Poetry is often more than tangible, and can be represented in many forms by ideals that promote basic human rights.



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