Crowds had gathered to protest the fatal shooting of unarmed, 18-year-old Brown by a white police officer, and Imani remembers Jackson joining the demonstrators as they marched toward a church.
But Jackson, it seems, had missed a crucial memo.
“(But) the song doesn’t tell us when we shall overcome,” Imani continues. “It is saying that we will overcome someday — and what we in the streets wanted, we wanted justice now.”
Wanting justice now doesn’t mean the newest generation of protesters failed to see the value in having some sort of battle cry; a song that could unify their movement, express their yearnings and provide a balm all at the same time.
At this protest, Imani says, “people started to chant Kendrick Lamar’s ‘(We Gon’ Be) Alright.'”
But it also shows that the long-held American tradition of protest music didn’t fade away with the social revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s. Artists using songs as resistance, or protesters adopting their work as de facto anthems, never went away — with each generation, and with each protest, there’s been a new voice.
Scroll through the guide below to hear the evolution of American protest anthems:
The year: 1930s – 1950s
The protest: Lynchings of African-Americans
The anthem: “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday
Using the popular jazz of the era, Holiday bore witness to the atrocities happening in the American South and turned protesting into art.
The year: 1940
The protest: Economic opportunity
The anthem: “This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie
The year: 1962
The protest: Civil rights
The anthem: “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round”
There’s no way to separate the US civil rights movement from its music. The song was so integral to its existence and purpose that in 1962 it spawned the Freedom Singers, a quartet that sang songs steeped in African-American gospel traditions.
“We sang everywhere. We sang at house parties, at Carnegie Hall — to take the message of this movement to the North,” Freedom Singer Charles Neblett recalls in CNN’s “Soundtracks.” “Mass meetings, picket lines, in jails — music was the glue that held everything together.”
Songs like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” may sound like another performance of a traditional spiritual, but listen closely and you’ll hear lyrics that spoke to the time: “Ain’t gonna let no jailhouse turn me round. Keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’, marching up to freedom land.”
The year: 1963
The protest: The March on Washington
The anthem: “If I Had a Hammer,” Peter, Paul and Mary
Originally written by socially conscious folk icon Pete Seeger, it’s the Peter, Paul and Mary recording of “If I Had a Hammer” that took off in the early ’60s.
The year: 1968
The protest: Black Power movement
The anthem: “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” James Brown
The assassination of MLK in 1968 not only altered the African-American fight for equal rights — it altered the music about the struggle, as well.
Before MLK’s death, “you had the hymns of unity and change,” music and culture journalist Richard Goldstein explains. But with the rise of the Black Power Movement in the aftermath of King’s death, “the hymns fade and are replaced by much more militant sentiments in the music.”
The year: 1970s
The protest: Women’s rights
The anthem: “I Am Woman,” Helen Reddy
Australian artist Helen Reddy didn’t set out to become the voice of the women’s liberation movement, but that’s what she became with this 1972 women’s empowerment single.
The year: 1970
The protest: Anti-Vietnam War
The anthem: “Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
Between the civil rights movement and outrage over the Vietnam War, there were more than enough social issues happening in the ’60s and ’70s to create a new standard for protest music.
One of the songs that emerged was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s response to the police-led shootings during an anti-war protest at Kent State University in 1970.
The progress of the ’60s civil rights movement could be found in the law, but not necessarily in American communities. Racism and its impact was still plainly seen in large and small cities across the United States, as well as, protesters would argue, within those cities’ police forces.
Like “We Shall Overcome” did more than 50 years ago, Lamar’s “Alright” has become an almost unofficial anthem for those protesting injustice. “There are multiple messages,” says Salamishah Tillet, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “One, you’re going to be alright because we’re going to get through this day and we’re going to be able to be here tomorrow; we’re going to fight to save this nation and fight to save ourselves.”
“But,” she continues, “it’s also like, ‘We’re right’ — this is a morally righteous cause.”