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The Heat Beat: Exploring Music’s Impact on Social Justice this August

Ask anyone about the importance of music for themselves or  their families and friend groups, and they will likely be able to provide an immediate answer. Most of us have a favorite genre or two, a favorite  band,  a favorite song, or at least several that we love. And there are always those songs that mean a lot to small groups of people; the song a couple considers ‘their song,’ the song that played during a father/daughter dance at a family wedding, a class graduation song, or that song that was always on the radio during special times with friends. But music can have an even wider impact music can have, on society as a whole. Music can be an important tool for social justice, in several ways.  

Music can declare identity among those who are subjected to widespread prejudice and discrimination 

Music can provide a way to say “This is who I am, no matter what society may say about me.” The most famous example from the past sixty years is probably “Soul Man” by Sam and Dave. Written in 1967 by Samuel David Moore and Dave Porter, “Soul Man” painted a strong portrait of Black men that contrasted sharply with stereotypical images portraying them as angry, aggressive, and prone to violent outbursts. 

In 2011, Beyonce released “Run the World (Girls),” a declaration that contrary to what some may think, women and girls are powerful and strong, and the ones who actually run the world. 

And of course, there’s the 2003 song that people who felt marginalized for any reason adopted and adapted to their own identity, “I Don’t Want to Be” by Gavin DeGraw. 

Music can encourage empathy for those people that some might mistakenly label as inferior

Singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge has been openly gay for decades, and is considered an icon in her community. But very few of her songs actually talk about being gay, or make direct reference to LGBTQ spaces or history. Most simply tell a personal story, one that straight listeners were once surprised we could relate to. 

The 1993 album “Yes I Am,” was rumored to be a thinly veiled answer to speculation about her orientation, but the the title track on the album was actually a declaration of passion and love for a partner that could have been proclaimed by a person of any gender to their loved one of any other gender. 

Bruce Springsteen  is best known for music that tells the stories of poor and working class characters. Track five from “Born in the U.S.A.,” released in 1984, is “Downbound Train,” the story of a man who “had a job, had a girl…had something going in this world”….but got laid off and had to take a low paying job. “The Ghost of Tom Joad, written in 1995, paints a portrait of people who live on the streets or in their cars. 

Music can provide a soundtrack to a movement

Intentionally or not, music can promote social justice when a song becomes associated with a cause or a movement. Protest songs are the most obvious examples, with the first that spring to mind being the anti-war protest songs from the Vietnam war era. 

In other cases, a song might become a soundtrack to a movement when it’s adopted by that movement. “I’m Coming Out,” by Diana Ross was released in 1980. This song is an example of one that was intentionally written to support a cause. Nile Rodgers, who co-wrote the song with Bernard Edwards, got the idea  while visiting a gay club. “I’m Coming Out” has since grown into a classic gay pride/gay rights anthem. 

Other songs may provide a soundtrack to a movement unintentionally. Heather Small’s 2001 song “Proud” is not specifically about gay people or gay pride, but its inclusion in the second version of the television show “Queer as Folk” cemented its status as part of the soundtrack of the gay rights movement. 

Music can contain a direct call to action 

Music most clearly impacts social justice when it contains a direct call to action on an issue or problem. The music website “Spinditty” features a March 12, 2022 article credited to someone with the pen name “Flourish Anyway.” It lists eighty songs about changing the world. 

The songs span several decades and many popular genres, ranging from the 1964 R&B call to action on Civil Rights, “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, to country singer Carrie Underwood’s 2009 song “Change,” urging the listener to do something to help those who do not have secure, safe housing. 

Oneida County’s own Joanne Shenandoah (1957-2021) used her musical gifts and her music to declare her Native American identity, teach others about her culture, and as a call to action. Her 2020 song, “Missing You” is a tribute to the many missing Native American and indigenous women, whose disappearances are largely brushed off  by law enforcement and the media. 

No matter what type of music you prefer, something in your collection, or from your favorite radio station, has changed the world in some way. Keep listening. 

Jess Szabo
Jess Szabo
Jess Szabo' is a novelist, writing teacher, and content writer for Utica area artists. Her online workspace can be found at

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