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Arts & Culture

Soundtrack to Revolution

Students Explore Changing Role of Black Protest Music

By Sala Levin ’10

Soundtrack to Revolution collage

Collage by Jason Keisling; photos by Atlantic Records, Shutterstock, Ebet Roberts/Getty Images, National Archives of Canada via Wikimedia Commons, Stroud Productions courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Batiste Safont via Wikimedia Commons

In this semester's "Soundtrack to Revolution" class, students trace the line of black protest through slave spirituals, the blues, jazz, pop music, reggae, R&B and hip-hop.

In a darkened classroom in Tawes Hall, students watch a video of the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hip-hop breakthrough hit, “Rapper’s Delight.” It’s a low-budget visual delight itself, with dancers in pastel bellbottoms and heavily feathered hair surrounding the New Jersey rappers.

But in American studies Assistant Professor La Marr Bruce’s honors seminar “Soundtrack to Revolution: Black Protest Music from the Slave Ship to Soundcloud,” the song isn’t entertainment—it’s text.

The bright, bouncy track may not be everyone’s idea of protest music, but that’s part of the point. Bruce aims to teach students that protest music isn’t just “We Shall Overcome,” but also the soundtrack for black celebration and joyfulness—a form of protest in a culture where simply being black is its own challenge, he said.

The course, offered for the first time this semester, follows “how black people have used music in order to articulate their grievances with anti-blackness and misogyny and other forces that have threatened their lives,” Bruce said.

Starting with the sounds of slave ships, Bruce guides the class through slave spirituals, the blues, jazz, pop music, reggae, R&B and hip-hop while reading texts from thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass and Angela Davis. Music by contemporary artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar—whose acclaimed 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly” is required listening—highlights the ways in which music remains overtly and covertly political.

“I always ask students to listen out for echoes, and by that I mean: What are the messages, themes, concerns that echo across time from the slave ship to antebellum plantations to civil rights marches to the dance club where you and your friends go to enjoy yourselves?” said Bruce.

Students appreciate how the class can reframe familiar music. “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the black national anthem, were songs that Miejo Dambita ’21 had heard at home and in church, but “I never really knew the true context behind them,” she said. Learning about their social and historical significance has given her “great appreciation for the music.”

It’s also changed how students understand not just protest music but the act of protest itself.

“We often think about protest as marches or assembling as a group of people, or we think of political action as voting or directly influencing policy,” said Emelia Gold ’19. “Protest comes in a lot of different forms, not just on a picket line. Music and different creative expressions can be a form of protest … to find joy in times that can be really troubling.”

Connect with a history of black protest music that stretches from antebellum spirituals to blues, reggae and beyond in this playlist featuring songs from the class.



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