What do pimps, butterflies, and social change have in common?

From Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” (from his album “To Pimp a Butterfly”), the protest song has continued to severe as a way to broadcast social change through music.

The album cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.”


A protest song not only encourages social change, but does so by expressing disapproval of a real, current issues. Where there is a need for social change, there is need for protest. And because of that, there is a sense of relevancy that naturally embodies the word “protest.”

In my opinion, the beauty of a protest is this relevancy.

Similarly, protest songs are popularized in response to current inequalities; they are important because they are now. But, what immortalizes them is the persistence of these inequalities. Take “Strange Fruit,” for example: it’s about lynching in the South. Is lynching still a thing? Not really. Is the song still relevant? Definitely. Why? Because racism is still a thing.

So, protest songs seem to persist. 


The cover of Billie Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit.”


We live in an America led Donald Trump, or as Trevor Noah endearingly titled him, the Mango in Chief (which, fittingly enough, is a blog now: http://www.mangoinchief.com/p/blog-page.html). We study on a campus where protests are a weekly occurrence, and students like Dana Greene feel the need to kneel. The exigency for domestic social change has never been so restless, so, given the status quo, it seems natural to gravitate towards the genre of protest songs.

For Experiment 1, I chose the genre of dialogue; but when dialogue fails, inevitably, protests result. So, for Experiment 2, I’ve chosen to rework my original piece in the genre of protest songs. My original piece is a chapter from a creative nonfiction novella that I’m writing(ish). The chapter details the effects of colonialism on the language, and thus, knowledge of the colonized people. The people are colonized by “The Troll,” and as such, the chapter is written in a fairytale-like style. This contrasts the fairytale, a stereotypically juvenile story, with the gravity of the subject it communicates.

But, why the protest song? With all this talk about protests, you’d think I was confrontational. But I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination. I’ll apologize to a chair if I stub my toe against it (even though it’s obviously the chair’s fault). So, given that I’m not a confrontational person, why did I choose to work in the genre of protest songs, a genre that is confronational by definition?

Because the colonized characters of my piece are not confrontational, and yet, they should be. They should realize their oppression, and rise against the Troll. I want them to. The fears of the characters are based off the fears of people in my life; their realities seem too real, and so naturally, I want them to succeed. I want to reenact the piece as though it were relevant now, because it is. I see the protest song as a depiction of the confrontation that should ensue in my piece, and hope to reenact this confrontation as I picture it occurring in real life.

Another reason I wanted to try my hand at writing a protest song is because of of this genre’s poetic nature. I love writing poetry, but poetry seems too comfortable a genre for me. In this way, I can combine the creative elements that lyricists and poets alike employ, while still challenging myself with an unfamiliar genre: the protest song.

My kind of protest.


It’s important to recognize, though, that a protest song is more than its lyrics. To write an effective protest song is to integrate music with lyrics. The percussion in Lamar’s “Alright” adds a sense of urgency reflective of martial and rap music alike. It is this energy and urgency that I would like to emulate in my protest song – a call to arms, if you will.

Music engenders in us a generalized arousal, or emotion, that the lyrics help guide and direct (shoutout to Allie for explaining that one to me). The urgency that I feel hearing Lamar’s percussion is directed at the targets he describes in his purposeful lyrics. As a result, the interplay of music and lyrics grants the author some control over the audience’s cognition.

Keeping that in mind, I recognize that my primary audience is native English speakers, that may not be aware of the global hegemony of the English language over knowledge. Most people aren’t willing to listen to a speech on how they’re part of a system of oppression; a song, however, is a different story. White people listen to Lamar all the time, and realistically, its not usually because they want to understand the systematic racism that black people face, but rather, because Lamar’s music sounds good. As a result, the medium of music expands the audience of a piece.

Lyrics from Lamar’s “Alright.”

So, here goes nothing. I’m don’t like confrontation, and I will write a protest song. I want my characters to succeed like I want the people in my life to succeed. This can be real, and I’m going to prove that, to myself if no one else. Because we can always contrast oppression with freedom, pimps with butterflies, but the potency of the protest song lies in potential.

3 thoughts to “What do pimps, butterflies, and social change have in common?”

  1. Fatima, I am so happy to see you venturing out of your comfort zone to incorporate music! I really like how this experiment flows so naturally from your first experiment and will allow you to reach a larger audience. Since your last experiment focused on dialogue, I was wondering if you would have a similar focus in this experiment. A style that is really popular in modern media is the “Rap Battle”. Here is an example of one between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kbryz0mxuMY. While these are typically humorous, they allow for a dialogue and put an entertaining spin on serious issues. Perhaps, this is something you can consider for your protest song as it may allow you to reach a larger audience. Additionally, what type of song are you thinking of writing? A rap or something more musical? Will you be creating your own soundtrack or will you be using a pre-made one/enlist a SMTD student for help? Hopefully this helps guide you in your creative process! I can’t wait to read your sketch draft and excerpt!

  2. Fatima, YES. So much about this post that I love, both in the content and the structure. Your writing has a cool way of including a lot of information and dealing with complex ideas while remaining easily digestible. I think a lot of that has to do with the way you structured the post. By first identifying two examples and making them relevant, a part of our everyday lives even if we didn’t know it (which I’m sure happens with the music of popular artists like Kendrick Lamar quite often) I was totally aware of how and why a protest song would function as your second experiment. I also loved the specificity of your analysis of the music v the lyric (thanks for the shout-out 😉 ) and can’t wait to see how you combine your specific ideas with an emotionally/culturally/stylistically relevant music (percussion or otherwise). I think one thing I’d love to see within this analysis is what other elements of a songs composition makes it a protest song (is it just the content? Does it have anything to do with style of music? Is the point of view exclusively from that of the oppressed? How are they presented to an audience, in the past and in the present? Who would perform it? etc.) That might be too much detail for the word count, but I’d be curious to see what you find in your analysis and how you might pick and choose elements for your own song. Can’t wait to see what comes of this experiment!

  3. Also, I was listening to “Strange Fruit” whilst reading this and it has me twisted in knots. What a haunting song. I’m interested in what route you’d take with the music style of your own piece. “Strange Fruit” is unapologetically haunting, whereas “Alright” seems to be a rallying march (as you mentioned in your post). I wonder if you’ll bring any elements of your “fairytale-like” story into the music itself, if it will rally a group of people together, or if it will make it’s listeners feel a specific emotion (which we, as an audience, would attach to the specific event/experience conveyed in your lyric)… the options are endless! You’ve got my mind thinking.

Leave a Reply