Can Protest Playlists Change The World?

image from en.academic.ruBy Eliot Van Buskirk of

The realistic answer to the above question is “probably not.” Still, we have to give some credit to the organizers of Agit8, an initiative from the anti-poverty foundation, whose board includes Bono, Sheryl Sandberg, and Condoleeza Rice, for a unique, well-executed idea: a Spotify playlist of protest songs that you can filter by topic.

Fancy an anti-Apartheid jam? The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela” should suffice. Is war not your thing? Queue up cover versions of CCR’s “Fortunate Son” or Arcade Fire’s “Intervention.” Then, it’s civil rights time, kicked off by Kid Rock’s treatment of “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield.

Agit8′s goal with its Protest Songs campaign was to “raise awareness to end extreme poverty
Agit8_protest-591x384 before the 39th Annual G8 Summit.” The summit took place on June 18 and 19, and we haven’t read about extreme poverty having ended, awareness having been raised or not. It’s also a bit of a leap to assume that awareness alone can end extreme poverty, but insofar as awareness-raising goes, a nice, filtered playlist appears to be a fine way to go about it.

The songs play in Spotify, or you can watch the video via YouTube, while reading the lyrics to the song, reading about the original version, looking at photos people have uploaded, and creating customized images based on lyrics from the song, suitable for sharing on social networks to, you know, raise awareness. You also get celebrity protest playlists from Angelique Kidjo, Tom Morello, and Pharell Williams. There’s a wealth of information there, and it’s all nicely laid out and easy to get to, courtesy of F#’s design (the company is “the leader in music-powered digital ad experiences.”

Other than protest songs, the theme of the playlist appears to be connecting modern artists with protest singers of the past. It’s unclear whether music still has the power it once did as a protest medium, but if it does, the fact that it’s delivered by a contextualized Spotify/YouTube web experience with viral lyric sharing, rather than, say, a music festival on a farm in upstate New York, tells us everything we need to know about how the times are a-changin’.


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  1. When I was running Public Policy at Grooveshark a few years ago I advocated loudly that Open Music Platforms were akin to any open communication platform. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all contributed to political revolutions and considering that multiple major generational movements in the U.S. (to say nothing of those abroad) were inspired by and organized through music (think: hippies, flower children, no nukes, woodstock) I was aghast that some found the idea of an Open Music Platform, where any artist or dissident could distribute their ideas throughout the world without a gatekeeper, so hard to accept. In fact, the legacy music industry’s persistence in segregating music from other forms of political communication have only served in devaluing it, not re-valuing it. Giving any organization de facto veto power over an OMP’s existence is a disservice to liberty and to music as a form of communication. I write this with a momentary awareness that I’m sitting in a hotel Starbucks where they are playing Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.”

  2. It’s great that they are bringing attention to some great songs of the past, but to have a meaningful impact, the music needs to address the issues happening now. Most of the abuses of humanity throughout the world occur because governments are controlled by money and no longer represent even the faintest interests of its citizens. This occurs in the US and in most governments throughout the world — the only difference is that the influence is actually legal in the US (where it is done under the table in other countries). The song below brings attention to the fact that the only way to address these issues is to eliminate the control of money over government by making it illegal (in the US) and enforcing existing laws (outside the US):
    Lyrics are in the YouTube description.

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