An English poet once wrote that “music has charms to soothe a savage breast”—but it also has the power to spur people to action.
That’s what freshmen are learning in Music Identity and Social Change, a Citizen 110 class in Longwood University’s signature Civitae Core Curriculum. “We look at the ways throughout modern history that we’ve used music for social movements and political protests,” said Dr. Kevin Schattenkirk-Harbaugh, an Honors faculty member who teaches the class.
He has narrowed down a vast catalog of protest music to a selection of pieces that take students through nearly a century of activism through song.
We look at the ways throughout modern history that we’ve used music for social movements and political protests.Dr. Kevin Schattenkirk-Harbaugh, Honors faculty member Tweet This
The journey starts with iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit,” often described as one of the most influential protest songs of the 20th century. Released in 1939 less than two weeks after Holiday’s 24th birthday, the song is a condemnation of the crime of lynching and the racism that incited it. The haunting lyrics begin: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” The song remains relevant, with several other artists “covering” the song last year alone, said Schattenkirk-Harbaugh.
From there the class hits on the music of several other turbulent eras and hot-button issues, including civil rights, the Vietnam War, poverty, gay rights, climate change and cultural exploitation/appropriation.
Included on the syllabus for the class are deep dives into Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On, which addresses economic injustice, climate change and other issues, and George Michael’s 1990 offering Praying for Time, which puts the spotlight on climate change and greed.
“When we look at the lyrics, the students are always amazed that this is something that was being addressed back then,” Schattenkirk-Harbaugh says of the Gaye album.
I’m hoping students will walk away continuing to question whether or not music can change the world.Dr. Kevin Schattenkirk-Harbaugh, Honors faculty member Tweet This
The course also takes a “hard look” at Paul Simon’s popular album Graceland, released in 1986, which included tracks featuring the unique style of South African vocalists. “We look at appropriation and globalization—the use of music from around the world and integration into our American music. And we ask, how does that border on exploitation?” said Schattenkirk-Harbaugh.
The contributions of gay men’s choral groups to raising awareness of issues that affect the gay community, including suicide and hate crimes, is another topic covered in the class, said Schattenkirk-Harbaugh, whose doctoral work focused on the gay choral movement in the U.S. “The choruses view themselves as activists and as entertainers, and often they’ll commission a new work that broaches an issue they find important.”
“I’m hoping students will walk away continuing to question whether or not music can change the world,” said Schattenkirk-Harbaugh. “We know music can change us individually, but in what ways does it create larger change? That’s not something that can be answered easily.”
Music Identity and Social Change is one of the courses under the umbrella of Citizen 110, taken by all freshmen as part of Longwood’s Civitae Core Curriculum. Taught from a variety of perspectives and a diverse range of disciplines, Citizen 110 encourages students to focus on the relationship between individual rights and responsibility to the common good while at the same time building skills in ethical reasoning, critical thinking and public speaking.
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