From Billie Holiday to DakhaBrakha: The Uniting Power of the Protest Song

From Billie Holiday to DakhaBrakha: The Uniting Power of the Protest Song

By Aurora Sousanis

May 10, 2023

"Fill the silence with your music. Fill it today. Tell our story."

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, appeared in a video message at the Grammy Awards. He described how Russia "brings horrible silence with its bombs" and asked artists around the world to fill the war's silence with their music.

Eugene Hütz, the Ukrainian-born frontman of the punk band Gogol Bordello, has been using his music as a tool for change since the war began nine years ago. After the invasion, he went (and continues to go) on tours with the band and brought many musicians together, raising awareness and funds for the war in Ukraine. He still felt, however, that there was more he could do.

So, last summer, Gogol Bordello visited a military base in Ukraine to perform some of their songs for the soldiers. After the performance, Ukraine's military band asked if they could continue to play some of Gogol Bordello's songs including "My Companjera" "Forces of Victory" "Pala Tute" "Suddenly" and "Teroborona," all written nine years ago.

"There's something so moving to hear this from people who are there who don't have the option of getting tired of hearing about war," Hütz told me in a recent interview. "I think a lot of music is intended to [wake people up to what's happening] but in times like this… people either really really latch on to certain music as their flotation device, or they don't… It's a really deep thing to hear when people say, ' Hey we need that. That's not entertainment. That's something way beyond that.'"

Throughout history, music has been essential during times of struggle, transcending entertainment in order to become a force of change and progress. These protest songs are often situational, specific to a particular event, but sometimes they become an anthem of a movement, representing the ideals of the group.

Billie Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit" in protest of the lynchings of Black Americans. After she was unable to record it with Columbia Records, she asked Milt Gabler, the owner of Commodore label, to record it, moving him to tears when she sang it a cappella the first time. The song and her performance was so powerful, she was only allowed to perform it as the last song in her set. The song was the first anthem of the budding Civil Rights movement.

Sam Cooke's 1964 "A Change Is Gonna Come" quickly became an anthem of the movement. It was created after he was turned down from and then refused to leave a whites-only motel in Louisiana and was consequently arrested for disturbing the peace. His passionate, velvety voice and heartrending lyrics are haunting and beautiful all at once, and the song's cultural and historical importance cannot be overstated. It is considered to be one of his most influential compositions, and is ranked No. 3 on the Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Less than 100 years after Holiday's "Strange Fruit" hundreds of people protested against police brutality and racism outside of the White House in 2020. As they marched, Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" began blaring through the speakers, the group singing along. Though it touches on dark subjects, the song is noticeably more uplifting than other anthems about African American rights, an intentional move by Lamar; the song is simultaneously a protest against the violence and hatred as well as a celebration of Black lives.

In 1970, Neil Young wrote "Ohio" after seeing photos of the Kent State shooting. It helped strengthen the anti-Vietnam War movement and raise awareness. Its lyrics are simple and direct, but provoked outrage, horror and shock at what had happened. The same experiences of brutality and social injustices helped to inspire Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" and change the national conversation about the issue. Covering topics of racism, police brutality, violence, and war in general, the song is as powerful as it was 50 years ago.

Today, Ukrainians continue to find strength in their music; their creation and performance works as an act of resistance in itself. In early March, Russian troops were closing in on Kharkiv. As sirens blared and people began to flee, one young Ukrainian boy sat down at a grand piano in a hotel lobby to play Phillip Glass' "Walk to School." The song was never intended to be a political piece, but it now joins the soundtrack of the war. Another musician in Kharkiv, cellist Denys Karachevstev, has started a porject to raise aid and support for Ukraine. He posts videos of himself playing Bach in front of the bombed-out buildings and rubble, choosing Bach because it has long been perceived as spiritual, even other-wordly.

Another artist, Vira Lytovchenko grabbed her violin as bombs fell and she fled to her apartment's basement. She has given concerts to her neighbors sheltering with her nearly everyday in the weeks since the attack. She told The New York Times that she hopes her "music can show that we are still human. We need not just food or water. We need our culture. We are not like animals now. We still have our music, and we still have our hope."

Additionally, what Russian citizens see and hear about the war is strictly controlled by the Russian government. Part of its propaganda message is that Ukraine has no culture or history of its own. Ukrainian folk band DakhaBrakha from Kyiv works to push against this narrative. They bring together several musical practices from different regions and ethnic groups within Ukraine, highlighting the vibrant and diverse culture of Ukraine. While their sound has been playful and fun in the past, they have taken on a more somber tone and become much more political since the invasion. They have been touring in order to raise awareness and funds for the war, fighting back with their music.

Maria Sonevystsky, an ethnomusicologist at Bard College, spoke to NPR about the importance of DakhaBrakha and other Ukrainian artists' work. "No Ukrainian musician that I know would say that their songs are going to stand up against a nuclear bomb. Nobody's delusional enough to say anything like that," she says. "But if we're fighting against what may be an attempted genocide, the entire erasure of Ukraine, then I think keeping this culture in the front of our minds, learning more about it, listening, is essential."