The Protest Song: Bridge Leadership, Sonic Innovation, And The Long Civil Rights Movement

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Civil Rights Movement
feminist movement
protest music
protest song
African American Studies
American Studies
Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
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This dissertation tells a new story of the American Civil Rights Movement through the woman’s singing voice. The dissertation explores what is possible when political music is disentangled from patriarchal narratives of leadership and artistic genius. “The Protest Song” contends that women across the color line were pioneering new types of lyrical expressions, musical aesthetics, and performance practices that sought to articulate feminist identities inside the long black freedom movement, harnessing the power of music to push for a broader and simultaneous liberation from racial and gendered oppression. While the project prioritizes the voices and intellectual artistry of black women, the dissertation also theorizes how women’s interracial musical practices provide a nuanced history of interracial political collaboration—how common modes of racial understanding such as sentimentality, anger, dissent, allyship, and reconciliation emerge in song. Rather than form a linear chronology or static playlist, this dissertation is structured around a series of intertextual, innovative moments, when women musicians used musical performance to expand the contours of American citizenship and the subjects of our collective memory. The dissertation expands the definition of “protest song” in American Studies beyond a three-and-a-half-minute recorded text to include Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention; folk music by Joan Baez, Tracy Chapman, and Ani DiFranco; live performances by Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin; the funk performance art of Betty Davis; and a contemporary concept album by Rhiannon Giddens. Through this broad definition, “song” becomes a flexible site of artistic production subject to constant interpretation and reinvention. The project carefully considers discursive discrepancies between written and oral performance and analyzes the political agency of performance choices. In tracing this women’s protest music tradition, sonic resonances emerge between the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the coalition of social revolutions it inspired, including the feminist movement, struggle for LGBTQ liberation, and ongoing fight against state-sanctioned racial violence.

Salamishah Tillet
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