History 286 Music of Protest
Grace Reiman

By Grace Reiman
CAS Marketing and Communication

After being immersed in protest music from an array of countries, students in Dawne Y. Curry’s HIST 286 course collaborated with a Malawian musician to craft an original protest song, “L'il Bit.”

I observed as a student intern from the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) Dean’s Office.

Dawne Currry

Curry’s research on protest struggles and women and gender in African societies has taken her to South Africa on multiple occasions. Through these trips, she was introduced to South African jazz. As she listened, especially to songs with socially conscious or protest themes, it became evident that it had many parallels with her research.

“My love for music and for resistance studies motivated me to create a new class,” she said.

The historical part of HIST 286: Music of Protest came from her expertise as a professor in the Department of History and Institute for Ethnic Studies. The course features music from Africa as well as the U.S., Brazil, Japan, India, and more. It also offers an experiential learning opportunity of creation and self-expression. Students can design their own album cover, complete their own tag (identity markers used by street artists), and write a song of protest as a class to culminate the semester.

To guide the students in their final project of music creation, Curry requested the help of Masuako Chipembere, an artist from Malawi, a country in Africa, and member of the socially conscious Blk Sonshine whom she had become friends with on one of her research trips.

Masuako Chipembere

“I know a lot of artists from South Africa and I was thinking I could make this course even more unique and experiential if I had them work with an artist,” she said.

Before meeting him, Curry and the students deliberated over topics they wanted to address. Their list, which included environmental justice, protection over children, and anti-war, was key to choosing central messages for the song.

Over the course of two class periods, Chipembere joined via Zoom to discuss the significance of protest music, study a historic protest song together, discuss the main ideas of their song, form lyrics, and establish a beat and melody. He helped the students lean into the process of digging to discover the essence of what they wanted to communicate.

“He told them not to think about a song being a protest but to write something that is organic,” Curry said, adding that Chipembere reminded them of how John Lennon’s “Imagine” became a popular protest tune.

Zoom screens

Students interacting with Chipembere via Zoom.

Students were given time to share their personal experiences, thoughts, and the reason they wanted to speak on that topic. Curry did an extraordinary job of facilitating conversation and fostering an inclusive and welcoming environment for each student to share and listen.

The next step was establishing the song’s musicality, and it was crucial to Curry that the students were directly responsible for the songwriting process. She and Chipembere checked to see if anyone had taken notes or formed the first lines while brainstorming topics.

Quin Barton was the first to offer lyrics. She developed the first four strong lines, as well as their beat:

“It’s an automatic enlistment into the system

It don’t matter if history’s playing victim

Someone’s pockets are full they’re still asking what hit ’em

The mouth ain’t muzzled even after it bit ’em”

The students took incredible ownership of their feelings and emotions and translated them into musical form. In only one hour-and-fifteen-minute class—Chipembere asking students questions and helping to form lyrics—the central messages, lyrics for the first verse, and the beat and melody were established.

During the following class period, the lyric-building process continued until they had put together their song’s framework.

"L'il Bit"
Huskers x Masuako Chipembere

The students also created album covers:

Students holding album covers
Student creating album cover

Student creating an album cover. (Click/tap to enlarge.)

Illustration of bird on tree outside

Album cover created by a student. (Click/tap to enlarge.)

Illustration of person with messages

Album cover created by a student. (Click/tap to enlarge.)

Illustration of person on stage

Album cover created by a student. (Click/tap to enlarge.)

As a student, it was incredibly empowering to witness other students channel their creative energy and express their experiences, thoughts, and beliefs. In only two class periods, the students, with the help of Curry and Chipembere, composed a song of protest with meaningful lyrics and driving musicality.

“I’m not a musician, but I think musically,” Curry said. “When I’m in the archives researching about South African women, I see the material as a song with an intro, several verses, a bridge, and a conclusion.

“Music is the teller of truth that democratizes everyone who listens to its lyrics, its sounds, and even its silences.”