Graduation Year


Document Type

Open Access Senior Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


American Studies

Second Department


Reader 1

Martha Gonzalez

Reader 2

Joti Rockwell

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Rights Information

2020 Sabina L Hills-Villalobos


Protest music is and has been music that seeks to defy and redefine cultural and political norms. Among the issues addressed by protest music are workers’ organizing rights, prejudice along racial and gender lines, and a critique of law enforcement. Through defiance and redefinition, protest music seeks to give voice to the many excluded people in society, particularly Black and brown people, and provides a new perspective of what the world could be when these marginalized identities are included. But contemporary understandings of what protest music is suffer from race-neutral or colorblind ideas. This project begins by considering the challenges of defining protest music, with a critical eye on aesthetic entanglements of American folk and protest music from the 1960s and 70s. Colorblind conceptions of folk music from this period obscure the power and centrality that whiteness has played in the structure, the history, the legitimacy, and the presence of the musicians in the literature. Central to accounts of 1960s and 70s music is the archetype of the white, male, acoustic guitar-playing protest musician, which I will term “the figure of American protest music.” This project then examines recent music by Black artists including Childish Gambino, Janelle Monáe, and Joel Thompson as a way of exploring and interrogating the category of American protest music. Through analysis of the sounds, lyrics, and images of the recordings and music videos of these musicians, I locate traces of the figure of American protest music. I suggest an understanding of how contemporary American artists continue to redefine protest music in a time where they do not fit established conceptions of what it means to sing in protest.

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