Multimodal Mondays: Analyzing Protest Music as Literature

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Headshot-of-Kim-Haimes-Korn.jpgToday’s guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn, a Professor of English and Digital Writing at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning and critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy, and think deeply about way too many things. She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. You can reach Kim at or visit her website: Acts of Composition



“Protest music has always been an essential form of political expression in the US. And at times of political and social unrest, it becomes a crucial refuge — both for musicians, as a release valve for their frustrations and convictions, and for listeners in need of a rallying cry.” – Bridgett Henwood, “The History of American Protest Music, from ‘Yankee Doodle’ to Kendrick Lamar”  

One of the courses I teach is an American Literature survey course that provides opportunities to explore a broad range of texts and genres. As we study these texts, I do my best to teach strong interpretive reading strategies and to incorporate multimodal texts and representative visual composition. I work to expand students’ definition of literature and encourage them to practice critical reading strategies to interpret cultural and historical texts and contexts along with traditional texts. This assignment does all of these things, and so I think it can work for a composition course as well as a literature course.

Music and lyrics are a popular form of literature that students easily connect to through their lives. I have talked about the ways I have used music in my classes in previous posts (see Music and Class Playlists), but in this assignment, I ask students to look specifically at protest music as a genre. Although protest songs are in their repertoire, students are often unaware of their historical and cultural significance and the ways they have initiated social change. As referenced in the article “The History of American Protest Music, from ‘Yankee Doodle’ to Kendrick Lamar, “Protest music has been around for centuries: As long as people have been getting fed up with the status quo, they’ve been singing about it. And because music styles, human emotions and social issues are so wide ranging, protest songs are too.”

This assignment immerses students in the history and variety of protest music and asks them to interpret particular protest songs. They also work collaboratively with others to read across the examples and present them in a multimodal slide show.




Steps to the Assignment

  1. Historical Context and Genre Examples - Introduce students to the genre of the protest song. I take students through an exploration of protest music and have them read a couple of sources that show the span of the genre. I like the article “The History of American Protest Music, from ‘Yankee Doodle’ to Kendrick Lamar by Bridgett Henwood, along with some aggregate resources such as Rolling Stone’s Top Protest Songs, Best Protest Songs in History, and a protest song playlist on Spotify. I also show them the brief video “The Evolution of American Protest Music” and guide them to the Spotify playlist (both linked in the Henwood article), which provide an overview with examples.
  2. Individual Protest Song Interpretation – Each student will focus on a protest song and search to find lyrics and a video link of an example of music as protest literature or social awareness. I ask them to think about issues and ideas that are important to them and focus on the ways the song creates awareness. They should choose something that has meaning for them—one that has specific cultural, social, or historical implications in which they might be interested. Students then write a short summary that provides artist information (name, year, title, etc.) and an analysis of how and what the song is protesting, including several significant passages from the song that speak to their claims. Have them include the link to the video, and look for them to forge a strong, substantiated interpretation.

    Like any literature with controversial content, I urge students to be sensitive in their choices and the ways they frame their discussions. Teachers can decide to let students include explicit lyrics or edited versions of the songs based on their own classroom contexts.

  3. Individual Slide – Each student then creates an accompanying Google Slide in which they include the song title and artist, a representative image, a meaningful passage from the song, a statement of protest, and a link to the song.
  4. Collaborative Slideshow – Students work in teams for this next part and add their individual slides to a Google team slideshow. They review and listen to their teammates’ songs. As a team, they shape the collaborative slideshow to include:
    • An original, engaging title
    • Team number and member names
    • Team members’ individual slides
    • A collaborative slide for takeaways—They should read across all the songs to look for patterns, connections, larger meanings, and meaningful ideas.
    • References
  5. Presentation – Each team presents their slideshow to the class (both individual and collaborative takeaways and connections). This allows students to discuss the range of possibilities and artists and the ways these songs affect social change and awareness. It also introduces students to songs they might not have heard before to consider for future analysis (and listening pleasure). I encourage them to take notes along the way to select songs to which they might want to return. Students then post their team slideshows to a common space (Google Drive or a course LMS).
  6. Review and Listen – Students review and listen to at least 5 unfamiliar songs from other teams' protest music collections. They post a bulleted list of their choices along with a sentence or two comment about something they considered for each song.
  7. Playlist – As a fun addition to the assignment, teachers can compile a class playlist to share with students for their own music libraries. Check out the Protest Song Playlist from my Fall 2021 class.


Reflections on the Activity

The assignment draws on many multimodal components: music, representative visuals, digital representation, and collaborative digital composing. Students enjoy this assignment because it helps them appreciate the ways their critical reading skills can be applied to cultural artifacts and to their lives. And . . . almost everyone loves music!

Students focused on songs that protested issues such as:

  • Unity, peace, and strength
  • War involvement and political change
  • Government corruption and abuse of power
  • Civil and human rights
  • Violence
  • Media influence and distortion
  • Gender identity and empowerment

Many students said that they heard these songs before but did not stop to consider their meaning or the impact they might have on social awareness and change. I always find it interesting to hear new songs and themes they select and add to my own playlist as they share their work.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.