Turn Up the Music

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As of June 5 the music video for “This is America” by Childish Gambino (aka, Donald Glover) has been viewed more than 239 million times on YouTube. The New York Times, NPR, Variety, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and Rolling Stone, among others, have dedicated web and/or air space to discussion of the artist’s vision of race relations in twenty-first-century America. As politically-charged music/popular culture released in 2018, the reach of “This is America” is unparalleled. Had this video been released earlier in the semester I have no doubt that my students would have discussed it in class as it offers a great starting point for a discussion of modern-day politics, including race relations and the debate over gun culture.

The wide reach of Glover’s work should make all classroom teachers pause a moment to think about the mediums we use in our classrooms and whether they are truly reaching our students. Over the last twenty years of college teaching I have accumulated hundreds of images to use with classroom lectures and as assignment prompts. I’ve shown documentary films and video clips of varying lengths. I have not, however, successfully integrated music into my courses. I have not yet figured out how to effectively utilize music (including music videos) as a teaching tool.

Inspired by the public's fascination with “This is America" (and a conversation with my wonderful officemate, a sociologist), I spent some time recently searching the web for college-level assignments that utilize protest music.  Since my courses are a mix of social and political history we spend a lot of time examining public response to political debate, economics, and international events. Music would seem to be a natural addition to these discussions.

The lack-luster results of my web search were not a total surprise to me: the overwhelming majority of politically-themed, music-based assignments shared on the web are for middle and high school students. Either college faculty are not sharing or we do not know where to start.

If, like me, you do not know where to start, here are a couple resources that I will utilize as I plan some new lecture and discussion material for the fall semester:

Lesson Plan: Teaching with Protest Music  Published on the web as part of “The Learning Network: Teaching & Learning with the New York Times” this site offers teachers some background history on musical responses to political events since the early 20th century. Most helpful to a novice like myself, the authors include a thematically-organized list of songs that work well in student assignments.

Protest Music of the Vietnam War is a site developed by Historians for Peace and Democracy in concert with the Peace History Society. The site offers helpful analysis to someone (like myself) new to examining song lyrics and an extensive list of Vietnam War-era music.

Finally, if you have an interesting college-level assignment that involves music (protest or otherwise), I invite you to share it here!

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.