The times they are a-changin: protest music from May 4 to today


Adriona Murphy

Adriona Murphy

When tragedy strikes, music is often a place where it is immortalized. The aftermath of the tragedy at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, caused national outrage and continued the ever- growing sentiment of that generation. 

One of the first facts I knew about May 4 was that the song “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, was written in reaction to the shooting.

was written in reaction to the shooting.

It’s hard connecting to traumas when it seems like you’re pretty far removed from it all. 

I wasn’t even alive in the ‘70s, so why should I care? How can I care? I didn’t have any family that lived in this area at the time and didn’t even know about it until I came to college. If there’s one thing that evokes emotion though, it’s music. It’s like poetry with background music; the words and instruments blend together to create something that has the ability to move you.

For me, I didn’t feel like I really cared about May 4 until I went to the May 4 Visitors Center and watched a video of the day accompanied by the song “Ohio” in class. I remember just feeling so incredibly sad, like there was this heaviness sitting in the middle of my chest. 

Seeing the buildings I walked past every day, and even lived in, as a part of this groundbreaking day in history was a lot to take in all at once, especially as a freshman in college. There’s something so raw about hearing a story told through music, and the songs pertaining to May 4 are no different.

In late 1970, Steve Miller Band (of “Joker”) took a dive into the events of not only May 4, but the Jackson State shootings in its song “Jackson-Kent Blues.” In 1971, the Beach Boys also had their say with “Student Demonstration Time.”

This particular song references four other instances in which police or military intervened in student protests: the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley; Bloody Thursday at People’s Park in Berkeley, the Isla Vista riots in Santa Barbara and the Jackson State shootings.

In late 1970, Steve Miller Band (of “Joker”) took a dive into the events of not only May 4th, but the Jackson State shootings in their song “Jackson-Kent Blues.” Although the production value of this song has been strongly criticized and is significantly less than those of The Beach Boys or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the connections and importance to the events of May 4th are undeniable.

In more recent decades and today, we have artists like Rage Against the Machine, N.W.A, Green Day, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Childish Gambino. All these artists are very different to the protest sounds of the ‘70s, but they still contain similar sentiments of anger, distress and a hopeful look to change.

Although the songs we have today are powerful in their own right, I don’t think anything will be as impactful as the songs that were released in the ‘50s to ‘70s. During these decades, there were more clearly defined issues, whereas today, there are so many that if you were to ask people what the most important issue to tackle, they would all have a different answer. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

Instead of laser focusing on one issue, music today is tackling every issue you can think of: race, immigration, climate change, sexual assault, guns, LGBTQ rights, everything. And that’s the beauty of protest music: It can be for anyone, at any time, for anything.

Adriona Murphy is the opinion editor. Contact her at [email protected].