The human armada of protesters at the Women’s March on Washington the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, like all the fleets of demonstrators in cities around the world, was acutely memorable for the many colors of its flags. However one experienced the protests—whether via social media, on TV, or at firsthand (as I was lucky enough to do, with my wife and son, on the National Mall in Washington)—the signs that the marchers carried dominated the view. Bold, wildly varied, and often cuttingly funny, idiosyncratically veracious with their homemade drawings and hand-painted lettering, the signs gave instantly communicable and immediately sharable form to the manifold strains of discontent the marchers had gathered to express. The grabby, fast-working visual shorthand of signage emerged through the postinaugural marches as the lingua franca of protest in our time—the age of memes, Twitter, and emoji, including the life-size frowny-face emoji now tweeting from his bed in the White House.
On the day of the marches, while people were still filling the streets, Slate posted a feature headlined “The Best, Nastiest Protest Signs From the Women’s March on Washington.” The first image on the page was of a woman smiling for the photographer with a sign held over her head. The placard displayed, in pink and purple, a drawing of female reproductive organs surrounded by an inscription in big capital letters: This Machine Kills Fascists.
I’ll assume the feature’s curator thought of this as one of the best signs, rather than one of the nastiest, at the march (although nastiness, as a measure of offense in the defense of values under siege, can surely sometimes qualify as the “best” approach). The message of the sign was strong, and it worked on multiple levels, effectively repurposing a motto used by Woody Guthrie in the early prime of protest music for a new day in which songs, though they remain all around us, no longer function as cultural currency with the efficacy of visual messages.
It is now more than 75 years since Guthrie, a radical young musician and newspaper columnist in 1941, affixed a label to his guitar warning, with the ominous cheekiness that laced his songs, “This machine kills fascists.” Sometimes he placed the word “kills” alone on the middle line, written in black block letters thicker than the rest. As Guthrie made clear, his contempt for the fascism of the Nazi regime was unfettered in the wake of Hitler’s abandonment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Guthrie had no interest in nonaggression, political or aesthetic, attacking both Hitler and Mussolini in a string of wartime musical assaults like “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave,” “Tear the Fascists Down,” “Talking Hitler’s Head Off Blues,” and “All You Fascists Bound to Lose,” many of which he co-wrote and recorded with the Popular Front vocal ensemble called the Almanac Singers. At the same time, Guthrie saw a kind of fascism in the repression of the poor by the monolithic forces of capitalism.
Guthrie’s protest songs were tough-minded but leavened with doses of homespun wit and schoolyard playfulness to help make them palatable to a public unaccustomed to hard-hitting social and political statements on records or the radio. In “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave,” for instance, Guthrie and the Almanac Singers repurposed a lighthearted folk song, “Old Joe Clark,” with lyrics that toggled between the jokey and the severe:
Now I wished I had a bushel
Wished I had a peck
Wished I had old Hitler
With a rope around his neck.
Guthrie hit hard, while mixing up his punches with a few light taps and some diversionary footwork, in dozens of protest songs written from the Depression era to the postwar period of anticommunist panic in America. He was deeply influenced by the tradition of American blues music that evolved from Negro spirituals, many of them songs of existential protest and hope. If none of his blows to the political and economic power structures of the day were successfully fatal, Guthrie proved to be enormously effective over time as an essential influence on other songwriters and singers, from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan.
Doesn’t every movement of political resistance need a body of songs to give voice to its passions and help mobilize people through the rituals of repetition and collective expression? There was music all around the National Mall on the day of the Women’s March, just as there was in New York City and throughout the sphere of public opposition to Trump before and after the inauguration. Madonna sang abbreviated versions of two of her vintage songs that applied to the occasion, more or less: “Express Yourself,” a 1989 tune about sexual expression whose cheers of “Come on, girls!” and “Don’t go for second best, baby!” are generic enough to serve multiple purposes; and “Human Nature,” a 1994 number in which she alternates between the phrases “Express yourself” and “Don’t repress yourself.” Both songs have a way of stirring bodies to move, but they will probably not become anthems of the exploding anti-Trump movement.
It was in the speech before she sang that Madonna captured the attitude of resistance to Trump and his ideology more potently than with her music. “To our detractors that insist this march will never add up to anything,” Madonna said, “fuck you!” Continuing, she made the now-famous statement about having thoughts of “blowing up the White House,” which the conservative media, inevitably, pounced on, calling for her arrest as a threat to the president’s safety.
Like Madonna, Alicia Keys drew from her back catalog to perform a song loosely applicable to the rallying spirit of the Women’s March: “Girl on Fire,” the anthemic single from her 2012 album of the same name, co-written by producers Jeff Bhasker and Salaam Remi, with a sample taken from a 1980 Billy Squier song. Watching these performances in the atmosphere of the march, I came away convinced that there has been, thus far, a disconnect between the intense human feeling raging through the anti-Trump movement and most of the music that’s been associated with it to this point. There is a fury in the air that few songs have yet captured.
At two or three points in the Washington march, and again at one of the later rallies at John F. Kennedy International Airport to protest Trump’s executive order on immigration, I heard crowds chanting versions of the defiant proclamation that Fiona Apple put at the heart of the protest single she released a few days before the inauguration: “We don’t want your tiny hands / Anywhere near our underpants.” Produced by Michael Whalen, the film-score composer, “Tiny Hands” features Apple’s voice, recorded on her phone, mixed over chunky synth drums and a sample of Trump bragging about grabbing women in the crotch. It’s a forceful recording with a message of resistance expressed in direct and disturbingly intimate terms, in which Apple addresses not only Trump’s individual transgressions, but also his threat to women’s reproductive rights and the sovereignty of women more broadly. Needless to say, it resonates best when it’s sung by women, though it leaves a great many Trumpian threats for other songs to take up.
Among the anti-Trump songs to be released in response to his inauguration, “I Give You Power,” a collaboration between Arcade Fire and Mavis Staples, takes a more roundabout approach. The lyrics say little more than the catchy bromide “I give you power / I can take it away,” a statement that could have worked just as well in a relationship song (and may indeed have originally been written for one, since the band first performed the song, without Staples, the summer before Trump was elected). In the current political sphere, the point is a shaky one: Who, after all, gave Trump his power? Certainly not the majority of the American people, who voted in favor of Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure who the “I” could refer to in this case, other than Trump himself or perhaps Steve Bannon.
Of course, the proposition that someone could relieve Trump of his power, and that such a person could be anyone who’s singing the song—most likely, in collective protest—is naturally empowering. It’s the same essential proposition underlying the most potent anthems of dissent and rebellion historically, from the French Resistance’s “Song of the Partisans” during the Second World War to “We Shall Overcome,” the leitmotif of the civil-rights movement. Yet “I Give You Power,” with its disorienting conceit about having granted power, is a little weird for anyone other than a former Trump supporter to sing.
In their efforts to protest Trump’s ascension as soon as possible, more than one artist has recast an existing song with lyrics applicable to the current crisis. Moby did this especially well the day before Trump’s inauguration, when he released a politically charged new video for “Erupt and Matter,” a song from the album These Systems Are Failing, which he made in collaboration with the post-punk Void Pacific Choir and released in October 2016. As with “I Give You Power,” the lyrics aren’t a perfect fit, with lines like “We don’t trust you anymore” and “We believed your words but now we see / You just don’t mean a thing to me.” Unless the song is speaking on behalf of Trump voters, how many of its likely listeners ever trusted Donald Trump or believed his words in the first place?
In an interview with Rolling Stone conducted before the presidential election, Moby spoke with a fiery lucidity about Trump: “I think there is something seriously broken inside him where he’s an actual sociopath and on the spectrum pretty close to being a psychopath. He’s done nothing to indicate that he’s even capable of feeling empathy [for anyone] except for himself.”
The video for “Erupt and Matter” is more explicitly political than the lyrics of the song, with images of Trump during the presidential campaign, footage of other political figures like Bashar al-Assad and Boris Johnson, and scenes from protests of various kinds, including early anti-Trump rallies. Phrases from the lyrics appear at points in giant letters, asserting vague and cryptic but bold-sounding things like “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Among the images that make the strongest impression are shots of protesters carrying signs, including ones with the messages “No human is illegal” and “Fuck Trump.”
The latter phrase, extended to include his first name, is an all-purpose chant at anti-Trump rallies that also happens to be the hook to one of the first anti-Trump songs, “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” a presciently combative collaboration by the rappers YG, who hails from Compton, and Nipsey Hussle, who comes from Los Angeles (a considerable difference on the hip-hop map). The track, released in March 2016, nearly eight months before Election Day, was, in the rich tradition of Public Enemy and N.W.A., fearless and bravura:
Black students, ejected from your rally, what?
I’m ready to go right now, your racist ass did too much
I’m ’bout to turn Black Panther
Don’t let Donald Trump win, that nigga cancer.
The chorus continues, tersely and indelibly:
Fuck Donald Trump
Fuck Donald Trump
Yeah, nigga, fuck Donald Trump
Yeah, yeah, fuck Donald Trump
Yeah, fuck Donald Trump!
In YG and Nipsey Hussle, the Trump resistance may have its own Woody Guthrie, by way of Chuck D, Dr. Dre, and Arabian Prince. Just as Guthrie evoked the earthy, non-ethno-nationalist Americanism of the Dust Bowl progressives with “This Land Is Your Land,” and much as the Freedom Singers stirred the hopeful will to justice of the civil-rights movement with “We Shall Overcome,” YG and Nipsey Hussle have distilled the nasty, crude brutality of our current plight to its essence. “Fuck Donald Trump”: It’s a message that’s not only chantable, but also perfect for protest signs and tweets. With two words denoting the thing that Donald Trump prizes above all things, and the third word a verb well within his vocabulary, it’s something that even Trump himself may understand.