The art of the protest song is tracked throughout music history, while an extended conversation with singer-songwriter and activist MILCK anchors our journey.
Following our history lesson, MILCK explains the origin story behind eventual Women’s March anthem, “Quiet.” She then ponders the role of art in mobilization, and she details her Chinese-American background and perspective. In January 2019, NPR looked back on “Quiet” and its impact on the march, saying that it both “caught fire overnight,” as discussed here, and is a song that’s “still ringing” out for those who connect with its message.
“Respect: The Women of Atlantic” is a special series on What’d I Say. Host Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy is the founder of Classic Album Sundays.
MILCK — “This Is Not The End”
Colleen Murphy: Music is a powerful force. It can make us laugh. It can make us dance. And of course, it can even make us cry. Our favorite songs have a way of getting right under our skin, coursing through our veins and firing up our emotional nerve center. It enhances our deepest feelings. But music doesn’t only inspire us personally, but also universally. A three-minute pop song can bring people together to solving the boundaries of language or culture. It can make acute observations about the world around us, in a language everybody can understand. And sometimes, music can even change the world.
Welcome to “Respect: The Woman of Atlantic,” a special series here on What’d I Say, and one designed to spotlight the immense musical contributions of the legendary record label’s female artists. I’m your host Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, radio broadcaster and founder of Classic Album Sundays. On this episode, I’ll reveal how music continues to provoke, challenge, and ultimately motivate social change in the form of the protest song. With a contemporary artist whose own song first created ripples and then waves at the 2017 Women’s March.
I’m talking about MILCK and the song that gave voice to millions, “Quiet.” But before I speak with MILCK, let’s put this story into context with a quick look at the history of the protest song.
Music has helped the oppressed face and defy hardship from the time homosapiens put words to melody, long before recorded history. In any case, that’s what I think must have happened, but we’re not going to go back that far. Let’s back up to the mid 19th century before the advent of recorded music. When African American slaves adopted spirituals like “Come Along Moses” to give them comfort and catharsis. Simultaneously, the abolitionist movement produced secular songs that confronted this despicable system, such as “Slavery is a Hard Foe to Battle” and “The Slaves Consolation.”
“Slavery is a Hard Foe to Battle”
Colleen Murphy: With the advance of recorded music, suddenly the protest song had a greater impact, that could not only release the pressure, but increase the pressure to stimulate social change. The labor movement shed light on the class struggle with songs like Florence Reece’s, “Which Side Are You On?” Woody Guthrie’s, “Union Burying Ground,” and Pete Seeger’s “Solidarity Forever.” And today as the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, these songs are just as important with artists like Billy Bragg continuing to carry the torch.
Billy Bragg — “Never Cross a Picket Line”
Colleen Murphy: The fight for racially equality is one of America’s, if not one of the world’s, longest running battles. And music is so essential that Atlantic records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun claimed that it was a particular song that was a catalyst, calling it a declaration of war, the beginning of the civil rights movement.
Billie Holiday — “Strange Fruit”
Colleen Murphy: As the battle is far from won, these songs continue to play an integral role with contributions from artists of all backgrounds, including Bob Dylan with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Nina Simone’s “Mississippi, Goddam,” Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” through to songs that reinforce today’s Black Lives Matter by artists like Janelle Monáe.
Janelle Monáe — “Hell You Talmbout”
Colleen Murphy: The 1960s was a decade of political turmoil and social upheaval in which a young generation idealistically strove for a better society. The counterculture opposed the war in Vietnam and they used music as a weapon.
Phil Ochis — “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”
Colleen Murphy: And as war itself still hasn’t been obliterated, neither has the musical opposition.
Bad Religion — “Let Them Eat War”
Colleen Murphy: And finally, music has been a key ally of women’s liberation, starting with the early 20th century suffragette movement in which women marched to songs like “Rise Up Women” and the “Women’s Battle Song.” Alongside the civil rights movement in the ‘60s, feminism became more visible and more audible, with songs like Dolly Parton’s “Just Because I’m A Woman,” Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” and of course, let’s not forget the song that inspired the title of this podcast series, “Respect” by Aretha Franklin.
Aretha Franklin — “Respect”
Colleen Murphy: Women continued to challenge gender inequalities with songs like X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!,” Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl,” No Doubt’s “Just A Girl,” and most recently Beyoncé’s “Flawless.”
Beyonce — “Flawless”
Colleen Murphy: And as women continue to suffer from discrimination in the workplace, earning less than their male counterparts, and as females continue to be victimized emotionally, verbally, and physically in the home and outside, by male partners, strangers, employers, and political leaders, it’s clear there’s still a lot of work to be done and more songs to be sung. These topics and more were addressed during a worldwide protest that was also the largest single-day protest in U.S. history: the 2017 Women’s March.
Millions of women and men around the globe took to the streets to speak out against the indiscriminate injustices that so many of us still face and that so many in power try to keep in place. The Women’s March in Washington was the largest single protest since the anti-Vietnam protests, and one of us marching was chairman and COO of Atlantic Records Julie Greenwald.
An artist by the name of MILCK was also inspired to head to DC. Born Connie Lim, Los Angeles based singer-songwriter MILCK had spent the last decade gigging and crafting a series of acclaimed independent releases. When MILCK headed to the Women’s March, she brought along the #ICantKeepQuiet Choir of D.C., a 25-member group of diverse female vocalists who flash mobbed the marchers with several soulful renditions of one of MILCK’s own songs, “Quiet.”
MILCK — “Quiet”
Colleen Murphy: The flash mob performances of “Quiet” were captured by award-winning director Alma Harel, and once she posted the footage on her Facebook, it drew over 14 million plays in just two days. By the end of the week, MILCK had appeared on TBS’s “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” and both she and her song were lauded by multiple media platforms, including The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and NPR.
I guess you could say “Quiet” did the exact opposite of its moniker. The song went viral, and it inspired Julie Greenwald to take action. In the midst of her busy schedule, I managed to catch up with MILCK to get her take on the march, protest songs, and to find out what she’s up to in the studio.
Thanks so much for taking the time for a quick chat. I spoke with Julie about her experience at the Women’s March, but I’d love to hear what your experience was like.
Connie Lim: The fact that it was called the Woman’s March, I think helped people. It disarmed people. It was the biggest uprising of people all over the world and there were no arrests. That’s unheard of and I think that since the election has happened, I don’t go a day without hearing a conversation about politics. Whereas the week before the election, most people did not want to have those conversations. And I think at least the people I’m surrounded by are realizing, “Wow, my silence has not been helping anything.” And it kind of like, it’s almost like complacency, or yeah, kind of fueling the problem by not speaking up.
Colleen Murphy: So your song “Quiet” basically became an anthem for the Women’s March. Many people consider it to be a protest song. How about you? Do you think “Quiet” is a deeply personal song? A protest song, or both?
Connie Lim: I think about “Quiet” and I wonder if it’s a protest song or not. And for me, when I wrote “Quiet” at the end of 2015, it was my claim to my own stance with self-empowerment. I’m a survivor of abuse. I also had an eating disorder. And growing up in a Chinese-American household, there’s a lot of the traditional upbringing where it was valued to be quiet and it was really hard for me.
I think my parents and I clashed a lot. So you know, the song was really my own personal vendetta. And now people have taken “Quiet” into their own hands. And I think the audience is very intelligent in many ways. Emotionally they’re going to know what the song needs to be. And I think they’ve decided that…some people have decided that “Quiet” is a protest song, while others have decided, like for me it’s a very private song to self-empower so that we can become better people for society.
Colleen Murphy: Did you grow up listening to any protest songs? Did any artists inspire you?
Connie Lim: Oh yes, of course. Aretha’s “Respect,” Bob Dylan, Bob Marley. I think about Bob Marley a lot because he was able to influence people in a really positive and uniting way, while also stating his own personal opinions. But his music itself was so powerful that it transcended his own personal beliefs. For me I’m hoping that I can do the same.
Colleen Murphy: In the current political and social milieu, it seems that protest songs have just as significant a role as they did in the ‘60s. What do you think?
Connie Lim: When I listen to Aretha or Nina Simone — different female artists that were really pushing the envelope and speaking their truth, and during a time where it was probably less easy and a little more scary — I really look up to them. Even say three years ago, this movement of protest wasn’t here. Everything changed, I think, this year.
And so even just three years ago, there were things that activists from the ‘60s would say, like they would talk a lot about self-care or they would…there’s certain quotes I didn’t quite understand why they said certain things. But now that we’re going through this movement of resistance, I understand why these figures of protest kept encouraging people, rest. To make sure you rest, don’t wear yourself out. Because that’s really important for us now too. So I’m definitely learning morsels of wisdom from them more so this year than I was even three years ago.
Colleen Murphy: Now we know it’s great to create awareness and spotlight these issues of music, but does it actually change anything? I mean, did protest songs actually mobilize people?
Connie Lim: When the song first went viral, I almost felt this guilt. I was like, “That’s really cool that my song went viral, but am I doing anything?” Am I like actually, is there a solid action behind? And I had to think it through. This woman who’s been a social activist organizer for 25 years, she helped rally the Walmart employees to get higher wages. She found me online and she said, “I want to talk to you.” And I told her about this guilt I had, yeah. And so now she’s one of my mentors, Marianne Manilov.
And I told her about my, like this sense of guilt or confusion, and she said: “Look, there’s movements and then there are actions. Movements are emotional based and they’re supposed to spark people and it goes towards political or economic actions. So, they’re actually hand in hand and they need to be together.” And I do think that the song, just from the messages that I’ve received from new fans — and I call them my brothers and sisters now — and what they’ve been sharing with me is that this song is igniting action for their own lives.
From one boy who came out to his family and is now blossoming. And I kind of see on his Instagram account, because I’m friends with him now, that he’s kind of owning who he is and he’s so beautiful. And then this woman who was raped by a family member who eventually came out to her family. But these are personal moves. But when people make personal moves to liberate themselves, it is one step closer to those people being able to make big moves in society.
Because for myself, when I had low self esteem and low confidence and I saw that the world help, I wasn’t thinking I should do something. I was waiting for someone to do something for me. But if I take leadership with my own life, then I’m practicing leadership for my community. This is what I truly…I’m hoping that’s what could happen.
MILCK — “Undercover”
Connie Lim: One of the stories that really sticks out for me is a story about a woman in Thailand. So, she is a nurse and in Thailand there’s a lot of refugees. The government actually is burning villagers out of their homelands because there are other financial motives, and so there’s a lot of refugees in Southern Thailand. Because she is a nurse, she trains local village kids to take heart rates and listen to, get blood pressure numbers and stuff. So she calls them her little doctors. And she wanted to go to Southern Thailand where there’s a huge refugee camp with tens of thousands of people. and she’s like, “I want to go help.” And her brothers said, “It’s not safe for a woman to travel by herself to the South; we don’t think you should go.”
And so she didn’t go. Obviously very discouraged and frustrated at how the system works and why it’s not safe for a woman. Then one of her friends who is an activist who moved out to Thailand to help, she played her my song. And after she heard the song, she saw the video from the Women’s March. She’s like, “What are those pink hats?” And the activist told her about the story of the Pussyhats and the story of the song, and she said: “Well, first of all I’m going to be knitting a hat. And second of all, I’m going, I’m going to Southern Thailand.”
So then the next, I don’t know, maybe the next week, she told her brothers, “If you disagree with me going, then you guys have to come with me, because I’m going regardless.” And so that’s so cool to see that songs and these ideas can motivate people to take charge of their own destiny.
Colleen Murphy: And you also took matters into your own hands and ensured the song helped change people’s lives in a concrete way by donating a portion of the profits to a charity. Could you tell us about that?
Connie Lim: Yeah, yeah. We donated 10% to 15% of the profits to Step Up. And Step Up was an organization that I found before the song went viral when I was just a struggling DIY artist. I wanted to find a local nonprofit that I really believed in. Step Up is a national organization that has branches all over the country, and what they do is they recruit girls from ages 13-18 who are of at risk communities and low income families. And they put them into these monthly, and sometimes weekly, mentorship programs. And because Step Up staff is highly connected, these are some of the more powerful women in Hollywood. They gather successful women to come and teach these girls about their careers, and if the girls graduate from the program, they’re guaranteed a paid internship.
It’s great to give them the opportunity, because you know, some of these girls, I spent time with some of these mentorship days where you can go and volunteer and spend a day with one of the girls. And you know, as the day went on it was revealed how poor her family was. And it made me so happy, because during that day we were exposing the girls to mentors who taught coding, and had taught the importance of coding and law and business, marketing. What’s marketing and different things like that.
So they’re doing real work on the ground, and the community that formed around “Quiet,” the song…people formed real face-to-face communities. And that’s what Step Up does. Step Up forms these face-to-face communities. And that’s what I’m really excited about in the age of the cell phone and the computer. I even think, I’m really obsessed with like, “How do we get people off the computers and together again?”
Colleen Murphy: Do you think musicians are obligated to help people?
Connie Lim: I think that artists are responsible for never turning away from the world. And to always showing up and becoming that like open nerve. And even though sometimes it hurts and it’s intense, we’re supposed to express the feelings that we feel when we’re observing our real-life environments. So, if some people are naturally going to, like you said, just expose that political side of things. For me, I’m a Chinese-American woman, so my perspective is naturally going to be a little bit political. Because I have a very specific point of view that can give voice to a lot of women that don’t have a voice right now. And men too, a culture.
So, I think it naturally happens, but I also have to be responsible for being true and not being too strategic about what I’m trying to do. I remember when “Quiet” went viral and then I got a couple of co-writers who are like, “Oh my gosh, now we should write more movement songs.” And I immediately got a little stressed out, because I was like: “I don’t think it happens that way. I don’t want to purposefully try to write a movement song.” 1), that feels kind of cheesy and with songs I can’t force it.
But if I’m going to…I’m continually reading the news even though sometimes it hurts and I don’t want to, and I’m sure it’s going to affect my writing somehow. It’s already affecting the different words I want to use and the different themes that I’m obsessing over. But it has to feel honest.
Colleen Murphy: Now you’ve been quoted as saying, “Feminism is pop.” Some people may take that in an insincere way, but I can see that’s really not the case.
Connie Lim: It’s interesting. When I read that quote in bold in the article, you know my body heated up a little bit. I was like, people might misinterpret what that means, but hopefully they read into it more. Right now, the movement of women taking back some power and taking the megaphone to voice our opinions is happening at a scale that I’ve never seen in my lifetime.
I’ve been able to read about the suffrage movement. I’ve been able to read about the civil rights movement. But now, I think what women are doing is we’re voicing our concerns about the abusive power specifically. And I think the whole Me Too movement is addressing the abuse of power, using one’s position to hurt others while doing a personal gain.
And I think that’s becoming the forefront of focus because it is the parallel to the different forms of abusive power that we’re seeing all over, not just sexually, but also with politics and with finances. And it’s happening all over. And I think this is the first step towards a reimagination of what society could be.
MILCK — “Call of the Wild”
Colleen Murphy: MILCK’s EP, “This Is Not The End,” may not feature a protest song per se, but she’s proven with “Quiet” that with the current political landscape, songs that challenge the system are still relevant. Even MILCK’s song “Black Sheep” resonates on a deep level, and her songs can empower people, both personally and socially, giving them hope and impetus to motivate change within themselves and beyond.
I’m Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy and thank you for listening to “Respect: The Women of Atlantic,” a special series here on What’d I Say. I hope you enjoyed my snapshot history of the protest song and how MILCK has taken it into the 21st century.
MILCK— “Black Sheep”