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Protest Song of the Week: ‘This is Not a Protest Song’

Jazz vocalist and songwriter René Marie believed since the civil rights movement jazz musicians had not done all that much to address social issues. She recorded a song in 2007 about her personal experiences with homelessness, and all money made from the song was to be given to Colorado’s Coalition for the Homeless.

For Jazz Times, Marie argued, “After the deaths of Nina Simone and Oscar Brown Jr., I was like ,damn, who is doing what they did? So I thought this is almost a protest song: In order to get it over, I’m going to call it ‘This is Not a Protest Song.’ Just in case people have issues with that.”

Despite the fact the hook of the song is that this is not a protest song, the title and line in the song is more of a tongue-in-cheek statement. All Marie really wants is for people to give a song about real issues in real people’s lives some attention and to not shy away from it because it has a message.

As suggested by a reader who submitted the song to Shadowproof’s “Protest Music Project,” we examine Marie’s song as a “Protest Song of the Week” and take a brief look at her career as an artist.

The lyrics consist of vignettes, at least two of which are autobiographical. Her brother, a painter, really has struggled with homelessness and alcoholism. Her aunt has suffered from mental illness.

According to Jazz Times, “When she was nine years old, her mother left her abusive father. Wrenched away from four older siblings, Marie, a younger brother and her mother stayed with relatives until they could get back on their feet.”

The chorus is the following:

This is not a protest song/It isn’t about right or wrong/To each other we all belong/And when we give it makes us strong/But it ain’t a protest song

It is clear this is for an audience of people, who may not feel comfortable blaming a system for the fact that people in Marie’s family are poor and hungry. Marie aims to convince them we are all in this together and, if only they could give a little, it would make it easier for people like her aunt and brother.

Following an instrumental interlude with bass, piano, and background vocals, Marie tells a story clearly inspired by what happened to her mom.”

Down at your local shelter/There’s a woman there with her two kids/Her husband beat her so many times/She tried to leave and finally she did/Through a counselor she’s learning not to get involved with another abusive man/Lord have mercy/So please go down to your shelter and put just a little something in her hand

Again, as the song is wrapping, Marie expresses the anxiety she has that people will not listen if they see the song as political. She urges people to leave their politics at home and still give.

In her career, Marie wants to follow the tradition of past protest singers. In 2008, she was invited to sing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” for Denver’s “State of the City.” Marie sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song that is also known as the “Black National Anthem,” and attracted outrage.

Marie did not tell the city of Denver she would sing a different version. Mayor John Hickenlooper was furious and said Marie had “diminished and disrespected” the work and accomplishments of the city by “making a political statement.” Barack Obama, a presidential candidate at the time, said it was wrong for Marie to sing a song other than “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

She later wrote a song called “3 Nooses Hanging” inspired by the Jena 6, a case of racial intimidation involving three nooses hung from a tree.

In 2011, she released Voice of My Beautiful Country, which followed-up on her singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at Denver’s “State of the City.” Marie used known American music and weaved in the experiences of a black woman in the United States. It was regarded as both a profound expression of patriotism as well as a revolutionary examination of what some of the most historically well-known songs mean for people who grew up in the segregated South.

Her latest project, “I Wanna Be Evil,” pays tribute to singer Eartha Kitt, who like Marie experienced controversy and efforts to end her career when she used her status as a well-known musician to speak out against the Vietnam War.

Now, here is Rene Marie’s “This is Not a Protest Song.”

Want to suggest a protest song that should be featured? Email protestmusic@Shadowproof.co

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."