Looking back in time there have been many musical genres that arose out of counter culture or social justice movements. The music of a particular era often is a peek into the history and culture of that specific period. As a large group of people became obsessed with a new type of music and the influence of it spread, genres were born. There are numerous musical genres that have emerged from countercultural movements at various times in history, here are a few of the most memorable ones.

Early Rock & Roll

Rock n’ roll was a genre that got blacks and whites in the United States together in ways that couldn’t otherwise be imagined during the 1950s. Originating from a delicate blend of the blues and hillbilly sounds that defined as well as provoked society for the past two decades. Chuck Berry was one of the most famous faces of the new genre and his risqué lyrics and signature moves got teenagers of all colors obsessed. In the years before Elvis Presley would make his mark, Berry’s “Duckwalk” guitar solo created such demand from black and white audiences that clubs would hold integrated parties with velvet-ropes running down the middle of the dance floor to keep the races separated. With hits like Maybellene and Johnny B. Goode, Chuck helped create the electrified new space where the seeds for paradigms to shift and crossovers to happen were sown.

The Civil Rights Movement- Jazz, Folk, R&B, Gospel

Martin Luther King and The Civil Rights movement incorporated jazz, folk, R&B and gospel to use music that everybody could relate to and be inspired by to help change America in the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps the most well known song of the movement, We Shall Overcome was performed by numerous musicians. By the mid-1960’s, John Coltrane was at the height of his career and had become the biggest name associated with a new form of avant garde jazz, the civil rights movement was also underway. Informed by similar cultural and historical touchstones, the civil rights and avant garde jazz movements both informed and influenced each other. John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Nina Simone and many other jazz pioneers became voices of the civil rights movement. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the whole folk scene of the early 60s were also very involved in the Civil Right Movement. Dylan penned many protest songs that shed light on the terrible violence and injustices taking place in the Jim Crow South, most notably The Death of Emmett Till and Oxford Town.


Anti-War, Sexual Revolution & Second Wave Feminism- Protest songs, Female Bands

As the 60s progressed, widespread tensions developed along generational lines included views regarding the war in Vietnam, race relations, sexual conventions, and women’s rights, among many other issues. The 1960s saw the protest song gain a sense of political self importance, with Phil Ochs’s I Ain’t Marching Anymore and Country Joe and the Fish’s I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag among the many anti-war anthems that became important during the period. A significant role that music played within the countercultural movement was to provide female artists with the ability to carve a place for themselves within the music business. Music by female artists commented on issues such as the Second Wave Feminist Movement, and the Sexual Revolution and female bands such as The Ronettes, The Crystals, and the Shangri-Las emerged in the mid 1960’s, attracting their own concert crowds without male singers accompanying them. Later, Janis Joplin and African American songstress Aretha Franklin would challenge traditional views of femininity with their confident and innovative musical sound.

Psychedelic Rock- Monterey & Woodstock

This sixties counterculture reached its crescendo in the 1967 “Summer of Love,” when thousands of young people flocked to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The musicians of this era include The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Pink Floyd. Large outdoor rock festivals played a big role in spreading this counterculture. The Monterey International Pop Music Festival in California in 1967 and the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival with an audience of half a million people were landmark events of the time. The counterculture or hippie lifestyle integrated many of the ideals of the period of a anti-materialistic American dream: peace, love, harmony, music, and mysticism. Meditation, yoga, and psychedelic drugs were embraced as routes to expanding one’s consciousness. Artists such as Crosby, Stills, and Nash and Creedence Clearwater Revival wrote lyrics regarding specific political events, calling attention to the hypocrisy within government and calling for outrage among listeners. Music became a way of citing inequities within society and calling for an immediate countercultural response.


Rap refers to the rhymes spoken over hip-hop music and firstly represents taking a powerful stance. Early gangsta rap also showed influences of political and conscious rap. The real power of rap is its ability to convey elaborate and profound messages because of the continuous use of lyrics throughout the music. With more words per song than any other genre, rap works to amuse, protest, or connect in ways other genres cannot. Early rap called to end ghetto poverty, bigotry and racism by reaching out to white audiences and connecting remote subcultures.

The musicians who defined the gangsta rap genre in the early days include Ice-T, N.W.A., Ice Cube, and the Geto Boys. These rappers blended crime stories, violent imagery, and aggression that came to be linked with gangsta rap with socio-political commentary, using the now standard gangsta rap themes of crime and violence to comment on the state of society and talk about issues found within poor communities and within the whole society. Among the influences of these gangasta rap artists were the crime novels of Iceberg Slim as well as hip-hop groups such as Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions; groups that mixed aggressive, confrontational lyrics about urban life with social-political commentary and often radical political messages. The controversial debut album Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A, released in 1988 brought gangsta rap to the mainstream, but it also contained harsh social and political commentary, including the confrontational track “Fuck tha Police.”

Ice-T has also rapped about free speech on his third album, about drunk driving, domestic violence and Nelson Mandela on his fourth album. Artists such as Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube, Game, and Kendrick Lamar have advocated black liberation in their lyrics. Many refer to these artists as black nationalists though there are no explicit references to this in their lyrics. Recently, Killer Mike and Kendrick Lamar have released songs criticizing the War on Drugs and the prison industrial complex from an anti-racist perspective. Hip-hop music continues to draw attention to and support of the struggles of minority groups in a modernist method of communication that attracts a young crowd of activists.