Music and Social Change

Essential Questions

  • How does music impact the way people think and act?
  • How can music encourage people to participate in their community, their nation, and the world?
  • What role can music play in a movement for social change?

Learning Objectives


  • Students will use the song’s lyrics as a primary text for analysis.
  • Students will understand the historical significance of the 1972 Wattstax music festival.
  • Students will understand how protest music (aka message music) can work.
  • Students will write their own lyrics about a social issue.

Common Core Anchor Standards for Reading (R), Writing (W), and Speaking and Listening (SL)


  • Students will write lyrics for a song that addresses an issue that is personally relevant.


In this final lesson, students will begin to contemplate the role of music as an agent of social change. A gospel act that crossed over into mainstream soul music, The Staple Singers always conveyed a message in their music. After they study “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me),” students will be asked how music can inspire social change.

Guiding Questions

  • What type of society were The Staple Singers envisioning?
  • How did The Staple Singers view the purpose of their music?
  • Are there contemporary examples of music ameliorating a social issue?



  1. Warm-up
    • You can begin by having students identify a song that is personally meaningful to them. You may choose to model this by sharing a song that is meaningful to you. Explain why the song resonates with you, using details from the music, the lyrics, and the era when it was written. As students share their choices, encourage them to also explain why the music they selected is meaningful, asking them to focus on the lyrics. Have them analyze the song’s message either orally or in writing.
  2. Analyzing the Lyrics
    • Distribute the reading "If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)" Lyrics. Ask students to answer the text-dependent questions located at the bottom of the reading.
    • Watch the video The Stax Music Academy Performs "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)" and ask students what the song’s message is. Describe the roles that both the lyrics and the music play in communicating the message.
    • Discuss the differences between conveying a message through a song and through other forms of media such as a speech or a movie. Stax owner Jim Stewart said, “Music can bring people together, emotionally as well as socially. You begin to see inside of each other’s minds and understand where we came from.” What is it about music that helps to build community among seemingly different groups?
  3. Historical Context/Deeper Understandings
    • Distribute the The Staple Singers Historical Background about The Staple Singers. Watch the video The Staple Singers, which is a clip from Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story. This clip introduces The Staple Singers, who became known for their message music. Begin thinking about the potential of music to inspire social change by watching the video The Zenith of Soul Music: Wattstax, August 1972, which documents the 1972 music festival of that name. Based on evidence in the reading and the film excerpt, what messages were artists and organizers trying to communicate at Wattstax? What did they want to demonstrate to the nation and the world? How did they hope to demonstrate it? Based on what you have seen and read, evaluate the success of the event? What did Wattstax accomplish?
  4. Outcomes
    • To move from the past to the present, have students name examples of today’s music that reflects social issues. What message does the music attempt to communicate? Support your opinion with evidence from the song. Who is the intended audience? How well did the artists communicate their messages?
    • Ask students to identify issues that are meaningful to them by brainstorming with partners or in small groups. Examples might include bullying, discrimination, neighborhood safety, drug use, and threats to the environment. Once students have selected a topic, have them write lyrics for a song about it. It may help if you ask students to consider their audience. What kind of language and imagery might appeal to different sorts of listeners?

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