Art for Social Change

“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”

When you hear this song or read these lyrics, you can’t help but feel the eeriness of seeing a body hanging from a tree. The music, the words, Billie Holiday’s voice paint an image so clearly that you are almost transported to that place. This is an example of art being used to promote social change. First recorded in 1939, it was written in 1937 as a poem to protest the lynchings of African-Americans. While the lynchings peaked at the turn of the century, they still continue to happen, even today. Art can be used to increase awareness of injustice and as a form of protest. Art can move you and help you to connect to others to develop empathy and to understand each other’s experiences. Art, such as poetry, songs and dramatic presentation can be used to examine social issues, promote social change, and enhance positive self-esteem. See, that’s the benefit of art! Artivism (Art used for activism) is so powerful! No matter who you are and what your experience, art can help you to see things from another point of view.

It can also help those who are oppressed to process what they are going through and to begin to heal. Similar to narrative counseling theories, the telling of your story in prose, poetry, song, or monologue helps one to deconstruct experiences and increases awareness of hidden elements (Sanders, 2011).

“Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh”

A few years ago, while going through a difficult time, a friend began to write her feelings and before long she had a book of poems/prose she created to express what she was feeling. She said, she didn’t know why but it made her feel better, stronger even, to get her thoughts on paper. The healing power of words in art form is known to most. Using poetry and art for expression or healing is common (Raab, 2013). It is even being used by medical practitioners and in medical schools (Coulehan & Clary, 2005; Holmes & Gregory, 1998).

“Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop”

I used this song from the 1930’s but artists continue to release protests songs, plays, poems and visual arts today. Because of the internet, they are reaching a broader audience. There are many artists who uses their medium to promote social justice. Here are a few:

  • Akosua Adoma Owusu, a Ghanian film maker who uses her medium to evoke conversations between Africa and America;
  • Justyne Fischer, whose artwork expresses the grief, anger and sorrow of the murders of unarmed Black men; and
  • Jeff Stetson, a writer whose play, “The Meeting”, imagines a conversation between Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X at the height of the Civil Rights Movement

I close with the lyrics from TI’s “We will not” in protest to the shooting of unarmed Black men and to ask the community to stand against injustices in Black communities:

“No we will not stand here in silence
While they take the lives of our brothers and sisters and partners.
We will not turn a blind eye to the murder with no repercussions.
No we will not
We will not live on our knees, we will die on our feet
This ain’t no lie that I speak”

No, We Will Not!

Do you have a story, song or poem in you that needs to be told for your healing or to inspire social justice? I encourage you to find your “artivist” voice and create!!

(Cover image and other work by Justyne Fischer can be found at