Online Music Exhibit Helps People Understand Protests

Jul 23, 2020

This year we witnessed numerous protests across the country. But protesting isn’t new to America. A northern Illinois music library showcases different protest readings and music from the past through an online exhibit.

Sarah Holmes is the music catalog librarian and the interim music librarian at Northern Illinois University. She said the library wanted to do an online exhibit since, because of the state shutdown, there wasn’t anyone in the building.

Display case inside Boutell Memorial Concert Hall.
Credit Sarah Holmes

"And then the protests started and I was trying to figure out how we could contribute in a way, from the music library,” she explained. “And at like 2:00 a.m. one night, it was protest music.”

Holmes said the senior music library specialist, Kate Swope helped decide what to choose for the exhibit.

“And she did a lot of the research and the reading lists are mostly compiled by her,” she said. “And she did a very thorough job. And she weighed in on my choices for the chosen recordings because we have, I think six featured recordings.”

Holmes said there is one song that stood out to her.

“The one that got me was 'Strange Fruit' by Billie Holiday. I had never heard the song before,” she said. “And I've listened to three or four different recordings of it, two by her and some by other people. And it's just, it's amazing.”

She said the fact that this song is still relevant today is scary.

Holmes said she hopes the Just Give Me My Equality: A Look at Protest Music Through History exhibit encourages students to write their own songs.

“Either write lyrics, or write music or team up with each other,” she suggested. “That would be awesome to get some new stuff out. Especially with the current times and the current situations. We want people to learn how to speak and learn how to express themselves.”

There is a display case in the lobby of Boutell Memorial Concert Hall. Holmes said it includes a children’s book by Gary Golio called “Strange Fruit: Billy Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song.”

“And I haven't had a chance to look at it. But I think it would be fascinating to see how it's handled, and how to explain to children,” she expressed. “Because I mean, the song's very interesting. And I don't know how I would explain that to a child.”

Holmes said people can check out materials, even if they are in the display case. Those not affiliated with NIU can check out materials using a courtesy card

The online exhibit will continue through Sept. 30.  Questions can be sent to

  • Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at