The Greatest, Most Powerful Protest Songs
Popular music and social movements have always gone hand in hand, ever since the American Civil Rights Movement of the 60s - activists and protestors for change have found troubadours and artists to spread their social message. From folk to funk, rap to rock, incendiary to imaginary, we take a look at some of the most recognisable - and effective - protest songs of the modern era.
Bob Dylan - ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’
Heralded as “the archetypal protest song”, Dylan’s 1963 anthem was drawn from traditional Irish and Scottish ballads, and as the legendary artist later claimed, was “a song with a purpose… I wanted to write a big song”; well, he succeeded. Dylan noted that at the time the Civil Rights and folk music movements were very tight, though he himself didn’t align to any particular political persuasion, (he’s also claimed of the song “it seems to be what the people want to hear”). A testament to the song’s longevity, Dylan was invited to perform the song at the White House in February 2010 as part of a celebration of music from the Civil Rights Movement.
Rage Against The Machine - ‘Killing In The Name’
The heavyweights of politically charged hard rock’s signature anthem was destined to make the list; not only because it’s a badass, barnstorming motherfucker of a song, but because it’s the only song on the list to inspire its very own protest. When the song was used in a 2009 campaign to break a five-year-long Christmas monopoly The X-Factor held over the UK’s pop charts, the band claimed “we felt so honoured that it was our song that was chosen to unseat the X-Factor behemoth.” They rewarded fans by playing a free gig in Finsbury Park to celebrate. The song became Rage’s first ever #1, and raised over $160,000 for Shelter, a charity for the homeless.
Public Enemy – ‘Fight the Power’
Released in June 1989, the incendiary hip hop crew’s most well recognised song was devised as an anthem for the Spike Lee film Do The Right Thing. Chuck D takes control of the vocals for the song, rallying against the liberal notion of racial equality; “People, people we are the same' / No, we're not the same / 'Cause we don't know the game" and asserts the need for organisation and activism from the African-American community, "What we need is awareness / We can't get careless [...] Let's get down to business / Mental self-defensive fitness". Later, the MC even calls Elvis racist, while Flavor Flav adds ”motherfuck him and John Wayne!” which naturally caused a decent swag of controversy. Salon writer Laura K. Warrell once described the song as “[bringing] hip-hop to the mainstream – and revolutionary anger back to pop.”
U2 – ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’
Irish rockers and social activists U2 were always likely to make a cameo in a list of protest songs, thanks to the ever-popular first track of their album War, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. The band’s humanitarian agenda is prevalent in this track as it brings to light the atrocities and disasters that occurred in Northern Ireland, where British troops open fired on unarmed protesters during a peaceful rally on Sunday, January 30, 1972. That fateful outing has gone down in the history books with the tag “Bloody Sunday”. U2 have produced track after track campaigning for amnesty on a global scale for over 3 decades whose underlying message can be defined in this iconic number. “There's many lost, but tell me who has won /The trench is dug within our hearts /And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart.” U2 have spent the majority of their careers lobbying for change and continue to do so by publically calling on world leaders to act now rather than later.
Midnight Oil – ‘Beds Are Burning’
Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello described Midnight Oil’s 1987 hit single as “Australia’s alternative national anthem”. The lyrics refer to the Pintupi, the last indigenous people displaced, often forcibly by the colonial settlement of Australia. The most famous performance of the song came at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the group clad in black with the word ‘Sorry’ printed in white across their clothes. The attire was a reference to then Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to issue an apology for the Stolen Generation. Subsequently, one of the first measures taken by the next government (of which Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett was a frontbencher) was to make such an apology.
Various Artists – ‘We Shall Overcome’
Originally a gospel hymn penned by Philadelphia reverend Charles Albert Tinley in 1901 entitled ‘I’ll Overcome Someday’, the song became synonymous with the US Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, with artists such as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez regularly leading crowds of tens of thousands into a chorus of the tune. President Lyndon Johnson used the phrase ‘we shall overcome’ in Congress in 1965 following the ‘Bloody Sunday’ attacks on civil rights protesters in the south. Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr recited words from the song during his speeches, and the it was sung by over 50,000 people who attended his funeral. The number even made its way to Ireland, and was adopted by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, while Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and Bruce Springsteen have both performed the song at concerts against the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the 2011 terror attacks in Norway, respectively.
The Sex Pistols – ‘God Save The Queen’
Taking its title from the British national anthem, the punk pioneers’ anti-monarchy #1 (despite being ‘fixed’ by the BBC from reaching the top of the UK charts) was written as a sympathetic anthem of the British working class, designed to rally against their mistreatment. Remembered far more for its unabashed resentment of the monarchy; both for the single’s cover and for the equation between the Queen and a ”fascist regime”. The Sex Pistols first released the song in unison with the Queen’s Silve Jubilee in 1977, even performing the song from the boat ‘The Queen Elizabeth of the River Thames’ and as was to be expected, when the boat docked a lot of people were promptly arrested.
Bruce Springsteen – ‘Born in the USA’
The title song from Springsteen’s 1984 monster album was, as he put it, about “a working class man….who has nothing to tie him to society anymore”. As much a reference to middle class America’s disenchantment with its government as it was an indictment of the Vietnam War and the subsequent treatment of veterans; the overwhelming chorus of “Born In The USA!” led to the song widely being misinterpreted as merely a patriotic anthem. Particularly by Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, who’s election campaign was in full stride as the song was released. Reagan tried to align himself with the Boss’ tunes, to which Springsteen rebuffed: "The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favourite album must have been. I don't think it was the Nebraska album. I don't think he's been listening to this one."
Gil Scott-Heron – ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’
Spawning the world’s first taste of early hip-hop, Scott-Heron’s foot tappin’, bongo banging anthem on the quest for equality brings to the stage the struggle of African-Americans living under oppression. The 1970s hit inspired many of the songwriter’s followers to fight the powers by campaigning for more favourable civil rights. Scott-Heron’s voice led the people through the hardships of the Vietnam Wa, as equal rights was pushed under the table to make way for war discussions, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” became an anthem which would be used as ammunition to remind everyone of the real issues closer to home. The effort of African-Americans to have their civil rights deservingly placed on par with their fellow countrymen was assisted by Scott-Heron’s status as a jazz and soul icon.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono – ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’
No protest list would be complete without the addition of John Lennon and his questionable partner (and renowned band-destroyer), Yoko Ono. The track is one of the first to raise awareness and campaign for women’s rights and equality across the board. Often frowned upon due to its excessive use of the ‘N’ word, the track ironically received praise from the black community, including special mentions from comedian and social activist Dick Gregory and US congressman Ron Dellums. If there were one person who could say whatever they wanted and get away with it, it would be John Lennon. His status as a global superstar propelled him above the pack and his message was well absorbed by men and women alike. “If she won't be a slave, we say that she don't love us if she's real/ we say she's trying to be a man” is one of the many hard hitting phrases embedded within a track that is bursting with controversy. It was also Lennon’s worst charting performance, peaking at 57 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody – ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’
Penned by Kelly and Carmody around a campfire on a road trip in 1991, the lyrics recount the story of Vincent Lingiari and the 17-year Gurindji Strike which sparked the Indigenous Land Rights Movement. Combining an eleven-verse narrative detailing the abhorrent treatment and subsequent walk-off of indigenous workers at the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory with an uplifting and instantly recognisable sing-along chorus. The song instantly became synonymous with Indigenous rights. Both Kelly and Carmody released versions of the tune, while the pair has gone on to perform it with artists ranging from Missy Higgins, Urthboy, Mia Dyson, John Butler and Dan Sultan.
Woody Guthrie – ‘This Land Is Our Land’
Written in response to ‘God Bless America’, Guthrie’s most famous tune was a tribute to the natural beauty and resources of the United States, “as I went walking that ribbon of highway/ and saw above me that endless skyway/ and saw below me the golden valley”. It was also an indictment of private property and poverty. In the true folk spirit, this song has been revisited by countless artists since, notably Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen at President Obama’s inaugural celebration. It’s also been used countless times in films, television and commercials, Ronald Reagan even paraphrased it during his 1984 campaign. Once again earning him the ire of Bruce Springsteen, who began regularly performing the song in the hopes of dispelling the hollow patriotism that had been attached to the song.
Marvin Gaye – ‘What’s Going On?’
What better to protest against than the police? Marvin Gaye’s soulful track “What’s Going On?” is a direct response to Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, vocalist from the Four Tops, and his first-hand experience with police brutality during a peaceful protest in May, 1969. The congregation of anti-Vietnam activists that populated People’s Park on that fateful day were met with extreme cases of police brutality. So what did Gaye do? He wrote one of his most decorated tracks to date. Prior to recording the track, friend and fellow musician Berry Gordy remarked, “Marvin don’t be ridiculous, that’s taking things to far!” Yeah, no worries, Gordy…
The Clash – ‘London Calling’
Released late 1979, The Clash’s iconic anthem “London Calling” highlights issues both local to the group and across the Atlantic. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones provide characteristic Brit punk charisma infused with a political unrest as the tune challenges uniquely English societal issues and welfare; as well as the turmoil that occurred as a result of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster - America’s worst nuclear disaster to date. “London calling, now don't look at us/ all that phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust” is just one key example of the group’s rebellion against the state of society in late 70s Britain. Much like all early British punk rock, The Clash fuels the political fire and simply watches it burn. Grab ya bat and start swingin’!
Redgum – ‘I Was Only 19’
Without a doubt, this track will hold a special place in all Australian’s hearts, both young and old. The first person account of the hell that is war brought to life by the group Redgum, was released in early 1983. The track highlights the terrors of war not only during, but the years after conflicts have ceased. Focussed heavily around the Vietnam War, the track powerfully recreates the experience of the sacrifices made by our diggers. “Then someone called out "contact" and the bloke behind me swore/ and we hooked in there for hours, then a god-almighty roar/ Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon/ God help me, he was going home in June” Drenched in true Aussie slang, ‘I Was Only 19’ possesses quite a poetic feel, with themes contained within the track often used as fuel to ignite anti-war activists.
Bright Eyes – ‘When The President Talks To God’
In 2005, a cowboy hat-toting Conor Oberst strolled onto the Jay Leno stage to promote his 2005 album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. What followed was probably the funniest protest song ever penned (aside from Pink’s ‘Dear Mr. President’. That is a joke, right?) Shortly beforehand, George W. Bush had claimed God had ‘told’ him to invade Iraq; and Oberst’s vitriolic ‘When The President Talks To God’ imagined some more exchanges between the two. “We should find some jobs, the ghetto’s broke/ no they’re lazy George, I say we don’t/ just give them more liquor stores and dirty coke!/ that’s what God recommends” is one verse, while Oberst finally asks “does he ever smell his own bullshit?” The song was written after Bush’s 2004 re-election, and while Oberst quickly tired of it, he did go on to become an ardent supporter of Obama’s 2008 campaign, performing at a series of campaign stops.
Bob Marley – ‘Get Up, Stand Up’
The king of reggae enters the list with his skanked up preach, “Get Up, Stand Up”. Songs of protest and upheaval were prominent throughout Marley’s career and formed the backbone of this graceful songwriter, and “Get Up, Stand Up” is no exception. Marley crafted the track after a visit to Haiti, where he witnessed unfathomable poverty and despair, largely due to the unstable Haitian government and its failure to provide a liveable society for its people. The Jamaican singer-songwriter calls for unity when facing humanitarian issues, a message echoing throughout the track - often inducing an unwritten brotherhood between listeners. Bringing together people from all walks of life and unite them under a common, peaceful banner as the reggae icon’s music has always done.
The Herd – ‘77%’
A little closer to home, hip-hop group The Herd have been producing tracks dealing with current issues facing Australia and its people for years now. The suburban Sydney grown group have focussed their track “77%” on the political standoff involving the ‘Tampa Incident’ in August, 2001. In this affair, the Howard Government denied the Norwegian freight, MV Tampa, access to Australian waters to dock. The Tampa was at the time housing over 400 asylum seekers, rescued just north of Christmas Island, as they attempted to reach the shores of Australia. The title, “77%”, refers to the percentage of Australians who agree with actions taken by the Howard government on the matter. The Herd’s own stance is clearly put forward in their controversial lyrics: “Stranger in my own land can't understand/ How the very word Australian has been damned.”
N.W.A – ‘Fuck Tha Police’
West Coast rap posse N.W.A bring us their honest opinion of California’s police department with track ‘Fuck Tha Police’. As the title suggests, the track explores an extreme stance of rebellion as well as transitioning into themes of police brutality and corruption. The main premise of the song is to highlight tensions felt between black youths and the police; who frequently cross paths in unruly ways. The Compton Crew’s controversial lyrics brought on an official warning by the FBI to the group’s record label, Priority/Ruthless. Stemming from the violent references in phrases such as: “Beat tha police outta shape/And when I'm finished, bring the yellow tape;” that placed the outfit and its loyal fan base on watch during any public outing.
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