Throughout the history of recorded music, the popular song has served as a potent force for social change. It can become a rallying cry or a symbol of an entire movement, or it can raise the questions necessary to affect national policy changes. Perhaps most importantly, it can serve as an urgent message from people who have faced unjust treatment and wish to express their discontent. Here at ing Magazine, we have compiled a playlist of important protest music from the past 80 years. These are songs that shook the status quo, spoke on important issues and retained their relevance to this day.
“Strange Fruit” – Billie Holiday (1939)
With a mournful delivery, jazz singer Billie Holiday brought to song a disquieting picture of strange fruit: African-Americans hung from trees in public lynchings, which had reached a tragic peak during this time period. Despite its dark subject matter, “Strange Fruit” became a fast-selling single, inspiring countless future musical activists in its wake.
“This Land is Your Land” – Woody Guthrie (1944)
Woody Guthrie was a wanderer who had seen both the best and worst that early 20th century America had to offer in his travels. “This Land is Your Land” rebuked greedy landowners and championed the rights of the common and poor inhabiting America’s beautiful lands. The song has been covered multiple times by artists from Pete Seeger to Bruce Springsteen to Lady Gaga, lasting as a warm call for unity and goodwill.
“A Change is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke (1964)
“A Change is Gonna Come” is a searing, passionate song that laments the racist treatment faced by African-Americans throughout history. The song was adopted by leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and became known as Sam Cooke’s masterpiece.
“I Ain’t Marching Anymore” – Phil Ochs (1965)
Throughout the 60s, several folk musicians picked up guitars instead of arms to protest the impending threat of the Vietnam War. Phil Ochs emerged as a preeminent leader of the pack with “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” written from the viewpoint of a veteran who questions the purpose of the multiple wars he’s suffered through. The song received special revolutionary power when Ochs performed it at the anti-war protests that surrounded the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” – Marvin Gaye (1971)
“Mercy Mercy Me,” from Marvin Gaye’s classic What’s Going On, is a sorrowful view of the earthly damage caused by humankind. Observing the polluted air and poisoned wildlife, Gaye sadly asks how much more the environment can stand, affected as it was (and still is) by the vestiges of industrialization.
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” – Gil Scott-Heron (1971)
Gil Scott-Heron had a knack for combined socially-conscious spoken word with hearty, pulsing music. “The Revolution will Not Be Televised,” his most famous work, is a forceful piece on the apathy of the common man, the commercialization of our society and the commodification of activism. As Heron concludes, the revolution will not take place behind a screen—“The Revolution WILL BE LIVE!”
“I Am Woman” – Helen Reddy (1972)
Helen Reddy was inspired to write “I Am Woman” after realizing that none of the popular music of her time served to empower women. The song was used often during the women’s movements of the 70s and gave birth to the iconic phrase “I am woman, hear me roar!”
“Police and Thieves” – Junior Murvin (1976)
Don’t let the songs lilting beat distract you—“Police and Thieves” is a stinging denunciation of police brutality. The song became especially relevant during the riots that marred the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, in which attendees fought back against hostile police officers. “Police and Thieves” also inspired members of the burgeoning punk scene—The Clash covered it on their influential debut album.
“Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” – X-Ray Spex (1977)
“Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” is a fiery takedown of consumerist culture and its denigration of women. Released during the rising tide of punk rock, the song became an exemplar of the genre, proving its effectiveness as an underground force of intransigence and resilience.
“We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” – The Dead Kennedys (1984)
The Dead Kennedys updated their classic “California Über Alles,” originally a satire of California governor Jerry Brown, to attack then-President Ronald Reagan, criticizing his foreign policy and warning of the potential consequences of his administration’s pernicious influence. The band was unafraid to level bold criticisms on the beloved president, articulating the concerns of the people who suffered under his policies.
“By the Time I Get to Arizona” – Public Enemy (1990)
In 1988, Evan Mecham, who served then as Arizona’s governor, cancelled state celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “By the Time I Get to Arizona” details Public Enemy’s frustration with Arizona and their mission to make the state recognize the national holiday. The song was accompanied by a controversial video that showed the group assassinating Mecham. While Public Enemy faced national backlash for their radical message, their mission was achieved—organizations throughout the country boycotted business in Arizona until the state voted to restore recognition of the holiday in 1993.
“A Bird in the Hand” – Ice Cube (1991)
This cut from Ice Cube’s sophomore album Death Certificate tells the story of a young father who is forced to turn to drug-dealing to support his family. Through the narrative, Ice Cube condemns the circumstances that lead his protagonist to make his choice—low working wages, the pushing of drugs into poor urban neighborhoods and the lack of proper aid from the government and other public figures.
“U.N.I.T.Y.” – Queen Latifah (1993)
Queen Latifah faced the societal effects of sexism head-on, crafting a mighty song that cast off slurs and directly addressed domestic violence and harassment with unabashed fervor. Her voice as a defiant woman in the hip-hop landscape resonated with millions of listeners and stood out among songs of the era that were rife with misogynistic lyrics.
“Prison Song” – System of a Down (2001)
“Prison Song” addresses mass incarceration and the global drug trade with a furious righteousness, speaking pointedly on the injustice of the American prison system, the evil uses of drug money, and lack of proper rehabilitation for convicted drug users. Through thrashing guitars and roars of frustration, System of a Down tackled the institution that left a devastating impact on millions of Americans.
“Georgia … Bush” – Lil Wayne (2006)
Lil Wayne rounded out his legendary Dedication 2 mixtape with this track, both a heartfelt ode to the people who died or were left suffering during Hurricane Katrina and an unforgiving indictment of the leader who failed to aid his people in their time of need. “Georgia … Bush” provided a voice for minority groups who bore the brunt of the disaster due to racist treatment and a lack of access to much-needed aid.
“We the People” – A Tribe Called Quest (2016)
A Tribe Called Quest returned after 18 years to take their stand against the rising tides of racism and xenophobia that had taken hold of America. Their performance of “We the People …” at the 2017 Grammys gave additional voice to their message as they knocked down a giant wall, stood with members of marginalized groups onstage, raised their firsts in solidarity, and delivered a resounding message: “RESIST!”
Here’s the full playlist:
Nitish Pahwa is a senior majoring in professional writing with a concentration in editing and publishing. He is passionate about the arts and has written about music and culture for various websites and publications. He owns way too many books and CDs, but somehow it’s never enough. Follow him on Twitter @pahwa_nitish.