Fight The Power: Protest in Song

As I sit alone at home working at my computer tonight, public protests against institutional racism across the country continue to swell, in both size and number. It’s extremely powerful to see that energy unleashed, yet tragic to consider what motivates it. I understand and appreciate the empowerment that comes from taking to the streets on behalf of social justice causes held dear. Marcia and I marched numerous times when we lived in Chicago, in some immense gatherings of people, and it did heart and mind and soul good to know that we were not alone in our outrage at public policy and pronouncements that were hateful and loathsome to us both.

There have been recurring rallies and marches (and, alas, attendant violence likely perpetrated by those seeking to undermine the credibility of the cause) in our Des Moines neighborhood over the past week-plus, although we have largely steered clear of the crowds out of COVID-19 concerns. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not supportive of the causes in question, and willing to apply resources, thought, encouragement, time and the power of our votes on behalf of social justice and equity, here and elsewhere. Change is necessary, both structurally and politically. Hopefully the magnitude of the national gatherings communicates that clearly, convincing those in power to accede that “we’ve always done it that way” is not a viable long-term response, or forcing them from office if they’re unwilling to respond, adapt and lead.

Given who I am and what I do, I will note that one thing that I miss from being a part of that large crowd energy in person, up close and personal, is hearing the ways in which music can be deployed to educate, inspire, motivate, rally and energize. Having recently posted articles about my jazz, gospel and international listening during these our diseased days of late, Marcia suggested that I also share a playlist of my favorite protest music as a small statement of solidarity with those out on the streets today, and those cheering them on from home. Great idea! Always happy to make a list, especially a musical one!

As per my normal practice in such little projects, I did some research to frame my argument on what, exactly, defines the genre of “protest songs.” One surprising thing that emerged from my reading was that the way in which we use the word “protest” is a surprisingly modern one, per this definition from the wonderful Online Etymology Dictionary (italics are mine for emphasis):

protest (n.)

c. 1400, “avowal, pledge, solemn declaration,” from Old French protest (Modern French prôtet), from preotester, and directly from Latin protestari “declare publicly, testify, protest,” from pro- “forth, before” (from PIE root *per- (1) “forward,” hence “in front of, before”) + testari “testify,” from testis “witness” (see testament). Meaning “statement of disapproval” first recorded 1751; adjectival sense of “expressing of dissent from, or rejection of, prevailing mores” is from 1953, in reference to U.S. civil rights movement. First record of “protest march” is from 1959.

Using that modern civil rights definition as a guide, I started jotting down obvious favorites, and the list quickly swelled well beyond the normal 10-12 song videos that I would share for such an article. But having developed the long list, I didn’t feel like cutting it. They’re all important songs. Well worth spinning, well worth hearing, well worth considering and well worth acting upon. Every song I included does indeed express “dissent from, or rejection of, prevailing mores,” with varying degrees of explicitness. Many offer alternative courses of action, while others simply seek to frame thought and discussion via a documentary approach to explaining the nature of the injustices in question. Some work well as simple singalongs in the moment of rally, some are definitely too dense for that, but instead seek to motivate and inspire when we’re not all together, chanting as one.

While our current national convulsion hinges on issues of racial injustice, there are also obviously a collection of tremendous protest songs decrying the plights of workers, women, immigrants, the poor, victims of colonialism, and many other socially and economically oppressed communities, while also overtly challenging the societal and political conventions that foster that oppression. I’ve included a fair number of those as well. There’s lot of power in these types of songs, at bottom line. They can, have and hopefully will help to continue moving the needle.

That preamble complete, below I present 40 of my favorite protest songs (one song per artist, alphabetical by artist name), in loose recognition of the “American Top 40” trope, even though few of these songs ever appeared on those weekly lists of the Nation’s most popular tunes. We might be a better, more functional society in 2020 if they had. Not from a cause-effect standpoint, mind, but rather just because if more people were more actively interested in hearing about social injustice and how other people react and respond to it, that would be indicative of a deeper sense of acceptance of the rightness of these messages, and a deeper respect for the artists who created them.

The links will allow you to hear any and all of the songs individually, should you wish to do so. Marcia also made a Spotify playlist, which I include at the bottom of the page below the photos for those who stream your music. I figure these are better approaches than embedding 40 videos and dragging site loading time to a complete crawl. As always, I’m happy to hear from readers with your own suggestions and/or reactions to the list. I’ll certainly not complain about having some good new anthems to rock my mind and body in the days ahead of us.

  1. Know Your Rights,” The Clash
  2. Orange Man Bad,” Crisis Actor
  3. Ohio,” Crosby, Still, Nash & Young
  4. Opiate the Masses,” dälek
  5. This Could Be Anywhere,” Dead Kennedys
  6. America The Beautiful,” D.O.A.
  7. Haus der Lüge,” Einstürzende Neubauten
  8. A Change Is Gonna Come,” Aretha Franklin
  9. Inner City Boundaries,” Freestyle Fellowship
  10. Biological Speculation,” Funkadelic
  11. This Is America,” Childish Gambino
  12. What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye
  13. You Don’t Own Me,” Leslie Gore
  14. The Message,” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
  15. This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie
  16. Who’ll Apologize for This Disaster of a Life,” Hanslick Rebellion
  17. Strange Fruit,” Billie Holliday
  18. Volunteers,” Jefferson Airplane
  19. Work for All,” Juluka
  20. Original Sufferhead,” Fela Kuti
  21. Brother Did You Weep,” Ewan MacColl
  22. Beds Are Burning,” Midnight Oil
  23. Original Faubus Fables,” Charles Mingus
  24. Dear Slum Landlord,” Napalm Death
  25. Fight the Power,” Public Enemy
  26. Killing in the Name,” Rage Against the Machine
  27. Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace,” Max Roach
  28. Universal Soldier,” Buffy Sainte-Marie
  29. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil Scott-Heron
  30. We Shall Overcome,” Pete Seeger
  31. Mississippi Goddam,” Nina Simone
  32. Typical Girls,” The Slits
  33. B.L.M.,” The Specials
  34. Long Walk to D.C.,” The Staple Singers
  35. Monster/Suicide/America,” Steppenwolf
  36. Equal Rights,” Peter Tosh
  37. List of Demands (Reparations),” Saul Williams
  38. Living for the City,” Stevie Wonder
  39. Pigs,” Robert Wyatt
  40. Melt the Guns,” XTC

Addendum: I later added another 40 powerful protest tunes to this mix. You can find that supplemental listing here

Scene from an evening walk in our neighborhood, just below the Iowa State Capitol.

Side view of the same crowd. People care. Lots of ’em.

2 thoughts on “Fight The Power: Protest in Song

  1. Very interesting post and a great list! I’m not sure if it constitutes a protest song, in fact, some may consider it to be the exact opposite, but for me, I’d add “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby & The Range – perhaps because it reflects my own feelings, that ultimately, a lot of crap in society will remain the same, fundamentally. Though protests over the years have definitely achieved a lot, I think possibly the biggest form of protest at certain times can just be to step aside from the “hullabaloo” – don’t be easily led or be pigeon-holed by the system. Hope you’re staying safe amidst the turmoil in your country right now!

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    • Yeah, I’d say describing and decrying an inflexible, unjust system qualifies as protest, in re “The Way It Is.” And that one’s insidious in that it actually did creep onto the pop charts, wrapped in a sweet piano melody that made its sentiments more accessible to more people than they would have been otherwise! We’re doing our best to balance safe with active/engaged on a daily basis, on a variety of physical and mental health fronts. Glad you found the post and list engaging!

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