Political injustice has long spurred on some of the greatest musicians of our time and inspired some true classics along the way
Protest songs have long been part of our musical culture, dating all the way back to at least the 18th century. Inspired by political wrongdoings like the Vietnam war, corruption, police brutality and more, they’re designed to make us think about the world around us and provoke social change. Here are some of the best protest songs of the last few decades, from Bob Dylan to MIA.
John Fogerty was always good at portraying embittered outsiders, but this attack on well-heeled Vietnam draft-dodgers – specifically President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandson, David – found his invective allied to a weapons-grade chorus, too.
The post-punk ideologues extend the Marxist concept of alienated labour to argue that ‘leisure’ is just as sterile. There is no escape from the capitalist machine. Even while shopping, socialising, having sex, you are trapped.
In its original form, this roiling, avant-electro call-to-arms could apply to any state (although it was originally written about the Faroe Islands and Greenland). It was only in March 2008, when Bjork tagged the words “Tibet! Tibet!” on to the end, that it became a critique of Chinese repression.
The political dimension of Radiohead’s music is often missed – Thom Yorke was obsessed with Will Hutton’s assault on Thatcherism, ‘The State We’re In’ while writing ‘OK Computer’ – but it was only with ‘Amnesiac’ that the band’s rage became specific, rather than oblique. On this track, the word “cronies” suggests the target could only be Tony Blair.
A 90 second splurge of sexual self-determination that combines chainsaw riffing, gender politics, and pure, uncaged physicality (“The gaps in teeth, the dirty nails”) to synapse-frying effect. Produced by Joan Jett, weirdly enough.
A Panzer-strength polemic that takes aim at all of America’s darkest crimes, from slavery to the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. The band shot the Michael Moore-directed video outside the New York Stock Exchange, spooking security staff into locking the front doors.
The brilliance of ‘Fight The Power’ is that it recognises that cultural imperialism can be just as repressive a force as more obvious forms of state authority. Everyone knows about the Elvis lyric – but only Chuck D could tease out the unsettling racial stereotypes reinforced by Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’.
The song’s moral force was borne out four years later by the LA race riots, but its sentiments have proved to be universal: in 1996, a radio station in Belgrade played the song on a loop for two days straight in support of anti-Milosevic street protests.
Nothing to do with barbecues, this bludgeoning calypso-metal blitzkrieg was in fact inspired by the genocide in Darfur. Look beyond Sej Tankian’s hysterical, Fiddler On The Roof vocal style and marvel at a protest song of startling flair and googly-eyed inventiveness. What do you think of our list?
From the second-wave riot grrrls’ self-titled debut album, a full-throated howl of emancipation from a phallocentric, heterosexual, capitalist establishment. “Should I buy it?”, questions Corin Tucker, equating the uninvited male advance with just another unwanted product.
An anti-consumerist polemic set to a ‘Be My Baby’ drumbeat and a titanic chorus, this James Dean Bradfield-produced little-symphony is one of the great lost tracks, destined to be feted by music journalists and utterly forgotten by everyone else. Still, what a tune.
Like a lot of early Manics songs, it’s difficult to know exactly what they were protesting about – although the exploitation of black musicians was certainly somewhere in the mix – but, with its scrawled power-chords and impossibly thrilling intro (“Revolution, revolution…”), this is certainly the Manics’ most ferocious four minutes.
AIDS, gang war, looming nuclear apocalypse… Prince’s own ‘What’s Going On?’ certainly has scope – although the social commentary aspect is somewhat undermined by the random nature of the lyrics: what do Hurricane Annie and the Challenger disaster have to do with urban deprivation?
The point at which anti-war sentiment merges into pagan mysticism. It’s easy to sneer at Ozzy Osbourne’s lyrics (rhyming ‘masses’ with ‘masses’), but there are moments here that carry genuine, unsettling power. That final line, for example (“Satan laughing spreads his wings”) is pure ‘Paradise Lost’. The epic poem, not the goth metal band.
An indirect protest song (in that it’s written in character), but no less chilling for that. Perhaps the most terrifying anti-war song ever, narrated by a WW1 veteran who has lost all his limbs and senses. He longs to die, but cannot communicate that wish, so remains entombed within his own silent, endless hell. ‘Give Peace A Chance’ it is not.
Billie Holiday had to leave her label, Columbia, before she could record this – they didn’t want the ‘controversy’ of releasing a song in which the titular fruit represent the hanging bodies of black Americans, strung from trees by white lynch-mobs in America’s South.
In singer Jello Biafra’s fantasy dystopia, Jerry Brown, one-time Governor of California enforces his policies with the ruthlessness of a fascist dictator. References to Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ and Orwell’s ‘1984’ contribute to an unhinged, yet cleverly nuanced, tirade.
The intro riff might have been given a second life as a hipster ringtone thanks to M.I.A.’s ‘Paper Planes’, but this is one of The Clash’s bleakest songs – a sweeping panorama of disaffection that veers from industrial decline in Northern England to the persecution of Puerto Rican immigrants in 80s New York.
It’s that beefy production that tricked people into thinking ‘Born…’ was a patriotic anthem – although only a moron could miss the throat-bursting anti-Reaganite fury evident in the opening line: “Born down in a dead man’s town”.
Dylan has always maintained this visionary epic, written a month before the Cuban Missile crisis, was not a song about the aftermath of nuclear war – but how else to interpret the soothsayer-like images of death, pollution, poison and decay that run right through it?
The Providence, Rhode Island group have a lot to say on their album ‘Full Communism’, not least on ‘Monstro’. It opens with singer Victoria Ruiz yelling “Today, we must scream at the top of our lungs that we are brown, that we are smart, that nothing that they do can push it away”. A stinging reminder that the colour of someone’s skin doesn’t matter.
The reverse of K Dot’s celebratory ‘i’, ‘The Blacker The Berry’ protested against racialised self-hatred and the appropriation of black culture in lyrics like “You vandalise my perception, but you can’t take my style from me”.
“Rest in Peace to Michael Brown and to every young black man murdered in America, whether by the hands of white or black,” wrote J Cole when he released ‘Be Free’ on Soundcloud. “I pray that one day the world will be filled with peace and rid of injustice. Only then will we all Be Free.” The track samples an eyewitness in the murder of Brown while a defiant Cole insists: “There ain’t no gun they make that can kill my soul”.
The titular Shaker Aamer was the last British citizen to be held in Guantanamo Bay, detained for over 11 years without being charged or put on trial, and twice cleared for release. Harvey writes as if she is Aamer, detailing the desolate horror of being kept locked up: “Four months hunger strike/Am I dead or am I alive?”
“Does he ask us to rape our women’s rights?/And send poor farm kids off to die?” asks Conor Oberst on this 2005 song, directed at former US President George W. Bush.
MIA wrote ‘Paper Planes’ after she was placed on the US Homeland Security Risk List in 2006 and has said the lyrics can be interpreted as being about both gangs and robbers on the streets or, on a grander scale, arms-dealers.
Taken from the soundtrack of the movie Selma, Legend and Common link the events of the civil rights movement in the ’60s to those happening in Ferguson, Missouri and New York in relation to police brutality.