Music has always been used as a way to protest. Rage Against the Machine rallied against institutional racism and police brutality on ‘Killing in the Name’, Radiohead contemplated the climate crisis in ‘Idioteque’ and Bob Dylan protested the Vietnam war (and war in general) on ‘Masters of War’.
More recently, artists like Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, The 1975 and M.I.A. have provided powerful political anthems, rallying a new generation of young activists and protestors.
Here NME writers go deep on the best protest songs of the past ten years – from Muna and Jay-Z to Janelle Monáe and Kendrick Lamar.
The story of former British Home Stores boss Phillip Green neglecting thousands of his own employees, leaving their pension plan to decay while he collected hundreds of millions from the business (he agreed to pay £363m into the pension fund in 2017), is the story of the one percent running roughshod over us normies. It’s Prince Andrew; it’s tax-dodging corporate monoliths; it’s Dominic Cummings on the road to Barnard Castle. This rattling tune sees Nottingham duo Sleaford Mods beautifully skewer Green, greased up and decked out on his superyacht – pathetic, apathetic and adrift from reality: “Laying on a boat, mate – look at you.” Pitiful. Who’d wanna trade places with this selfish slob?
‘I Know A Place’ (2016)
‘I Know A Place’ has a bittersweet backdrop – it’s both a celebration of the LGBT+ community, and a painful reminder that many of us don’t always feel entirely safe. Written after the Supreme Court ruled in favour of legalising gay marriage in the States, it’s a gentle call to let go of shame, and embrace love. “It’s hard to love with a heart that’s hurting,” Katie Gavin sings, “but if you want to go out dancing, I know a place”. Though the song was written before the Orlando shootings, it took on a new, darker significance after 49 people were killed by a mass-shooter at gay club Pulse in 2016 – the deadliest attack against LGBT+ people in American history.
One Halloween I went to see MUNA play at Heaven – one of London’s best known queer venues – and gave myself a sore throat from howling along to this song, in a crowd of fans largely wrapped in pride flags and daubed with glitter. On the way home some dickhead made a homophobic comment as me and my mates crossed over Millennium Bridge – and a profoundly unimaginative comment at that. It jarred – the bubble burst. And for me, that’s the point of ‘I Know A Place’ – the enormous progress that still needs to be made can somehow feel too huge and unsurmountable. But these little utopias we create along the way help, at least a little bit.
Janelle Monáe and Wondaland Records
‘Hell You Talmbout’
A powerful gospel protest chant from Monáe and the Wondaland artist collective, recorded in 2015 but prescient today and forever more. Simple and effective, it’s just a pummelling drum beat backing a tribute to the African-American people who have lost their lives to police brutality and racial injustice. It was covered by David Byrne on his American Utopia tour, and can be heard at Black Lives Matter protests around the world – tragically with more names added each time. Say their names.
In 1971, Marvin Gaye asked ‘What’s Going On?’ Disillusioned by the Vietnam War and police brutality on the streets, he saw the world crumbling around him, but was only left with confusion and weariness on the title-track to his soulful masterpiece. Unrest continues on the streets, and in 2015 no-one was better placed to encapsulate the emotions than Compton’s finest, Kendrick Lamar. Buried in his jazzy second album, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, this sharp hip-pop moment exudes endurance and hope in the chantable chorus – soon to become a staple at Black Lives Matter protests years after its release. Gaye had questions, but, perhaps, Kendrick might have some answers.
‘The Story of O.J.’ (2017)
When 4.44 arrived in 2017, ‘The Story of O.J.’ was the track that proved Jay-Z’s voice was still as relevant as ever. Addressing racism and stereotypes, it saw Jay cleverly skewering O.J. Simpson’s apparent belief that his wealth far transcended his race – “I’m not black, I’m O.J”, he once claimed. But within seconds, Jay-Z tears down the concept: “O.J. like, ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J.’ …OK”, he calls out to Simpson. It’s also accompanied by the most powerful video of 2017 too – calling out racist stereotypes previously employed by major movie hitters including Disney & Warner Bros.
‘Flawless (feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)’
Taken from Beyoncé game-changing fifth album, ‘Flawless’ is a powerful feminist anthem. The trap-laced song samples a speech by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “We Should All Be Feminists”, putting her mighty words front and centre and pushing them into the mainstream. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller” Adichie begins, later stating “We raise girls to see each other as competitors/Not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing/But for the attention of men” before finishing, “Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political/And economic equality of the sexes”. It’s a bold statement – and a rallying cry for womxn everywhere.