Music that embodies collective unrest in the pursuit of positive changes dates back far into human history. Initially, such establishment-shaking music was exclusively performed live and passed along through oral traditions. But with sound reproduction technology developing in the 20th century, individual protest songs could live permanently as unique testaments to the times and conditions under which they arose.
Building on the labor movement anthems of the Depression and the 1960s soul and folk music explosions that underscored civil rights and anti-war activities, protest songs hit new peaks in the late 1970s by way of hip-hop and punk rock. Since then, the form has continued to evolve any time, as OG protest guru Bob Dylan put it, “The Times, They Are a-Changin’.” Now is just such a time.
At present, as #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations span the globe, a stirring soundtrack is once again proving to be an essential tool. Here are MERRY JANE’s picks for 10 protest songs with righteous, rage-packed rhythms and lyrics loaded with the unstoppable force of liberation.
“The Bourgeois Blues” by Lead Belly (1938)
Key Lyrics: “Well, them white folks in Washington they know how / To call a colored man a n***** just to see him bow / Lord, it’s a bourgeois town / Uhm, the bourgeois town / I got the bourgeois blues / Gonna spread the news all around”
Born in rural Louisiana in the 1880s, Huddie William Ledbetter would grow up to electrify the world with his 12-string acoustic blues, channeling ears of institutionalized discrimination and hard-labor incarceration into an entirely new musical language, one primary declaration of which was, “Enough!”
With his background and political consciousness, everything Lead Belly recorded stands as an act of right-minded insurrection. That stated, “Bourgeois Blues” is just one of Lead Belly’s formal protest songs. Others include “The Scottsboro Boys,” “Jim Crow Blues,” and “Mr. Hitler” (as in, “We’re gonna tear Hitler down / We’re gonna tear Hitler down / We’re gonna tear Hitler down someday / We’re gonna bring him to the ground/ We’re gonna bring him to the ground”).
“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday (1939)
Key Lyrics: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”
Adapted from a 1937 poem by a teacher named Abel Meeropol, Billie Holiday first recorded the tragically haunting, spiritually transcendent “Strange Fruit” in 1939, thereby alerting many much to the horrors of the Jim Crow-era southern United States.
Evoking the barbarism of lynching against the South’s otherwise genteel, pastoral image, Billie literally turned “Strange Fruit” into a show-stopper, to the point that some performance halls would only allow her to sing it as her final number.
“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown (1968)
Key Lyrics: “Some people say we got a lot of malice, some say it’s a lotta nerve / But I say we won’t quit movin’ until we get what we deserve / We’ve been ’buked and we’ve been scorned / We’ve been treated bad, talked about as sure as you’re born / But just as sure as it take two eyes to make a pair, huh! / Brother, we can’t quit until we get our share”
James Brown let loose “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” during the long, hot summer of 1968, as chaos reigned in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination and Chicago police rioting against peace demonstrators at the Democratic Convention (hence the frequent media comparisons between ’68 and today). Instantly, Brown’s musical genius transformed him from being merely “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” into a voice for the voiceless, with this hit providing an empowering proclamation to be shouted with clarity and passion.
“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye (1971)
Key Lyrics: “Picket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality / C’mon talk to me / So you can see / What’s going on / Yeah, what’s going on”
An argument can absolutely be made that Marvin Gaye possessed the most beautiful vocal instrument ever recorded. In 1971, as US strife continued to particularly target people of color, Marvin applied his gift to the most moving and enduring concept album of all time, What’s Going On, a masterpiece bookended by two versions of the instantly unforgettable title track.
On the LP, Marvin sings in the role of a Vietnam War veteran who returns from combat to see his country engulfed in racism, poverty, hate, addiction, police violence, and ecological disasters.
After What’s Going On forever changed his own music — and the world — Marvin told Rolling Stone: “In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say… I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”
Decades later, What’s Going On continues to fulfill Marvin’s mission.
“Legalize It” by Peter Tosh (1976)
Key Lyrics: “Singers smoke it / and players of instrument, too / Legalize it, yeah yeah / That’s the best thing you can do / Doctors smoke it / Nurses smoke it / Judges smoke it / Even lawyer, too / So you’ve got to legalize it / And don’t criticize it / Legalize it, yeah yeah / and I will advertise it”
So potent was “Legalize It,” the debut solo single by Peter Tosh, that his home country of Jamaica officially banned it from being sold openly or played on the radio. That censorship, of course, only turned “Legalize It” into the must-have record of its moment with each play acting as a blow for freedom. (The following year, the BBC similarly banned the Sex Pistols’ royal-bashing “God Save the Queen,” thereby rocketing the single to #1 on the British pop charts).
Tosh’s song is a common sense plea for the powers that be to acknowledge that cannabis was not just an absolute good, it was being actively consumed by all members of society, with only the poor and marginalized being arrested and jailed for cultivating and partaking in the miracle crop.
“Legalize It” served as Tosh’s solo debut, coming from an album of the same name. Previously, Tosh had been a member of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Marley, of course, also ranks as an absolute musical god who created a forever-flowering garden of liberating songs and sensibilities, led by the mighty, “Get Up, Stand Up.”
“Fuck the Police” by N.W.A. (1988)
Key Lyrics: “Fuck the police comin’ straight from the underground / A young n**** got it bad ’cause I’m brown / And not the other color so police think / They have the authority to kill a minority / Fuck that shit, ’cause I ain’t the one / For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun / To be beatin’ on, and thrown in jail / We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell”
It was the shot (back) heard ’round the world. A volcanic eruption of hip-hop in a newly energized, focused, eccentric form, N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police” ironically proved to be one of the primary rap records that bridged the gap between self-described gangstas and the mainstream. The song’s dynamic bravado, lyrical fearlessness, sonic confrontationalism, and previously unimaginable nerve won over audiences worldwide.
Weaponizing the inherent anger in Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 milestone “The Message,” N.W.A. made it clear that silence against authoritarian violence would no longer be an option.
“Fight the Power” by Public Enemy (1989)
Key Lyrics: “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain / Motherfuck him and John Wayne / ‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud / I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped / Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”
More timely than ever (unfortunately), Spike Lee’s 1989 cinematic masterwork Do the Right Thing is a righteous wonder of perfect casting, perfect writing, perfect direction, and a perfect theme song that provided a perfect slogan for what is necessary to eradicate unacceptable circumstances and bring about justice: “Fight the Power.”
After Spike asked Chuck D to compose a properly soaring theme for Do The Right Thing, the Public Enemy frontman said he drew inspiration from the Isley Brothers’ 1975 funk slayer “Fight the Power” and infused it with up-to-the-moment outrage firestorms of necessary lyrical courageousness.
Production team The Bomb Squad then worked off a base of Branford Marsalis playing saxophone and Public Enemy DJ Terminator X scratching vinyl to build a whirlwind of samples, sounds, and sonic majesty, resulting into a tower of musical power honored every time anyone, anywhere cries out its title.
“Killing in the Name Of” by Rage Against the Machine (1993)
Key Lyrics: “Some of those that work forces / are the same that burn crosses”
Blending rap-charged vocals, concentrated metal guitar riffs, and propulsive punk velocity with their own unique, still-unequaled ability to blast rock into stratospheres all their own, Rage Against the Machine remains a force for ongoing revolution both in their own right and by way of the high-profile activism of six-string-shredder, Tom Morello.
“Killing in the Name Of” — a far more inflammatory MTV and radio hit than anyone could have imagined before it actually happened — forges ferocity in a chant-along against bigoted abusers of police power that then cascades into an indelible avalanche of free-wheeling liberation: “Fuck you! I won’t do what you told me! / Fuck you! I won’t do what you told me! / Fuck you! I won’t do what you told me! / Fuck you! I won’t do what you told me!”
“Alright” by Kendrick Lamar (2015)
Key Lyrics: “Wouldn’t you know / We been hurt, been down before, n**** / When our pride was low / Lookin’ at the world like, “Where do we go, n****?” / And we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, n**** / I’m at the preacher’s door / My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow / But we gon’ be alright”
With his third long-player, To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar proved himself to be no less than the Langston Hughes of his generation, a hip-hop soothsayer who would, most properly, win a Pulitzer Prize for his 2017 follow-up, Damn.
As much as for its standalone brilliance, “Alright” became one of Kendrick’s signature songs as a result of young activists adopting it as an early de facto anthem of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Crowds could be heard chanting the chorus wherever #BLM protesters assembled, creating a beautiful call-and-response declaration of unity and determination.
Talking to Variety, Kendrick said “Alright” became “the biggest record in the world” due to the people who took it to heart and passed it along. “You might not have heard it on the radio all day,” he said, “but you’re seeing it in the streets, you’re seeing it on the news, and you’re seeing it in communities, and people felt it.”
Among its numerous, richly deserved accolades, Pitchfork declared “Alright” the single greatest record of the 2010s.
“This Is America” by Childish Gambino (2018)
Key Lyrics: “This is America (skrrt, skrrt, woo) / Don’t catch you slippin’ now (ayy) / Look at how I’m livin’ now / Police be trippin’ now (woo) / Yeah, this is America (woo, ayy) / Guns in my area (word, my area) / I got the strap (ayy, ayy) / I gotta carry ’em”
A sure sign that a tide was rising occurred in 2018 when Childish Gambino’s properly inflammatory “This Is America” debuted at #1 on the Billboard pop chart. The public clamored for a voice to wail out against America’s overall injustice and the plague of gun violence in particular.
Coupled with the song’s viral-on-impact virtuoso music video, “This Is America” shocked the masses and became an instant-classic. The Grammy Awards responded correctly by awarding Gambino trophies for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Performance, and Best Music Video.
“2020 Riots: How Many Times” by Trey Songz (2020)
Key Lyrics: “How many mothers have to cry? / How many brothers gotta die? / How many more times? / How many more times? / How many more marches? / How many more signs? / How many more lives? / How many more times?”
With activists all over the planet participating in demonstrations in response to the killing of George Floyd and other victims of police violence, rapper Trey Songz boosted the cause by releasing “2020 Riots: How Many Times.”
Trey acknowledged to Rolling Stone what so many others are feeling: The time to stay quiet is behind us. “With the words in this song, I just wanted to speak to everyone’s hearts and acknowledge the pain and anguish everyone is going through right now,” Trey said. “I know this ain’t usually my message and you’re not used to hearing this from me, but this is the person I’ve always been.”
“I Am America” by Shea Diamond (2020)
Key Lyrics: “Baby, I am America and I’m burning through the roof,
(and I think it’s on fire) / Baby, I am America, and I’m here to change the news / I know you feel it, won’t you say it like you mean it / And when you say it, say it one more time with feeling / Baby, I am America, Let me make it crystal clear / We’re here!”
In 2014, Time magazine declared on its cover that the battle for transgender equality was “America’s next civil rights frontier.” In the years since then, the trans community has struggled mightily and achieved so much — and yet the fight remains far, far from over.
Transgender performer Shea Diamond composed “I Am America” as the theme song for the groundbreaking HBO documentary series, We’re Here. The show chronicles Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara, and Shangela — three former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants — traveling the US to stage one-night events amidst a landscape of evolving social attitudes, including some that aren’t evolving so quickly.
Celebrating inclusivity, gender fluidity, eschewing taboos, and the joy of being who one truly is, “I Am America” proves that there absolutely is dancing at the 2020 revolution — and it’s fierce.
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