8 Best Protest Songs of All Time
Peaceful protest is an inherent part of any true democracy. It’s a direct way for people to express dissenting opinions, question the actions of those who are in power, or shine a light on certain realities that we need to tackle as a society. When the right to assemble and protest is being directly impeded by the state, the people can turn to subtler and more creative ways of expressing dissent: music.
Protest songs have been around for centuries. Bartleby states that slave hymns, and songs are widely credited for the development of American soul and protest music. Black slaves used music as a way to preserve their African cultural roots, reduce the level of boredom during labour, and create a sense collective familiarity. Through the subtle use of lyrical and verbal cues, slaves were able to express their dissent, as well as preserve their dignity during a time when protesting was punishable by death. Today protest songs are still written to comment and demonstrate against injustices in the world. Below are 8 of the greatest protest songs of all time.
“Some of those that work Forces are the same that burn crosses”
This form of protest has influenced not just American soul but other popular genres of music as well. In more recent times, rock and punk in particular have been widely used as a vehicle for progressive ideas. Lottoland’s infographic on the rock songs that changed the world, point to the 1991 song “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine. According to the site, the rock song “took on institutional racism in the U.S.” It directly references U.S. government officials who were also members of the Klu Klux Klan – to the sound of Zach de la Rocha’s iconic genre-bending vocals.
“You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.”
Apart from being a blues icon, the legendary Johnny Cash is widely known for his progressive political beliefs. And he showcases those beliefs in many of his songs, one of which is called “Sixteen Tons”. This blues-rock number is a straight up reference to the plight of the working class, alluding to the fact that working conditions in certain parts of the world are tantamount to slavery.
“What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is deformed children.”
PJ Harvey’s “The Glorious Land” is a classic rock song that questions the validity and repercussions of waging war. Harvey’s reference to deformed children is not just about physical deformation. It’s also an allusion to the mental, social, and political implications that we expose children to during wartime – complemented by the song’s somewhat sombre musical arrangement.
“Listen to what the system has to say. Just be yourself, like you don’t care. You’re in the land of the free. Unconsciously we divide and detonate ourselves”
Some political protest songs are subtle. Flattbush’s “Question Authority” is not one of those songs. This communist outfit combines punk and rock to talk about the implications of privatisation, the plight of migrant workers, the American government’s war crimes, systemic fascism, mental conditioning, and class contradiction. It even ends with a call to action to change society.
“Sit down, stand up. We can wipe you out anytime.”
According to rock music blog Countdown Kid, Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke wrote “Sit Down Stand Up” in response to the Rwandan genocide. Using Radiohead’s signature melancholic, complex, and harmonic musical arrangement, Thom Yorke succeeds at creating a powerfully poetic song that talks about a very dark topic while also still being musically accessible to most of his fans.
“Your works of nature are unnatural. Well the lake was clear as crystal, the best tea I ever had. Something wicked this way comes. It starts with love for foliage and ends in camouflage.”
British Sea Power is an alternative rock band from the UK. In “Something Wicked”, the band talks about how the aggressive development of building projects can trample on traditional British values, poison the natural land, and even become an excuse for war. They play this song to the tune of classic British rock that’s reminiscent of the 80s.
“If you can play on a fiddle/How’s about a British jig and reel”
The Clash were one of the biggest protest bands in British rock history, and their song “Straight to Hell” attacks both Britain and America. The songs deals with a multitude of topics including racism, immigration, and the Vietnam War. After completing the song lead singer Joe Strummer called it a masterpiece. He also noted that it was after this song that the band began to shatter.
“A puppet show in which you’re made to feel like you participate. Sign a letter, throw your shoe, vote for numbers 1 or 2.”
American band Priests combine post-punk and protest poetry in the song “Pink White House”. Its sometimes intentionally distressing musical arrangement perfectly complements the song’s references to modern American consumerism, the illusion of choice, and mass apathy. “You’re too pitiful to be obscene, too cowardly to be embarrassing.” – pure post-punk poetry.