From Public Enemy to Bob Dylan: 10 of the greatest protest songs of all time
The transformative potential of music is a well-documented attribute. It can be transformative on a personal level; in the space between two headphones, the confines of a bedroom or the car radio, music is at our private beck and call to brighten days in one way or another.
Likewise, publicly it can do just the same, the concept of hundreds of people gathering for a boogie in a darkened room is incomprehensible until someone cranks up the speaker. In this capacity alone it has the subversive potential to make an impact, as does all art in some regard. Music brings people together in a joyful way or comforts those who are alone.
This quality of transfiguration is combative in its own right. The very act of creation eviscerates nihility and inaction. As the late novelist William S. Burroughs said, “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.” Even in its most simple, unassuming, benign guises, music elucidates this fact by championing communion, joy and expression.
There are times, however, when the quiet universal message of music gets drowned out in the have brass of unforgiving bureaucracy and the song at once needs to be shouted. There is no art form quite like music in abandoning the subversive and voicing the full force of protest, like a great pacifistic slap to the face. These ten examples below are just some of the cherry-picked tunes when the slap landed the hardest and the face rippling reverberations sung out the sweetest.
Whilst ‘Imagine’ may powerfully grapple with the human condition the ten songs below get right into the cracks of society…
The 10 greatest protest songs of all time:
10. ‘Hell You Talmbout’ by Janelle Monae ft. Wondaland
Sometimes a protest song can seem blunt and unconsidered and thus can fall short of what it is trying to achieve. There are some issues, however, that are so morally obvious that a blunt blow is all that is required.
With ‘Hell You Talmbout’ Janelle Monae and members of the Wondaland art collective delivered an important message regarding race relations and police brutality. The song simply lists the names of African-American’s who lost their lives as a result of encounters with law enforcement and/or racial violence, each name strengthening the blunt, simple and necessary message of the song.
The final declaration of the chant encapsulates the mantra of all protest songs, “Silence is the enemy, and sound is the weapon.”
9. ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy
At the request of Spike Lee, who needed a song to serve as the theme for his movie Do the Right Thing, Public Enemy crafted one of the most memorable lines in rap history let alone protests songs with ‘Fight the Power’. The song served as a leitmotif for the film which portrayed mounting racial tension in Brooklyn at the time.
Spike Lee told Time Magazine, “I wanted it to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic. I thought right away of Public Enemy.” As bass player Brian Hardgroove, confirmed, “Fight the Power is not about fighting authority—it’s not that at all. It’s about fighting abuse of power.”
8. ‘Between the Wars’ by Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg didn’t just write protest songs, he formed a collective group of politically active musicians, The Red Wedge, with the aim of ousting Thatcher from office.
Written in 1984 at the height of free-market Thatcherism ‘Between the Wars’ is a brutal and poetic portrayal of the betrayal that working-class Britons felt towards the government. Ranging from unfair austerity to the pointlessness of armouring, the outcry is a bold audit of all that was wrong in 1984. The song soars on two-fronts, the simplicity with which its message is delivered and the obvious, eloquent, intelligence behind it, like many folk singers of the past, had done before him.
7. ‘In the Anthropocene’ by Nick Mulvey
As we move forward and confront climate change, protests songs related to our treatment of nature are vital. In 2019 Nick Mulvey delivered a stand-alone song that offered a glimpse of how to go about it.
Whilst there have been many examples of songs supporting nature in the past, they’re perhaps not as many anthems related to climate change as there has been with other pressing issues. This is, no doubt, in part because the protest song is inherently an angry act of resilience, whereas embracing the power of nature requires a much more wistful approach.
With ‘In the Anthropocene’ Mulvey proved that the protest song can simply be an ode and celebration of all that runs counter to current policy and in doing so he illuminated the need for change while remaining hopeful. The melody mirrors the eulogising of a future eutopia through change and hope.
6. ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke
Just like the above, Sam Cooke’s song is smooth and silky in melody, which makes the message behind it all the more searing. In the heart-strained refrain, Cooke croons out biographical tales of his own struggles in life and, by doing so, he humanises the protest song, layering it with a tangible sentiment.
The song was inspired by an incident when Cooke was on tour and was turned away from a ‘whites-only’ motel in Louisiana, but as the lyrics suggest, that incident was merely the last straw.
The song remains one of the most soaring pieces of music to come out of the civil rights movement and doubles up as a tale that offers hope for people no matter what their hardship may be.
5. ‘Fortunate Son’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Remarkably Donald Trump, the son of a man whose net worth exceeded one billion dollars in 1997, used this song as part of his campaign rally, a move which John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival renounced and understandably found very “confusing”. In the same way that Bruce Springsteen’s scathing anti-Vietnam-war song ‘Born In The USA’ was misconstrued by the government as a patriot anthem, this shows the protests song’s subversive power to subtly reveal stupidity within government as well as attack it.
It would seem that if you throw in a few star-spangled lines then all other context gets lost when it comes to the powers that be.
‘Fortunate Son’ simply sounds like a protest song, its melody, production and structure form the perfect rally-cry and it’s a rally-cry that suits the hoarse tones of Fogerty down to a tee. At the height of the Vietnam conflict, this song perfectly illuminated the vast disparities in a divided America.
4. ‘Ohio’ by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
As anyone who has watched the Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary will vouch, ‘Ohio’ details one of the most pivotal events in post-industrial American history.
The song became the counterculture anthem that was impossible for the powers that be to rebuke. On May 4th 1970, 28 National Guard Soldiers opened fire on a group of unarmed students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University. As the song brutally declares, “four dead in Ohio”, a further nine were seriously injured.
The song was a tour de force of simple songwriting, leaving the stark catastrophe to sit unflinchingly front and centre.
3. ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ remains one of the most powerful and revolutionary songs in music history. The song was based on a poem by a Jewish schoolteacher in the Bronx named Abel Meeropol who was a secret communist and wrote the poem for a magazine relating to photos that he saw of lynching whereby people were hanging from the tree’s like ‘strange fruit’.
Although in many ways modern pop music was born from the protest songs of plantation workers, it was necessary for the lyrics to be subtly subversive to the point that the true message of the seemingly happy-go-lucky working chants was an almost cryptic subtext.
1939 was not a million miles away from those days making Holliday’s statement all the bolder. ‘Strange Fruit’ would be a harrowing and haunting song even if the message was symbolic, but the abhorrent truth behind the ‘fruit’ adds an unbearable context. By elucidating the inhuman situation in the south, Holliday helped to spawn the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
2. ‘My Sweet Lord’ by Nina Simone
Taken from Nina Simone’s live album Emergency Ward!, this is the soul singers deconstruction and reworking of George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’. Simone reappraised the track into a triumphant 18-minute lambasting of the Vietnam War, and it would seem indeed pretty much every other unanswered injustice in the world.
Songwriter Nick Cave declared this as the greatest ever protest song, writing: “It is a protest song par excellence that serves as a form of transport, a vehicle that takes us on a complex and nuanced journey into transcendent rage. The song itself becomes a forge of fury, where Nina Simone stands conflicted and defiant and, in the final lines, pulls the heavens crashing down around our ears.”
We happen to second every word of that (bar one small obvious detail of course) and if you think that’s an act of sycophantic bandwaggon jumping then we entreaty you to listen to the track and feel the seismic force of its poignantly reverential delivery.
1. ‘Masters of War’ by Bob Dylan
It could have been ‘Hurricane’, it could have been ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’, it could have been any number of others, and perhaps it should have been, but it simply had to be a song from the ‘voice of a generation’.
When it comes to ‘Masters of War’ the most remarkable feat of all is that Dylan was only 22-years-old when the song was recorded, and yet he stood bold and looked unflinchingly into the war-mongering eyes of power.
The reason that this song resonates on a more profound level than just about any other is down to one simple verse and its unshrinking delivery:
And I hope that you die And your death will come soon I’ll follow your casket By the pale afternoon And I’ll watch while you’re lowered Down to your deathbed And I’ll stand over your grave ‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead