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The 10 most important protest songs in history

One of the joys of music is that it can communicate any narrative or idea the creator wishes, or indeed, in the case of a lot of electronic music, none at all. The eclecticism of music in the modern-day allows practically anyone to enjoy it in at least one form or another. In recent years, popular music has tended to lean towards themes of love, lust and mental illness. But while protest songs aren’t as commonplace now as they perhaps were in the 1960s and ’70s, they still make important appearances in our popular music today. As much as popular music tends to change stylistically over time, it seems that current affairs always find a way to rise to the top amongst the most poignant songs of a given era.

Take the 1960s as an example, when folk music became increasingly popularised in the mainstream. It wasn’t until Bob Dylan broke through in the early 1960s that the wonders of the folk tradition met a wider audience. But folk had been a style of music used to convey poignant artistic messages long before Dylan ever picked up a guitar.

In fact, Woody Guthrie, whom Dylan was a keen disciple of during his early rise to prominence, was one of the most iconic protest singers of his era. He sang songs that generally focused on anti-fascism and socialism in America. Bob Dylan learned Guthrie’s style of conveying important political and social messages through music. In turn, Dylan imparted the method unto the myriad protest singers he inspired throughout the 1960s and beyond. 

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The explosion of protest based music in the 1960s coincided with the eruption of the youth counterculture embodied by the hippies. Much of the popular music in the ‘60s and ‘70s seemed to point fingers at the government, often campaigning against the American war in Vietnam or addressing the issues with racial inequality during the ongoing struggle of the Civil Rights Movement. While the subject of war still cropped up in music from time to time, it appears that other issues had begun to take the centre stage following the end of the Vietnam war. For instance, in the 1980s there was a rise in music calling for the release of the South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned since 1962 for his activism against segregation. At around the same time, with the birth of Live Aid and similar organisations, music also began to focus increasingly on raising awareness for those suffering from poverty and famine across the world.

In modern times, protest music often addresses the ongoing struggle for equality in society with artists regularly referencing the issues related to racism, gender inequality and LGBTQ+ rights. These topics are often flanked by more generalised political jabs with the growing disillusionment with government leaders in both the US and the UK over the past few years and the ongoing disputes surrounding the UK’s EU referendum. Hip-Hop seems to be the most politically engaged music of our current era, but, throughout the decades, jazz, folk, funk, and rock music have all made contributions to the best protest songs of all time.

The 10 most important protest songs in history:

Woody Guthrie – ‘This Land Is Your Land’ (1944)

The list would seem incomplete were it to exclude the godfather of the traditional protest song. Woody Guthrie saw music as a tool to evoke change in the world. In his active years, he would tour with his acoustic guitar labelled with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists”. Guthrie’s objective throughout much of his music was to convey an anti-fascist and socialist message, a message that was particularly popular following World War II.

Of all of his songs, none stick in the mind quite so well as his classic, ‘This Land Is Your Land’. Guthrie originally wrote the song to oppose Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’. He set out to write a song that at once celebrated the natural beauty of the country, questioned the notion of private property ownership and colonisation, and highlighted America’s issues with poverty and inequality. In ‘This Land Is Your Land’, Guthrie did just that and the song most certainly deserves its place among the most iconic protest songs of all time.

Bob Dylan – ‘Masters Of War’ (1963)

Guthrie’s keen disciple, Bob Dylan would change the world forever after his rise to stardom in the 1960s. He began the decade writing folk songs that would often address current affairs with varying degrees of transparency. His career truly began to thrive upon the 1963 release of his second studio album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which contained a healthy supply of classic protest songs including ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, ‘Oxford Town’ and ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’, but for me, none of the songs on the album seems so direct and angered as ‘Masters of War’.

The song is an obvious outcry regarding the ongoing involvement of the US in international affairs. Shortly after its release, Dylan said of the song: “I’ve never really written anything like that before… I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it in this one. The song is a sort of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?”.

Aretha Franklin – ‘Respect’ (1967)

Aretha Franklin became a true idol and a prominent figure in Black history over her career, but she has also been heralded as a feminist leader thanks to her hit song ‘Respect’. Otis Redding didn’t originally intend the song to have attachments to the feminist movement at the time of writing it. His song explained how his partner could do whatever she desired as long as she showed him due respect when he arrived home with money.

When Aretha Franklin released her version of the song, the feminine delivery and lyrical rework shows the words in a new light that demand that she be treated right by her partner. The song has since become a classic feminist anthem.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – ‘Ohio’ (1970)

Neil Young’s aggressive lyrics in ‘Ohio’ say it all. He wrote the lyrics to the classic song after seeing the famous photograph taken in the immediate aftermath of the Ohio National Guard having opened fire on students who were protesting against the Vietnam War at Kent State University, on May 4th, 1970.

The photograph shows protester Mary Vecchio kneeling, distraught and sobbing over the lifeless body of student Jeff Miller. ‘Ohio’ addresses the government directly regarding the Vietnam War: “Soldiers are cutting us down/ Should have been done long ago”. 

John Lennon – ‘Imagine’ (1971)

John Lennon’s appearance on this list will come as no surprise to most people. Much of his work, especially post-Beatles, tended to focus on publicising global issues. It is exceedingly difficult to choose just one of his many impactful protest songs, with honourable mentions such as: ‘Give Me Some Truth’, ‘I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama, I Don’t Wanna Die’, or ‘Give Peace a Chance’.

But, for me, none are quite so timeless and poignant as ‘Imagine’, the song that encourages the listener to imagine a world without the ties of war, religion, possessions or countries. It is the most passive, yet effective outcry for peace and spiritual enlightenment that the late Beatle ever gifted us.

Bob Marley and The Wailers – ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ (1973)

Bob Marley wrote ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ with Peter Tosh soon after witnessing the poverty and oppression in Haiti in the early 1970s. The song is one of the most iconic anthems in reggae and the message, while not directly targeted towards the oppression in Haiti, calls for people to unite and “stand up for your rights”.

The lyrics target the oppressive nature of organised religion and argue that people must find try to find meaning in the here and now rather than waiting on a reward in an uncertain afterlife. The earnest message of the song has made it one of the most prevalent and important hits of Marley’s career.

The Specials – ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (1984)

Perhaps one of the most memorable songs relating to Nelson Mandela was ‘Free Nelson Mandela’. It was written by Jerry Dammers and performed by The Specials. With Mandela still imprisoned at the time of its release, the song served as part of the global outcry for his release and a call for the end of apartheid.

The song is upbeat and cheerful despite the serious subject matter addressed in the lyrics. This served to help the song catch on as a sing-along anthem that would become synonymous with the movement after its airing on Top of the Pops in 1984.

Public Enemy – ‘Fight The Power’ (1989)

Hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy are one of the most memorable and influential hip-hop collectives in history. Much of the group’s output over the years has addressed societal issues, especially those relating to racial discrimination. Of all of their powerful songs, ‘Fight The Power’ remains the most important and memorable of their protest-oriented compositions. The group were all too aware of the ongoing struggles experienced by the Black population on the streets of New York City.

In ‘Fight the Power’ Chuck D and the group perfectly reflected the racial tension experienced by Black people on the streets using samples of civil rights exhortations, black church services, and the music of James Brown. The lyrics, such as: “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,” teem with confidence and pride making it one of the more encouraging and uplifting protest songs of its time while making serious assertions about the social and political landscape of the country.

Kendrick Lamar – ‘Alright’ (2015)

Kendrick Lamar released his hit protest anthem ‘Alright’ at a time when America needed it most. In August 2014, teenager Michael Brown was famously shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. A few months later, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was subject to the same fate after being spotted holding a toy gun. When the decision was made not to indict the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in November 2014, the sum of these events led to the beginning of an uprising.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement had begun to build momentum by the beginning of 2015 with thousands of protests and riots taking place across the US as people called out police brutality and racial discrimination. When Lamar’s ‘Alright’ was released in March 2015, its lyrics. “we gon’ be alright” were chanted by protesters with the footage being spread around the world via social media. The song’s optimistic call for compassion, unity and resilience struck a chord with the BLM movement and proved that protest songs could be just as powerful as ever in the 21st century.

Childish Gambino – ‘This Is America’ (2018)

When Childish Gambino’s strange compartmentalised anthem ‘This Is America’ first met audiences around the world, it was accompanied by a deeply immersive and thought-provoking music video (as seen below). The song conveys America’s long-suffered issues with gun crime and racial hate crime.

The video serves as a hard-hitting flashback to the Charleston church shooting in 2015, where white supremacist neo-Nazi, Dylann Roof, opened fire in a South Carolina church killing nine African American people. The song was a major hit upon its release in 2018 and the video went viral serving for great entertainment, but most importantly serving as a chilling wake up call for America.