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Protest Songs for the 21st Century

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on July 31, 2016

A long and passionate relationship exists between music and politics. Musicians have often encouraged public action with songs, from Eugène Pottier’s revolutionary chant, l’Internationale, written in 1871 and put to music by Pierre De Geyter several years later (the Russian version became the Soviet Union’s national hymn until 1944) to the Rock against Racism campaign that began in the UK in 1976 and nearly 30 years later the Live 8 concerts against global poverty. In the US, music has played a considerable role in response to defining events in American history, whether during the civil rights movement, anti-war or anti-establishment protests, or bringing awareness about the cold war. In fact, writes Dorian Lynskey in 33 Revolutions per Minute, a history of protest music in the 20th and 21st century, in the 1960’s people believed that pop music could help change the world. 

After a lull in the 1990s, protest music began making a comeback in the US during the Reagan years. David Byrne, in his historical/anthropological book How Music Works, which recounts how music is shaped by its time and place, describes how he reunited with Brian Eno for the album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today:  “Every day, as the songs were emerging, I continued to be appalled by the cynical manoeuvres of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, Tony Blair, and all the rest.”

Byrne describes writing the lyrics for a later album, Grown Backwards during the post-9/11 years, which included a war in Afghanistan followed by the invasion of Iraq. “There was love, anger sadness, and frustration in my life. There were two wars: one begun out of revenge and the second seemingly to consolidate oil interests.”

Gil Scott-Heron’s posthumously published memoir (2012), The Last Holiday, brings one back into the heart of the second half of 20th century America. He recounts attending segregated schools in Tennessee, then becoming one of the first blacks in a desegregated junior high school. From one of his best-known songs, written in 1970, The Revolution Will not be Televised, about the contrast between the power of advertising and what was actually happening on the street, to H2O Gate Blues, about the Watergate break-in, Scott-Heron, who also wrote two novels and several poetry books, was a keen chronicler of social events and politics all though his musical life.

Fifty-two years ago during the civil rights movement, Nina Simone sang the powerful Mississippi Goddam. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, countless musicians including Marvin Gaye, Woodie Guthrie, Joan Baez, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Pete Seger, Johnny Cash, or Bob Dylan composed and sang iconic songs. Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind is the ultimate protest song, and was used during the civil rights movement, protests against the Iraq war, and by liberal churches. More recently the Greek anti-austerity party, Syriza, used the 1988 song Patti Smith wrote with her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, People Have the Power during their campaigns. Rapper Felipe Andres Coronel, AKA Immortal Technique has concentrated his career on raising awareness about institutional racism, class struggle and government. Sometimes songs can be used against the wishes of musicians, as in the case of Donald Trump who played Queen's song We are the Champions, when he took to the stage during the Republican Convention last July. Trump has also used songs by REM and Neil Young without their consent. Furious, former REM singer, Michael Stipe was quoted as saying: “Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you – you sad, attention-grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.”

Below is a selection, by no means exhaustive, of celebrated protest songs coming from the US which continue to focus on the themes of racism, police brutality, and politics:

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In Gil Scott Heron’s 1970, The Revolution will not be Televised he wrote: “The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat Hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary…”

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Bruce Springsteen said historian and civil rights activist Howard Zinn had inspired him for his 1982 album Nebraska. Springsteen, who has played concerts in support of Democratic Party presidential nominees John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, recently came out against Donald Trump in a concert in Germany. His hit, Atlantic City, about organized crime and gambling, mentions a mobster whose son sold the property that Trump bought on which he built his Atlantic City casino. 

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Rage Against The Machine, long known for left-wing politics, came out with their lead single, Killing in the Name in 1991, singing about institutional racism and police brutality.

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Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong was a vocal critic of George W Bush and said the inspiration for the band’s 2004 album American Idiot came after 9/11, “…watching the sort of tanks going into Iraq and these embedded journalists going in live, it felt like a cross between war and reality television. So I just felt this great sort of confusion, like, someone needs to say something. . . . For me, I felt this moment of rage and patriotism.”

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The Dixie Chick’s 2006 album Take the Long Way, with their single Not Ready to Make Nice, referred to freedom of speech and the controversy that ensued following the band’s open criticism of George W Bush. “It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger...I’m still mad as hell…” 

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On Erykah Badu’s 2007 New Amerykah Part One, Badu’s Amerykahn Promise, was co-written for her by Roy Ayers and Edwin Birdsong, who used Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 speech to Congress, The American Promise, in which he called for equal rights. Erykah Badu’s America is a land of broken promises.

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In an important effort to avoid short term memory,  the Atlanta rapper known as Killer Mike, looked back to the 1980s, with his track Reagan on the 2012 album R.A.P. Music. He said: “I wanted to break down what the Reagan era was really like.” 


Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.


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