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Photo: Auckland Museum [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Say It Loud! 100 Great Protest Songs: Part 4 – Dead Kennedys to Steve Earle

PopMatters has scoured the musical spectrum for the best examples of the protest song form, including anthems of great popularity and obscurity alike. Stay tuned all week as we unveil the top 100.

Public Enemy: “Fight the Power” (1989)

In the summer of 1989, I was 13-years-old, still living in the blissful naiveté of youth. Although Public Enemy had already been around for a couple of years, nothing could’ve prepared me for the sonic onslaught that was “Fight the Power”. This was righteous black rage at its finest, music to stimulate the brain and the ass muscles. Even without Chuck D’s booming, authoritative voice, the backing track sounded like a riot in progress — James Brown guitars here, a squealing solo from Branford Marsalis there, even a couple of quotes thrown in from new-jack trio Guy.

The lyrics were merely the icing on the Molotov cocktail. “Cause I’m black and I’m proud! I’m ready / I’m hyped cause I’m amped!” D. declares. “Fight the Power” was not only the musical spark that lit my consciousness, it was also the prophetic soundtrack for a sweltering, uncomfortable summer in which Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (which used this song as its theme) packed theaters and a young black kid named Yusuf Hawkins was killed by a mob of Italian teens in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood. The incident intensified racial tension, and provoked a protest march led by Al Sharpton, which nearly incited a riot akin to that depicted in Lee’s film. – Mike Heyliger


Elvis Costello: “Tramp the Dirt Down” (1989)

How should an artist express contempt for the leader of his country? Should there be a balance between a fair and equitable assessment of the documented damage this leader has wrought upon her nation’s people and pure rage? By 1989, Elvis Costello was 12 years into his career as a punk, rocker, balladeer, country crooner, and new romantic. “Tramp The Dirt Down” is an achingly beautiful folk ballad that never mentions Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by name save for the first bridge (“When England was the whore of the world / Margaret was her madam”) but she’s lurking throughout. She’s a beast dripping with greed and avarice, kissing unsuspecting babies. The only thing the singer wants is to live long enough to see her vanish: “…when they finally put you in the ground / I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

Costello restored the song to his repertoire after Thatcher’s April 2013 death with the comment, “I don’t feel vindicated. I didn’t personally kill her.” Not since Bob Dylan hoped imminent death on the “Masters of War” had music contained such righteous, beautiful, necessary rage. Costello went one step beyond, named his target in 1989, and brought it back 24 years later to make sure nobody forgot. – Christopher Stephens


Sinead O’Connor: “Black Boys on Mopeds” (1990)

Sinéad O’Connor doesn’t sing bullshit. Trained in the bel canto school of singing, O’Connor cannot sing anything in which she lacks an emotional investment. This means that rather than erring on the side of safety, her protest songs take on a laser gaze. We all know how little she cares about what people think of her and her convictions, and though her extra-musical actions probably sparked more debate than any of her songs, her protest songs are unsurprisingly blunt.

One of the best, “Black Boys on Mopeds”, calls out Margaret Thatcher by name; then it surveys Britain, sees only poverty and police brutality and essentially concludes: “Fuck this place.” (She uses Van Morrison’s Celtic fantasy “Madame George” to sink this mythology, casting light on the way music that celebrates national heritage can whitewash reality.) And it’s sadly still salient. O’Connor no longer has any investment in “Nothing Compares 2 U” and no longer sings it, but when she performs “Black Boys on Mopeds” it’s as powerful as ever. – Daniel Bromfield


Ani DiFranco: “Lost Woman Song” (1990)

The first time I heard “Lost Woman Song”, I was sitting in the small cinderblock confines of my college dorm room at an all-women’s college in Boston. It was 1995, shortly after 25-year-old Shannon Lowney, a receptionist at an abortion clinic, was shot two blocks from my quaint and grassy campus by 22-year-old John Salvi. DiFranco’s song is both a protest for a woman’s right to choose and a protest to the protestors that inhibited those rights in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In the song, DiFranco discusses the abortion as a “casualty” she endured — “a relatively easy casualty”, an almost prophetic designation as violence against abortion clinics skyrocketed to a bloody climax on the eve of 1995.

DiFranco’s sparse music is populated by lyrics that continually rise in angry enforcements of her rights and fall with the sad realization that sometimes anger doesn’t get you all the way there. The self-questioning runs like an undertow, threatening to pull her under as she stands alone, and clearly paints a picture of what most artists only create impressions of. The song stands not only as an assertion of her right to “exercise [her] freedom of choice”, but also as a manifest expression of her right to make her choice without external judgment. – Betsy Grant


Rage Against the Machine: “Killing in the Name” (1991)

How can you have a discussion about the greatest protest music of all time and not include a group whose name literally commands its followers to gather all that bottled-up angst and take a crowbar to the establishment? “Killing in the Name” was written six months after the Rodney King beating and the ensuing riots in Los Angeles. Zack De La Rocha never sounded as angry as he does here as he slowly builds on the repeating line, “Some of those that work forces / Are the same that burn crosses.” Here, forces refer to the police, military or other groups who are meant to protect, but in certain cases have abused their power. He relates these groups to those that burn crosses, a symbol used by the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan. But Rage doesn’t put all the blame on the “forces”, because a bigger “Machine” is puppeteering and, of course, they just do what they tell them. As the protest climaxes and the instrumental becomes chaotic, the outro screams perpetually against the power structures of today: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” – Chris Thiessen

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