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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.

Yothu Yindi: “Treaty” (1991)

Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty” is a powerful indictment of the inadequate progress on a treaty promised between the Aboriginal peoples and the Australian government. Specifically, Prime Minister Bob Hawke pledged to bridge the poverty gap and strengthen services alleviating over-crowded housing and poor medical access. These promises were unmet. The song begins with the lyrics “I heard it on the radio / I saw it on the television.” This is a direct condemnation of political doublespeak that promised reparations to Indigenous peoples yet avoided amelioration.

“Treaty” was adopted as the unofficial anthem for the Reconciliation Movement, activism connecting Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. Lyrics including “Now two rivers run their course / Separated for so long” directly address the cultural divide deeply felt across the country. Initially released in 1991, the single received limited airplay and failed to chart until the song was remixed to “Treaty (Filthy Lucre remix)”. Inspired by Yolgnu and Balanda culture, “Treaty” was the first song in the Indigenous Australian language, Gumatj, to gain popularity while bringing attention to the systemic inequities. – Elisabeth Woronzoff


R.E.M.: “Ignoreland” (1992)

Automatic for the People is critically and popularly praised as perhaps R.E.M.’s best album. Along with the slow and somewhat sorrowful songs like “Drive” and “Man in the Moon”, the album featured “Ignoreland”, reflecting the band’s tradition of hard-rocking, politically-inflected songs. Stipe’s twist of pronouncing words with a different syllabic stress than normal use demands a close listen, which acts like a revelation. After a few albums with deliberately difficult-to-understand mumbled lyrics, it was no surprise to fans that “Ignoreland” required some sorting out. Stipe’s anger is undeniable, and he assured it would resonate with the decision to mix the vocals through an amplifier. Accompanied by the hard press of roiling instruments, “Ignoreland” was impossible to ignore.

The song is an indictment against what the public generally chose to ignore, choosing instead to gladly receive the spoon-fed misinformation of Reagan-era politics. The song marvelously moves from the rant of “The undermining social democratic downhill slide into abysmal / Lost lamb off the precipice into the trickle-down runoff pool / They hypnotized the summer / nineteen-seventy-nine” to the chant of “defense, defense, defense” followed by “yeah, yeah, yeah, Ignoreland”, rendering a song that is both nearly impossible to sing along with and a simple fist-raising chant. – Linda Levitt


Sonic Youth: “Swimsuit Issue” (1992)

In three minutes of noisy distorted mess, Sonic Youth delivers a brutal, potent track about the degradation of women in a song voiced by bassist Kim Gordon that moves from the personal to a wider cultural narrative of use and abuse. A wall of filthy noise accompanies Gordon’s lyric, relating the tale of a young office worker subjected to sexual harassment and eventually rape at the hands of her boss. The tale is not without revenge and retribution, as the young woman tells all to the press, via Gordon at her most indignant.

In the song’s trancelike second half, Gordon lists off women’s names against a backdrop of brutal distortion: “Paulina, Catherine, Vendela, Naomi.” The names continue going by — each one more mesmerizing — as Gordon names every model featured in the 1992 swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, abused in a different way. The song deals with some complicated “swimsuit issues”, not least the role the media plays in presenting women as both victims and commodities. Sonic Youth reminds us that protest songs don’t have to include acoustic guitars and twee harmonica melodies stuck in 1965. They don’t even have to be about war. Not with guns, anyway. – Sarah Kerton


Almamegretta: “Figli di Annibale (Children of Hannibal)” (1993)

Countless Italian bands have been influenced by and play black American music — jazz, R&B, blues, hip hop. But only one has written a song inspired by Malcolm X — the Neapolitan group Almamegretta (Wandering Soul), whose 1993 indie hit, “Figli di Annibale”(Children of Hannibal) drew on remarks the African American leader made in 1964. “Hannibal was famous for crossing the Alps mountains with elephants,” Malcolm observed. “And he had with him 90,000 African troops, defeated Rome and occupied Italy for between 15 and 20 years. This is why you find many Italians dark – some of that Hannibal blood.”

On “Figli di Annibale”, Almamegretta’s lead vocalist Gennaro “Raiss” della Volpe raps over a dub track of electronics, bass, and drums. “Molti italiani hanno la pelle scura / Molti italiani hanno i capelli scuri” (many Italians have dark skin / Many Italians have dark hair) because the blood of the North African general runs in their veins. The song certainly has historical holes. Nonetheless, the song connected with Italians, especially the radical youth alarmed by the racism and xenophobia of the Northern League, which in the early ’90s was beginning to win elections in northern Italian cities. Today, the League is poised to form a new national government, along with the anti-immigrant Five-Star Movement. – George de Stefano


2Pac: “Keep Ya Head Up” (1993)

The musical landscape of 1993 was diverse. Not only had Seattle-tinged apathy arrived and pop-metal’s death knell sounded, but gangsta rap appeared in its earliest incarnation, ushering in the beginnings of the materialistic Culture of Bling that would become a hip-hop staple. Amid the melting pot of commingled materialism and apathy, Tupac Shakur released a song that brought a hard dose of ghetto reality from the streets to the mainstream with “Keep Ya Head Up”. While hip-hop as a genre was maligned as being misogynistic, “Keep Ya Head Up” was positive and uplifting.

Simultaneously addressing issues of race, poverty, and sexism, Tupac cautioned listeners not to treat women with disrespect, linking that behavior to the underprivileged condition of blacks in America as a whole. Part of the song’s beauty lies in its stark realism. Much of “Keep Ya Head Up” offers a contemplative Shakur wondering why “We got money for wars / But can’t feed the poor” and “Why we take from our women / Why we rape our women / Do we hate our women?” In spite of the bleak situation, the song offers hope in the face of adversity to get past life’s obstacles. The song’s chorus, centered around a sample of the Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh, Child”, says it all: “Things are gonna get easier… / Things’ll get brighter.” – Lana Cooper

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