Say It Loud! 100 Great Protest Songs: Part 5 - Bright Eyes to Childish Gambino
PopMatters has scoured the musical spectrum for the best examples of the protest song form, including anthems of great popularity and obscurity alike. Our list concludes today with the most recent examples of important protest music.
Bright Eyes: "When the President Talks to God" (2005)
Protest music should never be quiet or understated. It should be a loud, proud denunciation, which is exactly what Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst offers in the short but succinct "When the President Talks to God". The track is straightforward and unashamedly to the point. For an artist with a reputation for hiding meaning behind prose and elegiac phrasing, Oberst brings out an unexpected fire with his words, spitting syllables like ammunition, as he takes one of the most blatantly powerful anti-Bush stances seen in 21st century indie music.
The lyrics confront the war in Iraq, the place of religion in warfare and parliament, and the general disintegration of American society, right before the eyes of its leaders: "When the President talks to God / Do they drink near beer and go play golf / While they pick which countries to invade / Which Muslim souls can still be saved?" Oberst sings in his trademark off-key warble. Freedom of speech is integral, pivotal, and never taken for granted. Oberst exercises his democratic right, stating in the clearest terms heard exactly what he thinks of his elected leader. Each word is loaded with accusation, and Oberst shoots to kill. - Cathy Arnold
System of a Down: "B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Bombs)" (2005)
You could argue that everything past the opening two or three seconds of "B.Y.O.B." is superfluous. Remove all that follows the startling introduction and you're left with an a cappella assault on the part of lead guitarist Daron Malakian that says more with seven words than many protest songs say in their entirety: "Why do they always send the poor?" Not the most obvious way to begin a song that's an extended war-as-party metaphor ("Everybody's going to the party, have a real good time / Dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine"), but it certainly gets your attention. For all its seductive hostility, however, this opening salvo loses some of its conviction simply because it's a question rather than a statement of fact. Happily, another accusation comes later that, while also phrased as a question, nonetheless has all the conviction you could ask of a protest song: "It's party time: And where the fuck are you? Where! The fuck! Are you!" Not only might it sway your vote or your stance on the war, but it could also conceivably cause you to wreck your car. - Monte Williams
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars: "Living Like a Refugee" (2006)
Recorded in the field at Sembakounya refugee camp in Guinea, where Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars were exiled as a result of the civil war in their country from 1991 to 2002, "Living Like a Refugee" draws on West African folk traditions to protest the plight of the refugee. Leader Reuben M. Koroma articulates the philosophy behind the band's efforts: "I just take all the problems, the suffering of the people and make a song of it." Using worn-out, secondhand instruments acquired with the help of a Canadian refugee aid organization, the band does just that. Their words express the hardships of living like a refugee, but their music embodies the hope so desperately sought for by those suffering abject conditions in a strange land. The chorus, sung in unison by the band's vocalists, acknowledges the injustice of the refugees' situation and provides one example of how solidarity might make change.
As testament to its efforts, the band created a sense of community among its fellow refugees, inspiring filmmakers Banker White and Zach Niles to produce a documentary, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars. Since the film's release, the band has received international acclaim and its music has been praised for its ability to generate healing and raise awareness of the negative effects of neocolonialism and globalization. While the album Living Like a Refugee presents the members' own experiences in Guinea, the album is dedicated "to all the innocent people living as refugees throughout the world and to all the organizations and individuals who work tirelessly on their behalf". - Heather Snell
Dixie Chicks: "Not Ready to Make Nice" (2006)
Righteous anger… Natalie Maines has it in spades and for good reason. A few simple words of humorous protest over the impending war in Iraq embroiled her and the Dixie Chicks in ongoing controversy and death threats. The Chicks, the best-selling female group of all-time, were in London on March 10, 2003, performing at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. In front of a friendly crowd of British lefties and following the massive February anti-war protests in London, Maines felt compelled to distance herself as both an American and a Texan from the perception that all Americans supported the war and that George W. Bush was emblematic of all Texans. "Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." The crowd at Shepherd's Bush cheered.
Back in the States, the ensuing hullabaloo changed both their lives and music forever and had the happy side effect of turning them into great artists. Always superlative musicians, now they had an edge and purpose like never before. Taking the Long Way is a resplendent pop and country album (the best of 2006 by a mile), their most fully realized work to date, and "Not Ready to Make Nice" is its crowning jewel. The song's lyrical and musical defiance -- check out those rising crescendos as Maines hits the final chorus -- mark it as perhaps the most memorable musical protest surrounding the Iraq War. Not confronting the war directly, but vehemently advocating freedom of speech while lambasting people that "write me a letter / Sayin' that I better shut up and sing / Or my life will be over", the Dixie Chicks created a modern masterpiece. - Sarah Zupko
Brother Ali: "Uncle Sam Goddamn" (2007)
Like that one history teacher who refused to tell the sugar-coated version of events, "Uncle Sam Goddamn" finds Brother Ali rolling through centuries of deplorable American history, from the transatlantic slave trade to modern warmongering, with incisive wit: "The government's an addict / With a billion dollar a week kill brown people habit." Its title and opening lines an allusion to Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam", this is Ali's most visceral protest song, and like its inspiration, the song made waves: The Department of Homeland Security flagged him. Verizon withdrew sponsorship, forcing Ali to end a tour early.
But what's striking about "Uncle Sam Goddamn" is how Ali goes beyond boilerplate criticism. He doesn't want to just complain. He wants to make things better, and his frustration is palpable: "Fist raised, but I must be insane / Because I can't figure a single goddamn way to change it." By the end, it's clear that nothing will change—the poison is too deep—so Ali signs off with a directive that means even more in the era of NFL protests and recent policy changes than it did in 2007: "Now stand your ass up for the National Anthem." - Adam Finley
DJ Sprinkles: "Midtown 120 Blues Intro" (2008)
DJ Sprinkles' Midtown 120 Blues is a literal and brutally effective protest record, though its cause is a little more specific than most topical music's broadly messianic leanings. It's a treatise on the co-opting of the specifically black, Latino and queer phenomenon of house music into commercial approximations that belonged to no one but the labels. For "Midtown 120 Intro", Sprinkles' strategy is to spin one of the richest, lushest, most luxuriant deep house beats you've ever heard and speak so clearly over it—and with such conviction—about the situation of house music that one physically cannot listen to the music without applying the context. "House isn't so much a sound as a situation," goes the thesis of the record, and what she says next might just change the way you think about music forever. It's especially brave because while it's easy to make protest music that rails against a faceless Other, Sprinkles invites you to ask yourself if you're part of the problem. If you are, it has faith you can change. - Daniel Bromfield
M.I.A.: "Paper Planes" (2008)
British rapper M.I.A. wrote "Paper Planes" as a subversive narrative. The track is partially inspired by M.I.A.'s family's immigration history and her frustrations over obtaining a work visa to record in the U.S. due to Homeland Security's objections. The ordeal inspired "Paper Planes'" opening line "I fly like paper, get high like planes / If you catch me at the border, I got visas in my name". M.I.A. suggests "Paper Planes" brings awareness to the marginalization of and prejudice towards immigrants. This is underscored by sampling the Clash's "Straight to Hell", a censure of immigrant mistreatment.
Through the lyrics and video, M.I.A. satirizes the stereotypes constructing immigrants as violent malingerers. She purposely uses gunshots and cash register sound effects to aurally depict the stereotype. This is reiterated by the lyrics, "All I wanna do is (gunshots) / And (cash register) / And take your money." Others see the gunshots representing the culture of violence refugees fled. The juxtaposition of the gunshots and cash register is also interpreted as the connection between capitalism and the military industry. Here M.I.A. produces a critique of the financing and profiteering from gun culture and global warfare. - Elisabeth Woronzoff
Lady Gaga: "Born This Way" (2011)
Prior to the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, gay marriage and the rights surrounding it in America was probably the hottest talking point during the Obama administration. Within that argument, the discussion of whether sexual orientation comes from environmental factors or from birth was a heated one. So when Lady Gaga, a pop star at the height of her career, put out "Born This Way" in the midst of this debate, it was sure to receive plenty of backlash.
But that didn't stop the song from topping the Billboard chart for six straight weeks in early 2011 as it became an anthem for the LGBT community and a strong message of inclusivity as Lady Gaga delivers in the bridge, "Whether life's disabilities / Left you outcast, bullied or teased / Rejoice and love yourself today / 'Cause baby, you were born this way." It would be a hard argument to make to say that Lady Gaga's song created a big impact on such things as supreme court cases. But there is no doubt that her music at this time was a unifying anthem for those fighting for their rights. - Chris Thiessen
Fatima Al Qadiri: "Desert Strike" (2012)
In 1992, Electronic Arts released Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf for the Sega Genesis. Its mere existence had a profound impact on a young Fatima Al Qadiri, who having escaped the invasion of Kuwait a year earlier, now found herself able to play a video game based on it. Released on Kingdom and Prince William's Fade to Mind label at the height of its vitality, Al Qadiri's Desert Strike EP faced the forcible intersection of these kind of paradigms (war, imperialism, and the cultural detritus surrounding it) through sonics.
The title track "Desert Strike" is like transporting through some unseen liminal space between the past and present, between adolescent confusion and adult wisdom, and between the signified and the bizarre, nearly unrecognizable simulacrum the signifier becomes. While post-grime music has made percussion comprised of found sound artillery commonplace, there's very little that's hyper-aggressive or explosive in Al Qadiri's "Strike". Instead, there's an uneasy navigation of this tricky cultural terrain, creating a new space where modern club rhythms meet dated 16-bit synth sounds. The Sega score is not just incorporated; it haunts the mix as if the alchemical conversion of volatile live events into video game unleashed some mystical energy into the world. - Timh Gabriele
Kacey Musgraves: "Follow Your Arrow" (2013)
With few exceptions, country music is not well-known as a medium of protest, especially pop country. More often than not, the ideals and lifestyles supported by the country industry are exactly the ones being protested by other subversive genres like hip-hop or punk. So when someone infiltrates from the inside and presents new ideas, it's bound to turn heads. Ultimately, Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow" is a "haters gonna hate" message about how whatever you do, your actions will always be criticized by some other group of people. "If you save yourself for marriage, you're a bore / If you don't save yourself for marriage, you're a horrible person," Musgraves begins with a comedic emphasis on the "whore" in "horrible". But while most people can get behind a message of "you do you", the protest begins when Musgraves asserts that following your arrow is for heterosexual and homosexual alike: "Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls if that's something you're into." At the height of YOLO culture in America, Musgraves' hit country single decided it was time for country music, the music of the status quo, to make a change. - Chris Thiessen
D'Angelo and the Vanguard: "1000 Deaths" (2014)
On "1000 Deaths," D'Angelo's a speck on the wind above one of the most fearsome and physically awesome funk recordings ever made. The song just sounds like a call to arms—preachers, speakers, broken radio transmissions struggling to break through a rhythm that's like a yawning black hole in the center of the stereo field. Perhaps D'Angelo understands that most listeners will turn to Google to figure out what he's saying. If so, they'll be hit head-on with a manifesto as violent as the music: If I have to kill and die for what I believe in, I'm ready. "I was born to kill," D'Angelo squeaks, and though it can certainly be read as a metaphor for any struggle, violent or otherwise, it's more effective taken literally. Violent songs can be as effective as peaceful ones; they remind us that when lives are on the line, to maintain a pacifist stance can be tantamount to cowardice: "A coward dies 1000 deaths, a soldier just dies once." - Daniel Bromfield
Against Me!: "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" (2014)
Since Against Me!'s debut in 1997, they've contributed scathing social and political critiques packaged within punk rock. In 2012, Against Me! contributed to gender identity discourses as lead singer Laura Jane Grace, came out as transgender. The subsequent album's title track, "Transgender Dysphoria Blues", specifically addressed Grace's transition. Beginning the album with the title track disallowed listeners from avoiding Grace's narrative. Lyrically, "Your tells are so obvious / Shoulders too broad for a girl", articulated Grace's insecurities while also reiterating the fears echoed throughout the trans community. Later Grace sings, "They just see a faggot / They'll hold their breath not to catch the sick." Here she casts shrewd awareness of the caustic invective and the transphobia prevalent throughout society. "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" provokes listeners to take account of society's problematic treatment of individuals with fluid gender identities. The track is an authentic and relatable account complicating gender identity that provides listeners with a safe musical community. Likewise, Grace's coming out was inspired by a young transgender fan. Against Me!'s "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" is an anthemic contribution to gender identity narratives. - Elisabeth Woronzoff
Kendrick Lamar: "Alright" (2015)
Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly is one of the most important rap albums of all time, one filled with incredibly complex literary devices and beautiful storytelling. The major hit "Alright" stands as a turning point in that album, but more than that, it's an anthem of hope. It's an anthem of progress that ultimately became, as New York Times called it, "the unifying soundtrack to Black Lives Matter". Lamar begins by tying his situation in to that of the character Sofia from Alice Walker's The Color Purple: "Alls my life I has to fight, nigga." What ensues is a tirade against American consumerism, the evil snares of fame and fortune, police brutality and murder. But it's also a personal battle against the character of Lucy (the embodiment of the devil, or Lucifer) and a moment of self-reassurance as Pharrell Williams delivers the hook: "We gon' be alright." The song was a classic from the instant it was released. But its connection to the Black Lives Matter movement, as crowds chanted this chorus of hope to the world, immortalized the song. - Chris Thiessen
Janelle Monae feat. Wondaland: "Hell You Talmbout" (2015)
It started as an outtake from her second album, taking place in her ongoing Android dystopian narrative with marching band drums and a funky bassline. But in the wake of mounting media attention on the ongoing police brutality against unarmed black Americans, Monae and her Wondaland collective released a new version. Same drums, but a markedly different tone, repeating the refrains "Say his name!" "Say her name!" a common battle cry at marches and a hashtag on Twitter, followed by the names of black Americans, like Walter Scott, Jermaine Reid, Phillip White, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and on and on, as the list of names gets longer.
It eventually connects to Emmett Till, one of the first black murders to gain national attention in the 20th century and spark the Civil Rights movement, reminding us that this is not a new problem. Black bodies have, throughout history, been thought of as disposable by people who want to demonstrate power over them. This song functions as a grief-stricken battle cry, a beautiful rejoinder. NPR called it "visceral" and "blistering" and different versions on Youtube have tens of thousands of repeated views. - Bobby Evers
Pusha T: "Sunshine" (2017)
Though Pusha T may be more Biggie Smalls than Public Enemy, his 2015 track "Sunshine" is a striking entry into the subgenre of "conscious rap". It's a track that lays bare the reality of racial inequality and police brutality in terms as stark as anything Pusha ever rapped about crack. Written at the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, "Sunshine" mirrors its frustrations, of weekly—daily sometimes—news stories about an unarmed black man shot by police, a black grandmother dragged from a car, black men arrested for simply sitting in a coffee shop. Jill Scott brings an anguished croon to the hook as Pusha's frustration boils over: "The badge is the new noose / Yeah, we all see it, but cellphones ain't enough proof." As an old head, Pusha brings a longer perspective, reminding us that the incidents BLM was created in response to are no new phenomenon: "These ain't new problems, they just old ways / I see one time turn sunshine into Freddie Gray." Protests, and protest songs, are meant to unite. To get people off the sidelines. On "Sunshine", there's no mistaking Pusha's meaning and intent. - Adam Finley
Anohni: "4 Degrees" (2016)
"4 Degrees" is a soaring ode to reckless cruelty couched in the front end of Anohni's Hopelessness, her long-form blistering indictment of modern times. What makes "4 Degrees" stand out in this compelling set is not only the stirring production by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, on which razor-edged industrial hits stalk up against staccato stabs of strings and blaring horns, the likes of which Gabriel would blow. The lyrics somehow pierce even more brutally. Here, Anohni fully embodies the death drive at work behind inaction on climate change not through ironic condemnation, but by embracing this destructive tendency, announcing at one point, "I want to burn the sky / I want to burn the breeze". Anohni explained this unique perspective to NPR by saying "the idea was to give voice to the narrative that underscores the reality of my behavior, rather than my intention."
In admonishing herself for her own complicity, Anohni presents banal-seeming actions like overconsumption and driving gas-guzzling vehicles as monstrous decadence whose appeal comes not from a cavalier ideological complacency, but an actively transgressive and destructive impulse. The cavalier refrain "It's only four degrees", alluding to the amount the hypothetical amount the temperature needs to rise for us to pass the point of no return, is boiling in double meaning. On the one hand, it's a dismissal that makes the annihilation of entire species sound trivially easy. On the other, it declares in no uncertain term just how little left we have to go to reach the brink of total ecocide. - Timh Gabriele
A Tribe Called Quest: "We the People…" (2016)
November 8, 2016 was a day of mourning for many who felt that a large portion of the United States had chosen to bury or discard them. It's hard to express the sadness, rejection, and fear felt around the country by black folks, Mexicans, poor folks, Muslims and gays, who felt like they were, at best, being shown the door. But every so often, the thrust of history allows a cultural milestone to come along at exactly the right moment to help guide its next steps. Dropped on November 17th, A Tribe Called Quest's comeback single "We the People…" was perhaps the fiercest thing they'd ever recorded, providing a clear marching order to righteous anger and massive political upheaval.
A compact and volatile three minutes, the track is a burst of energy led by huge Black Sabbath drum breaks and street-quaking low end. It's easy to forget that it's just two wildly allusive verses, one by the impeccable rap don Q-Tip and one by his late wordsmith colleague Phife Dawg. Armed with a tank of sound, the punctuations made by each instrumental pause serve to highlight the massive structural inequalities expressed, such as when Q-Tip evokes the ubiquitous poverty meal "the Ramen noodle" as a Jacobin-esque rallying cry against those who are "in the killing-off-good-young-nigga mood". The potency of this record is such that it demands listeners halt and take notice, an attribute crucial to every essential protest anthem. - Timh Gabriele
Hurray For the Riff Raff: "Pa'lante" (2017)
Pa'Lante literally means "forward" or "straight ahead", but depending on the context it can mean a lot of things like "Forward!", "Keep at it", "Onward and upward" – things along those lines. It was the name of a newspaper published by the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group late 1960s because of those connotations. Lead singer Alynda Lee Segarra begins by spitting out the lyrics as she rants about the squalid living conditions of Puerto Ricans in NYC, the injustices of the naturalization process, and the crushed hopes of those who came north seeking a better life. "Colonized and hypnotized, be something / Sterilized, dehumanized, be something," she proclaims over a simple accompaniment with the hope of one facing incredible odds. She romanticizes the nobility of the struggle and offers compassion to those who lived through it.
While Segarra initially focuses on the past, and even samples a recording of Pedro Pietri's 1969 poem "Puerto Rican Obituary", she understands things have not improved much. She urges her brothers and sisters to remember those who came before and move forward. Her voice becomes a martial cry urging her troops onward. Segarra sings with the pride of someone who refuses to accept being beaten and the love for her compatriots in the battle for what is right. - Steve Horowitz
Kate Tempest: "Europe Is Lost" (2017)
Caught up in the minutiae of one moment to the next, it's easy to be misled by distractions and to lose sight of the larger, insidious picture. On "Europe Is Lost", Kate Tempest climbs to a high enough vantage point to perceive the broader patterns of the present era -- not just the turmoil and unrest presently washing over the Western world, but also the way we anesthetize and blind ourselves to the rotting foundations beneath our feet, desperately clinging to false comforts. "Traffic keeps moving / Sex is still good when you get it / But what about the oil spill? Shh!" she raps, illustrating how the veil of normalcy can conceal dangerous changes that happen before we even realize it. An impressively lucid perspective on our current condition. -- Andrew Dorsett
Songs like this can go astray fairly quickly, especially given the sheer scope of Tempest's assault. She's basically taking on the entire modern world. But there is nothing trite, nothing insincere and nothing cringy about "Europe Is Lost". It's a well-oiled machine of a track, Tempest's flow starts off simple but builds quickly into a sharp, furious snarl as she breaks down her generation's reasons to despair and their deadly apathy ('Massacres, massacres, massacres... new shoes!'). The production is somewhat minimalistic, keeping the focus on the nightmare world Tempest is building with her poetic voice. Harrowing and essential. -- Chris Pittaway
Childish Gambino: "This Is America" (2018)
Rarely does a song with such heavy political themes also capture the widespread attention of the masses. But the crossover appeal of Donald Glover (set to play Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story in the same month) and his musical alias Childish Gambino gave him the platform for just such a feat with "This Is America". Starring in such a highly visible role, it would have been easy to cash in with a summer-friendly, R&B-tinged pop track sure to hit number one on the charts. Well, "This Is America" did hit number one on the charts, but not because of its accessibility. Its minimalistic approach to modern hip-hop at once mirrors and critiques the current state of the genre, as Glover delivers the "Redbone"-esque hook: "This is America / Don't catch you slippin' now."
But it's the visually captivating video that has sparked a lasting conversation. In just four minutes, Glover touches on gun violence, social media culture, Jim Crow, police brutality, and more as he and a crew of school children dance, unaware of the riotous chaos ensuing all around them. Here, Childish Gambino protests our short attention spans and quickness to forget tragedies like the Charleston church shooting. If social change is to occur, he argues, we need to stay vigilant at all times and turn talk into action. - Chris Thiessen