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