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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.

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 spoken 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

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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