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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.

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