protest songs
Photo by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash

Say It Loud! 100 Timeless Protest Songs

PopMatters has scoured the musical spectrum for the best examples of protest songs, including anthems of great popularity and obscurity that resonate today.

10. 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

9. 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 of 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

8. 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 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

7. 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, Janelle 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

6. 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 terms just how little left we have to go to reach the brink of total ecocide. – Timh Gabriele

5. 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

4. 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

3. 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. Hurray For the Riff Raff‘s 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

2. Kae 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. In “Europe Is Lost”, Kae 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!” they rap, 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. They basically take 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 they break down their 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 their poetic voice. Harrowing and essential. – Chris Pittaway

1. 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

This 100-item feature was originally published on 18 June 2018.