protest songs
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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.

70. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: “Ohio” (1970)

Written, recorded, and released less than three weeks after the Kent State shootings, where National Guardsmen gunned down protesters of the US invasion of Cambodia on a college campus, the single “Ohio” (backed with the Stephen Stills-penned “Find the Cost of Freedom”) captures the shock and anguish of a nation that doesn’t recognize itself anymore. One of Neil Young’s best and most passionate songs, “Ohio”, was recorded live in a very emotional session (you can hear Stephen Stills moaning, “Why did they die?” and “How many more?” at the end of the song), with the four principles of CSNY plus Calvin Samuels on bass and Dallas Taylor on drums. It’s a driving, electrified take on anti-war anguish, the phrase “Four dead in Ohio”, recurring like the nightmarish news footage of young people under fire.

Because of the politically-charged line, “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming”, the song was banned from mainstream radio, but it was played over and over on then-underground FM stations, becoming a rallying cry for the burgeoning anti-war movement. Despite the ban, it went to number 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100 list and, later, was ranked 385 on Rolling Stone‘s “Top 500 Songs of All Time” list. – Jennifer Kelly

69. Jimi Hendrix: “Machine Gun” (1970)

On New Year’s Eve 1970, it took popular music’s most iconic figure to bring closure to the turbulent 1960s with a riveting personal statement. At the Fillmore East in New York, James Marshall Hendrix took a stand against the convoluted Vietnam conflict armed with nothing more than his Fender Stratocaster. Backed by bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, Hendrix led his Band of Gypsys through a kaleidoscopic musical exploration of acid rock, blues, and all points beyond. “Machine Gun”, recognized as the pinnacle of the Fillmore set, was never more potent than when it ushered in the 1970s.

Lyrically, Hendrix conveys the pain, anger, and anguish of the military havoc being wrought in faraway lands. Musically, the guitarist transforms his six-string into an automatic weapon, strafing the audience with round upon round of amplified gunfire. The song ebbs and flows, alternating between loping rhythms and furious bent string assaults, but never once loses its power or its magic. “Machine Gun” takes on a life of its own, bringing listeners into a hellish firefight marked by somber desperation. – Adam Williams

68. Gil Scott-Heron: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970)

Along with the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron played a key role in bridging the gap between the Beat poets of the 1950s and 1960s and the nascent hip-hop music of the 1970s. His landmark single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” remains not only his most famous piece but also one of the most quoted and referenced protest songs of the last 40 years. Sparsely accompanied by conga and bongo on 1970’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, the spoken word piece was re-recorded a year later for the Pieces of a Man LP with a trio of trap kit, electric bass, and flute. While the minimal groove arrangement can be heard now as a precursor to modern hip-hop, it’s what the articulate, confrontational New York artist has to say that leaves such an indelible impression.

Following the example set by the jazz poetry of Langston Hughes and especially the politically charged, syncopated style of Amiri Baraka, Scott-Heron launches into a three-minute polemic, lambasting the culture of television, as well as the masses in white America that sat hypnotized by the blue glow in their living rooms, yet turned a blind eye to what was going on in their own neighborhoods. His popular culture references may be obscure to younger listeners these days, but his message, with that key phrase repeated with the stern patience of a parent trying to hold the attention of a TV-obsessed child, is still as powerful as it was years ago. – Adrien Begrand

67. Edwin Starr: “War” (1970)

Not every protest song needs the poetic lyrics of Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie, and “War” is the proof. While lyrics like “War can’t give life, it can only take it away”, “The thought of war blows my mind”, and the famous chorus of “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!” are simplistic almost to the point of parody — they’re also darn catchy. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that for the biggest hit of his career, Edwin Starr had the entire Motown arsenal behind him. Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, then the label’s leading songwriting team, had originally written the tune for the Temptations, but it was Starr’s version that got the full treatment. Whitfield produced it himself, using a generous complement of horns, a whole whack of percussion, and his act, the Undisputed Truth, to back Starr’s rousing vocals.

The result is a fiery, brash anthem and one of the most memorable songs of the anti-war movement. It’s also a testament to just how much Vietnam had seeped into the spectrum of musical consciousness. It wasn’t just folk singers and peacenik rock stars taking up the fight, but artists from every genre of music, including the ones you can dance to. Who said protest can’t be fun? Huh! – Adam Bunch

66. Malvina Reynolds: “It Isn’t Nice” (1971)

However peaceful a protest, like athletes kneeling during the national anthem, many conservatives still deem it disrespectful. Folksinger-songwriter Malvina Reynolds responded to this critique of protest with her song “It Isn’t Nice,” written in the mid-1960s and recorded in 1971. “It isn’t nice to block the doorway or go to jail,” she sings: “There are nicer ways to do it, but the nice ways always fail.” Reynolds should know, born in California to Jewish socialist immigrants whose activism in the 1930s caught the attention of the Orange County KKK. A violent attempt to kidnap and lynch the family was foiled by “Red Squad” police, who’d also been monitoring the family’s left-wing activities. No wonder Reynolds turns stinging at the end of “It Isn’t Nice.” She reminds critics of civil disobedience about 1) the longstanding practice of lynching and 2) the assassination of activist Medgar Evers in 1963 with the lines, “You were quiet just like mice / Now you say we aren’t nice / Well if that is Freedom’s price, we don’t mind.” – A. Loudermilk

65. Marvin Gaye: “What’s Going On” (1971)

In 1970, it looked like Marvin Gaye was done with music. He was in the middle of a deep depression; Tammi Terrell, his long-time singing partner, had just died; his marriage was falling apart; and he’d been dissatisfied with Barry Gordy’s mindless Motown hit machine for years (ever since his brother had returned home from Vietnam). Looking for a new life, he even made an unsuccessful bid to play football for the Detroit Lions before the Four Tops’ Obie Benson came to him with a new tune that he’d been working on. Suddenly, all that pain and turmoil had an outlet. The result was “What’s Going On”, one of the most intensely personal of all protest songs.

Gaye poured himself into the track, not only producing it himself but singing every one of the layered vocal parts. His pleas for peace and understanding in a world gone mad are filled with emotion, the heartache heightened by jazz-inspired strings. In fact, he was so personally invested in the song that when Gordy famously balked at releasing it as a single, claiming it wasn’t commercial enough, Gaye refused to record again until he did. And the singer was right — “What’s Going On” raced to the top of the charts, and before long, Gordy would be asking him to expand it into an entire album. – Adam Bunch

64. The Staple Singers: “I’ll Take You There” (1972)

In 1972, this popular gospel and soul family band finally achieved its first number-one hit on the Billboard charts, with another single, “Respect Yourself,” nipping at its heels. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section backed Mavis Staples and her siblings for the Be Altitude: Respect Yourself album, which helped Stax Records to make money as well as waves during a tumultuous time in the label’s history. The label was fighting to keep its independence at the same time that African-Americans began bussing to integrated schools, and the first-ever National Black Political Convention was convening in Indiana.

Al Bell, co-owner of Stax, wrote the two-chord song expressly to contribute to the national conversation on civil rights by imagining what the world would look like once all races are treated as genuinely equal. The song continues to thrive as a call to racial justice thanks to the many artists who have taken an interest in proliferating it and reviving the career of Mavis Staples, from Prince to Spike Lee. – Megan Volpert

63. Bob Marley & the Wailers: “Get Up, Stand Up” (1973)

A devout follower of Rastafarian culture, Bob Marley‘s experience growing up in the ghettos of Kingston made him a credible leader of the downtrodden, who embraced his message of peace and justice. Jamaicans saw his music as the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit of human freedom, opposing violence and celebrating life. Transcending race and class distinctions, the liberating effect of Marley’s music on the island extended worldwide to become a global phenomenon and continued even stronger after his untimely death in 1981.

“Get Up, Stand Up” is a reggae anthem written by Marley and fellow Wailer Peter Tosh and served as a simple and powerful call against oppression, offering a hopeful reminder of the power they possessed over their own lives: “Life is your right.” While the song has officially been adopted as the anthem of Amnesty International, the idea of personal liberation, in addition to social and political freedoms, is a universal theme that keeps the song at the core of the reggae catalog. – Dara Kartz

62. Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra: “Space Is the Place” (1973)

Everything Sun Ra did—from his music to his poetry to the life he lived—is essentially a protest against the repression of post-war American white bourgeois heteronormativity. The mantra “Space is the Place” neatly sums up Ra’s Afrofuturist project of release in four simple words and a bass-line hook over which a tidal wave of sound cascades. The cut takes up the entire first side of the original vinyl release, beginning with the electronic burbling of Ra’s modified Farfisa (credited on the album as a “space organ”), leading to Pat Patrick’s riff, trading between the baritone sax and electric bass, that carries throughout its 21-plus minutes. June Tyson leads the vocals, supported by a chorus of Space Ethnic Voices, who intone visions of Afrofurturist utopia such as: “Outer space is a pleasant place / A place that’s really free.” Ra’s emancipation narrative is articulated more explicitly in the science-fiction film of the same title, released a year later. In it, Ra plays a prophet who proposes to lead all African Americans to another planet free of white oppression via the medium of music. – Vince Carducci

61. The Sex Pistols: “Anarchy in the UK” (1976)

By the time 1976 rolled around, the spirit of the 1960s was long dead. The better world promised by a thousand pop songs had never come; now, the radio waves were dominated by the hedonism of disco and the bloated pretensions of prog-rock. And then, the day after the Band threw in the towel at their last waltz, the Sex Pistols released their first single. “Anarchy in the UK” announced punk to the world — and with it, a new style of protest. It was everything the political music of the 1960s generally wasn’t; it was aggressive, it was bitter, and it had given up hope. Johnny Rotten’s derisive snarl said it all: Everything’s fucked — the government, commercialism, the music industry — and if it’s all going to hell, anyway, you might as well get shitfaced and break something.

At a time when Britain and the rest of the world were quietly submitting to a suffocating death of shopping malls and platform shoes, the Pistols offered another option: cynical rage. Millions of kids worldwide decided to shred their clothes, steal their mom’s safety pins, and take them up on it. – Adam Bunch