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.

60. Peter Tosh: “Legalize It” (1976)

Jamaican reggae pioneer Peter Tosh was somewhat more militant about his beliefs than his former bandmate and Wailers frontman, Bob Marley. This is apparent from the cover of his first solo album, Legalize It, which features Tosh meditatively toking a chillum amid a veritable forest of reefer, leaving very little doubt as to what “it” is he seeks to legalize. Even more iconic than the album’s imagery, though, is its title track, which espouses marijuana’s many virtues and its equally numerous sobriquets. “Legalize It” is a protest against the prohibition of the Rasta sacrament that even those skeptical of the divinity of Haile Selassie can get behind.

The track also touts marijuana as a folk remedy for a few illnesses, but the main gist of the song is political, not medical. Revolutionary as Tosh’s message may have been, only lunatic-fringe traditionalists, business executives with a stake in marijuana’s prohibition, and people running for public office (frequently the same people, anyway) have reason to resist it. – Matthew A. Stern

59. Fela Kuti: “Zombie” (1976)

In the annals of protest music, few artists have inspired as much fear in their governments as Fela Kuti. His 1976 Afrobeat masterpiece “Zombie” attacked Nigeria’s military junta, comparing the army to the supernatural creatures themselves: mindless, soulless, having no will of their own. Worse still for the government, the song was a smash hit, Kuti’s band at its brassiest and best. The fallout was cataclysmic for Kuti. The government conducted a violent raid of his commune, the Kalakuta Republic. A thousand soldiers destroyed Kuti’s studio and tapes, burned down the compound, severely beat Kuti, and threw his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, an activist in her own right, out of a window, resulting in her death months later.

None of this stopped Kuti, of course; he fought back with song after song as the government continued to deny official involvement in the raid. “Zombie” would continue to spark controversy, inciting riots during a 1978 concert in Ghana. The song cements Kuti’s role in musical history as an artist willing to risk everything for human rights. – Adriane Pontecorvo

58. Tom Robinson Band: “Glad to Be Gay” (1978)

Having scored a UK Top 5 hit the previous year with “2-4-6-8 Motorway”, the TRB reached #18 with “Glad to Be Gay”, written in punk-chanson style with a sing-along chorus. It was released as part of a live EP (including the feminist-ally anthem, “Right on Sister”), issued as a stop-gap by EMI. Because of a spike in homophobia during the 1980s, it’s sometimes forgotten that the 1970s were almost equally hostile. Robinson’s song begins by describing police brutality (the heavily sarcastic narrator expressing disbelief that such a thing exists) so that by the time the chorus comes around and the word ‘gay’ makes its first appearance, the listener is already on the side.

The strategy worked; audiences joined in, whether or not they had hitherto agreed with the sentiment. The double standard of Page 3 and Playboy being deemed acceptable while gay publications were put through obscenity trials, gay bashing, internalized homophobia, and the closet make up the balance of the song, which thrived in the charts despite a BBC ban and almost no radio support. “Glad to Be Gay” has since been dubbed the UK’s “gay national anthem”. – Charles Donovan

57. Thomas Mapfumo: “Hokoyo!” (1978)

Born in what was then Southern Rhodesia, artist Thomas Mapfumo has faced no shortage of injustice. In a nation dominated by a white ruling class and governed by discriminatory policies, Mapfumo developed a new music style, calling it chimurenga, the Shona word for struggle. An adaptation of older Shona music traditions to modern rock and sung in the Shona language, chimurenga was, by its structure, an act of revolution, embodying Mapfumo’s refusal to surrender his culture. “Hokoyo!” means “Watch out!” – and the Rhodesian government did, banning the 1979 chimurenga song from radio and imprisoning Mapfumo without charges. While the government tried to keep the song’s distinctly anti-colonialist message out of the public sphere, though, it spread quickly.

Protests against Mapfumo’s incarceration and the state’s inability to find grounds for keeping him imprisoned led to his quick release. 1980 marked the nation’s first free election and the establishment of Zimbabwe; Mapfumo performed at celebrations alongside Bob Marley. The jubilation was short-lived – Robert Mugabe’s reign soon cast a pall on the independent nation, and Mapfumo would soon leave for the United States, rarely to return to his home country. To this day, Mapfumo has never stopped making music about the causes that move him. – Adriane Pontecorvo

56. Joan Armatrading: “Taking My Baby Up Town” (1978)

Adhering to the feminist adage “the personal is political”, Joan Armatrading‘s “Taking My Baby Up Town” is a profoundly political protest song. Armatrading’s song describes her as walking on the street, “Looking like a million dollars / With a pretty person on my arm / When someone started hooting and hollering / They were saying I should never / Have been born.” While it’s possible to regard this as an interracial relationship, the lack of gender specificity in this line, as well as the response to the protagonist’s action of walking in the street arm-in-arm, coded it as a queer song to those in the LGBT community in the late 1970s.

Each of the three verses repeats the scenario: The protagonist’s presence in public, twice in the company of her lover, causes a public outcry. The third verse provides a reason for this reaction: “We started a commotion / Someone making comments / Morals / The state of affairs.” Many in the LGBT community were familiar with the furor caused by public displays of queer affection. But what made the song attractive, indeed anthemic, to the queer community was Armatrading’s celebration of the love the protagonist and her “pretty person” had with one another. She responds to the public jeering by telling her lover, “What we’ve got is the best.” – Lisa L. Rhodes

55. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” (1978)

At a Shovels and Rope show, the duo began the night with their interpretation of Nick Lowe‘s classic 1974 tune, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”. They sang it as a heartfelt lament, almost hymn-like, about Donald Trump’s America. It proved this vital song made famous by Elvis Costello and the Attractions is a timeless one, speaking to essential human desires for love, peace, compassion, empathy, and yes, understanding. Those are all things we need more of in this age of rising racism, xenophobia, hate, violence, and populism. The song wants to know “who are the strong and who are the trusted”? Who are those who will stand up and fight the oppression and hate, who will sue for peace, and who will take us forward to a healthier future?

Costello’s take on the song took a punk rock approach with his anger at the troubling situation causing immense frustration that “just makes [him] want to cry”. Costello’s version comes across as a dig at the working-class misery in Thatcher’s Britain and the ongoing Cold War when we were still years away from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Be it rock, punk, or Americana, this song will live forever as a call for hope in bad times, a rousing of the faithful to action, and an anthem that yearns and pleads for better days ahead. – Sarah Zupko

54. Stiff Little Fingers: “Suspect Device” (1978)

The “troubles” — the continuing conflict in Northern Ireland — informed many excellent records during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Certainly, Gang of Four, Angelic Upstarts, and Dexy’s Midnight Runners all had their say and offered significantly different perspectives. Stiff Little Fingers’ perspective, however, stands out among them as they lived there. The best debut single from any punk rock band that wasn’t the Sex Pistols, “Suspect Device” was a balls-out frenzied howl of distorted protest against the activities of terrorist groups/gangsters of both “traditions” in Northern Ireland and (presumably) against the political parties whose persistent failure to resolve the underlying issues created the environment in which the groups were able to prosper.

“Suspect Device” simply seethed with rage and resentment, and the band’s 1979 debut album, Inflammable Material, mined the same rich vein with songs as powerful as “Alternative Ulster”, “State of Emergency”, and “Wasted Life”. The message was simple: the band wanted no part of the terrorists (“nothing but blind fascists brought up to hate”), the army on the streets of Belfast, or the “RUC dog of repression” (Royal Ulster Constabulary). They just wanted to be able to live a normal life, and until that became possible, there was every chance that they would “blow up in their face”. – Roger Holland

53. Peter Gabriel: “Biko” (1980)

Peter Gabriel‘s tribute to Stephen Biko galvanized activists and became an anthem for the anti-apartheid movement as it spread internationally in the late 1980s. An outspoken advocate for Black Consciousness in South Africa, Biko was killed while in police custody in 1977. The BBC’s coverage of Biko’s death inspired Gabriel to write the song, which was released in 1980. Gabriel also impacted other musicians who became a vocal public force in the anti-apartheid movement. In a 2013 interview with NPR, Steven Van Zandt called Gabriel’s tribute “very inspiring” as he began to organize Artists United Against Apartheid in 1985.

The startling, stripped-down lyrics are chilling in their simplicity. Gabriel’s call to action in the aftermath of Biko’s death is intended to inspire: “You can blow out a candle / But you can’t blow out a fire / Once the flames begin to catch / The wind will blow it higher.” The repetition of Biko’s name created a powerful litany when Gabriel performed the song live, often at the end of a concert. Notable live versions were recorded at the Amnesty International Concert in 1986 and at the concert celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, held at Wembley Stadium in 1988. – Linda Levitt

52. The English Beat: “Stand Down Margaret” (1980)

Even if the two-tone movement was a reaction to the growing ethnic unrest associated with punk, the English Beat (or, in their native UK, simply the Beat) were still among the most unlikely political spokesmen. After the band found fame with a cover version of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown”, no one would have expected the group’s first album to be anything but another sampling of good-time party music. The Selector and the Specials would carry the flag of militancy. Surprisingly, I Just Can’t Stop It did have a significant bite, with songs like “Two Swords” and “Click Click” taking on intolerance and violence, respectively.

But it was “Stand Down Margaret” — an outgrowth of a cover of Prince Buster’s “Whine and Grine” — that indicated the English Beat’s inherent strength at combining melody and message. Taking the toaster lead, frontman Ranking Roger downplays the government’s “bright new tomorrow” before systematically repeating the title request (a call for Prime Minister Thatcher’s resignation). In between are pleas for “unity” and cautions against starting a third world war. The languid skank established by the rhythm section grows more and more ominous as Roger’s words become a world-weary mantra. Though never a single, it remains one of the band’s crowning achievements. – Bill Gibron

51. Heaven 17: “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” (1981)

After the break-up of the original Human League lineup (with lead singer Phil Oakey taking the name to new commercial heights), former members Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh created the British Electric Foundation. Their hope was to use their synthpop conglomerate (they’d produce, various guest artists would lend a hand) to expand the influence of keyboard-based music. But when their instrumental efforts (Music for Stowaways and Music for Listening To) failed to chart, they grabbed fellow Sheffielder Glen Gregory, re-recorded one of the tracks with more aggressive vocals, and christened their new enterprise, Heaven 17.

This song, given the spunky funk title “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang”, expertly captured the climate of a Britain torn apart by unhappiness at home and fears from across the pond. Over a rhythmically dense beat and the sparsest of musical accompaniment, Gregory scolds Europe for still supporting racism as well as the Thatcher regime’s caustic conservatism. But the grandest slam is aimed at recently elected Ronald Reagan, lyrics labeling him a “fascist god in motion” who lets “generals tell him what to do”. Naturally, the BBC banned the single, and it became an immediate hit and remains a powerful statement some 26 years on. – Bill Gibron