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.

30. Yothu Yindi: “Treaty” (1991)

Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty” is a powerful indictment of the inadequate progress on a treaty promised between the Aboriginal peoples and the Australian government. Specifically, Prime Minister Bob Hawke pledged to bridge the poverty gap and strengthen services alleviating over-crowded housing and poor medical access. These promises were unmet. The song begins with the lyrics, “I heard it on the radio / I saw it on the television.” This is a direct condemnation of political doublespeak that promised reparations to Indigenous peoples yet avoided amelioration.

“Treaty” was adopted as the unofficial anthem for the Reconciliation Movement, activism connecting Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. Lyrics including “Now two rivers run their course / Separated for so long” directly address the cultural divide deeply felt across the country. Initially released in 1991, the single received limited airplay and failed to chart until the song was remixed to “Treaty (Filthy Lucre remix)”. Inspired by Yolgnu and Balanda culture, “Treaty” was the first song in the Indigenous Australian language, Gumatj, to gain popularity while bringing attention to systemic inequities. – Elisabeth Woronzoff

29. R.E.M.: “Ignoreland” (1992)

Automatic for the People is critically and popularly praised as perhaps R.E.M.’s best album. Along with the slow and somewhat sorrowful songs like “Drive” and “Man in the Moon”, the album featured “Ignoreland”, reflecting the band’s tradition of hard-rocking, politically-inflected songs. Stipe’s twist of pronouncing words with different syllabic stress than normal use demands a close listen, which acts like a revelation. After a few albums with deliberately difficult-to-understand mumbled lyrics, it was no surprise to fans that “Ignoreland” required some sorting out. Stipe’s anger is undeniable, and he assured it would resonate with the decision to mix the vocals through an amplifier. Accompanied by the hard press of roiling instruments, “Ignoreland” was impossible to ignore.

The song is an indictment against what the public generally chose to ignore, choosing instead to receive the spoon-fed misinformation of Reagan-era politics gladly. The song marvelously moves from the rant of “The undermining social democratic downhill slide into abysmal / Lost lamb off the precipice into the trickle-down runoff pool / They hypnotized the summer / 1979” to the chant of “defense, defense, defense” followed by “yeah, yeah, yeah, Ignoreland”, rendering a song that is both nearly impossible to sing along with and a simple fist-raising chant. – Linda Levitt

28. Sonic Youth: “Swimsuit Issue” (1992)

In three minutes of noisy distorted mess, Sonic Youth delivers a brutal, potent track about the degradation of women in a song voiced by bassist Kim Gordon that moves from the personal to a wider cultural narrative of use and abuse. A wall of filthy noise accompanies Gordon’s lyric, relating the tale of a young office worker subjected to sexual harassment and eventually rape at the hands of her boss. The tale is not without revenge and retribution, as the young woman tells all to the press via Gordon at her most indignant.

In the song’s trancelike second half, Gordon lists off women’s names against a backdrop of brutal distortion: “Paulina, Catherine, Vendela, Naomi.” The names continue going by — each one more mesmerizing — as Gordon names every model featured in the 1992 swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, abused in a different way. The song deals with some complicated “swimsuit issues”, not least the role the media plays in presenting women as both victims and commodities. Sonic Youth reminds us that protest songs don’t have to include acoustic guitars and twee harmonica melodies stuck in 1965. They don’t even have to be about war. Not with guns, anyway. – Sarah Kerton

27. Almamegretta: “Figli di Annibale (Children of Hannibal)” (1993)

Countless Italian bands have been influenced by and play black American music — jazz, R&B, blues, and hip-hop. But only one has written a song inspired by Malcolm X — the Neapolitan group Almamegretta (Wandering Soul), whose 1993 indie hit, “Figli di Annibale”(Children of Hannibal), drew on remarks the African American leader made in 1964. “Hannibal was famous for crossing the Alps mountains with elephants,” Malcolm observed. “And he had with him 90,000 African troops, defeated Rome, and occupied Italy for between 15 and 20 years. This is why you find many Italians dark – some of that Hannibal blood.”

On “Figli di Annibale”, Almamegretta’s lead vocalist Gennaro “Raiss” della Volpe raps over a dub track of electronics, bass, and drums. “Molti italiani hanno la pelle scura / Molti italiani hanno i capelli scuri” (many Italians have dark skin / Many Italians have dark hair) because the blood of the North African general runs in their veins. The song certainly has historical holes. Nonetheless, the song connected with Italians, especially the radical youth alarmed by the racism and xenophobia of the Northern League, which in the early 1990s was beginning to win elections in northern Italian cities. Today, the League is poised to form a new national government, along with the anti-immigrant Five-Star Movement. – George de Stefano

26. 2Pac: “Keep Ya Head Up” (1993)

The musical landscape of 1993 was diverse. Not only had Seattle-tinged apathy arrived and pop-metal’s death knell sounded, but gangsta rap appeared in its earliest incarnation, ushering in the beginnings of the materialistic Culture of Bling that would become a hip-hop staple. Amid the melting pot of commingled materialism and apathy, Tupac Shakur released a song that brought a hard dose of ghetto reality from the streets to the mainstream with “Keep Ya Head Up”. While hip-hop as a genre was maligned as being misogynistic, “Keep Ya Head Up” was positive and uplifting.

Simultaneously addressing issues of race, poverty, and sexism, 2Pac cautioned listeners not to treat women with disrespect, linking that behavior to the underprivileged condition of blacks in America as a whole. Part of the song’s beauty lies in its stark realism. Much of “Keep Ya Head Up” offers a contemplative Shakur wondering why “We got money for wars / But can’t feed the poor” and “Why we take from our women / Why we rape our women / Do we hate our women?” In spite of the bleak situation, the song offers hope in the face of adversity to get past life’s obstacles. The song’s chorus centered around a sample of the Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh, Child”, says it all: “Things are gonna get easier… / Things’ll get brighter.” – Lana Cooper

25. The Cranberries: “Zombie” (1994)

Dolores O’Riordan’s striking voice enabled her to blend the tenderness and fury of public mourning in The Cranberries’ “Zombie”. She wrote the song in response to a 1993 IRA bombing in England in which two children, boys aged 12 and 3, were killed. As an Irish woman and a mother, O’Riordan was deeply affected by the tragedy and implored listeners to rethink the ongoing political violence that was hurting yet another generation. Commemorating her death in 2018, Paste recalled O’Riordan introducing “Zombie” at Woodstock ’94: “This song is our cry against man’s inhumanity to man, inhumanity to child,” she said. “And war, babies dying, and Belfast, and Bosnia, and Rwanda.”

O’Riordan’s anger shines in the harsh guitar and drums that level out the incongruity of her singing, which varies from a near whisper to a shout as she mournfully condemns the IRA. The BBC banned The Cranberries’ video of “Zombie” due to its controversial intermingling of clips of armed soldiers and young boys playing at war, along with O’Riordan herself, cast entirely in gold, standing in front of a cross and surrounded by children also cast in gold. These visual juxtapositions aptly represent the song’s expression of discord and discontent. – Linda Levitt

24. Bruce Springsteen: “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (1995)

Tom Joad was the hero of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. He was portrayed by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s film adaptation, and he was the subject of Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad”. Tom departs each version, telling his aged mother as he runs off to escape the police that she can find him wherever people are oppressed. Springsteen, like Guthrie, echoes “Joe Hill”, and makes Joad’s exit lines more explicitly political: “Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free / Look in their eyes, Mom, you’ll see me.” “The Ghost of Tom Joad” implies that the 1990s are much like the 1930s: “Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge / Shelter line stretchin’ ’round the corner / Welcome to the new world order.”

The last line is an ironic invocation of American triumphalism at the end of the Cold War. The chorus picks up on another symbol of American optimism, one that Springsteen himself has often celebrated: “The highway is alive tonight / But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes.” The tune is spare, but it is mournful and emotionally powerful, unlike the more distanced songs on Nebraska. Mourning is appropriate since Tom Joad is now a ghost, and it is unclear whether the struggle he represents is alive or dead. – David R. Shumway

23. Super Furry Animals: “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” (1996)

This limited-edition single from Wales’ greatest living rock band, Super Furry Animals, didn’t get much radio play (“Warning!” reads its advisory sticker, “This track contains the word ****! 50 times!”), but it still managed to climb to number 22 on the UK charts. The offending word comes from the song’s main hook, a sample of Steely Dan’s “Showbiz Kids” — “You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else” — and is repeated, ad infinitum, throughout the slam-dunk glaze of the mesmerizing chorus. It’s a brainwashing and desensitizing refrain, but then, that’s the point. The song’s cloudy verses find modern-day listlessness the byproduct of manipulative governments: “Now there’s nothing much to do / But sit and rot in front of televisions” because “Out of focus ideology / Keep the masses from majority.”

The consequence is a cycle of human ruin: the common man don’t give a fuck, because the Man don’t give a fuck about the common man, and so on. In concert, the band ups the political ante, incorporating a loop of comedian Bill Hicks (“All governments are liars and murderers”) with footage of Lenin, Bush, and Blair. Eccentric footballer Robin Friday, who ended his career with Cardiff City, graced the original single’s cover, flicking a derisive bird at an opposing keeper; inside the single, the band hailed a man who refused to let the bastards get him down: “This record is dedicated to the memory of Robin Friday… and his stand against the ‘Man’.” – Zeth Lundy

22. Various Artists: “A Tree Never Grown” (2000)

The 1999 shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo by three New York City police officers remains a polarizing event in this country’s ongoing struggle with racial prejudice. The erroneous killing (via 41 “unintentional” bullets) was the galvanizing force behind the Hip Hop for Respect EP, organized by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. “A Tree Never Grown” distinguishes itself from the other more-star-studded songs because of its two-pronged approach. The verses (from nine different MCs) range from angry reactions to the actual event to meditations on the larger relationship between black citizens and the powers that be. In contrast, Mos Def‘s softly sung chorus looks beyond politics to the heartbreaking truths of unnecessary death, a reminder that beneath all the vitriol is an issue that transcends skin color.

Some might say this startling twist on “We Are the World”-style collaborations suffers from too many voices, but that’s what makes it so relevant — in the shooting’s aftermath, the country was ablaze with opinions, making the right response difficult to pin down. For all its faults, the song (and, really, the whole EP) demonstrates why hip-hop is such an important social platform, translating honest reactions from the street to wax while filtering as little as possible along the way. – Ben Rubenstein

21. Steve Earle: “Amerika V. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” (2002)

The fighting spirit of the 1960s and 1970s of his youth has gone flat like a can of beer left in the sun; one swig of that and all he tastes is bitter. Now, Steve Earle is the demographic of Michael Moore’s Sicko, but Earle beat Moore by a few years with this song: “Yeah, I know, that sucks – that your HMO ain’t doin’ what you thought it would do / But everybody’s gotta die sometime and we can’t save everybody that’s the best that we can do.”

This song is for the hanging by their calloused fingers working class and the clinging precariously to their status quo middle class. They’ve filed their complaints, and they’re getting fed up with being told to put up and shut up. Sung with a rocky voice pounded by a torrent of booze, corroded by smoke, and choked raw from the sight of seeing a man die, few can sing anger and disappointment as well as Earle. He’s a good, hard spirit worn by troubles but worn rough, not smooth. This song is coarse, bittersweet poetry, made of barbed words that pierce and anchor to those getting’ older bones that are only warming up — with the help of a Tennessee whiskey or a California Cabernet — for another fight. – Karen Zarker