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.

20. Bright Eyes: “When the President Talks to God” (2005)

Protest music should never be quiet or understated. It should be a loud, proud denunciation, which is exactly what Bright Eyes‘ Conor Oberst offers in the short but succinct “When the President Talks to God”. The track is straightforward and unashamedly to the point. For an artist with a reputation for hiding meaning behind prose and elegiac phrasing, Oberst brings out an unexpected fire with his words, spitting syllables like ammunition, as he takes one of the most blatantly powerful anti-Bush stances seen in 21st-century indie music.

The lyrics confront the war in Iraq, the place of religion in warfare and parliament, and the general disintegration of American society right before the eyes of its leaders: “When the President talks to God / Do they drink near beer and go play golf / While they pick which countries to invade / Which Muslim souls can still be saved?” Oberst sings in his trademark off-key warble. Freedom of speech is integral, pivotal, and never taken for granted. Oberst exercises his democratic right, stating in the clearest terms exactly what he thinks of his elected leader. Each word is loaded with accusations, and Oberst shoots to kill. – Cathy Arnold

19. System of a Down: “B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Bombs)” (2005)

You could argue that everything past the opening two or three seconds of System of a Down’s “B.Y.O.B.” is superfluous. Remove all that follows the startling introduction, and you’re left with an a cappella assault on the part of lead guitarist Daron Malakian that says more with seven words than many protest songs say in their entirety: “Why do they always send the poor?” Not the most obvious way to begin a song that’s an extended war-as-party metaphor (“Everybody’s going to the party, have a real good time / Dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine”), but it certainly gets your attention.

For all its seductive hostility, however, this opening salvo loses some of its conviction simply because it’s a question rather than a statement of fact. Happily, another accusation comes later that, while also phrased as a question, nonetheless has all the conviction you could ask of a protest song: “It’s party time: Where the fuck are you? Where! The fuck! Are you!” Not only might it sway your vote or your stance on the war, but it could also conceivably cause you to wreck your car. – Monte Williams

18. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars: “Living Like a Refugee” (2006)

Recorded in the field at Sembakounya refugee camp in Guinea, where Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were exiled as a result of the civil war in their country from 1991 to 2002, “Living Like a Refugee” draws on West African folk traditions to protest the plight of the refugee. Leader Reuben M. Koroma articulates the philosophy behind the band’s efforts: “I just take all the problems, the suffering of the people, and make a song of it.” Using worn-out, secondhand instruments acquired with the help of a Canadian refugee aid organization, the band does just that. Their words express the hardships of living like a refugee, but their music embodies the hope so desperately sought for by those suffering abject conditions in a strange land. The chorus, sung in unison by the band’s vocalists, acknowledges the injustice of the refugees’ situation and provides one example of how solidarity might make change.

As a testament to its efforts, the band created a sense of community among its fellow refugees, inspiring filmmakers Banker White and Zach Niles to produce a documentary, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. Since the film’s release, the band has received international acclaim, and its music has been praised for its ability to generate healing and raise awareness of the negative effects of neocolonialism and globalization. While the album Living Like a Refugee presents the members’ own experiences in Guinea, the album is dedicated “to all the innocent people living as refugees throughout the world and to all the organizations and individuals who work tirelessly on their behalf”. – Heather Snell

17. Dixie Chicks: “Not Ready to Make Nice” (2006)

Righteous anger… Natalie Maines has it in spades, and for good reason. A few simple words of humorous protest over the impending war in Iraq embroiled her and the Dixie Chicks in ongoing controversy and death threats. The Chicks, the best-selling female group of all time, were in London on 10 March 2003, performing at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. In front of a friendly crowd of British lefties and following the massive February anti-war protests in London, Maines felt compelled to distance herself as both an American and a Texan from the perception that all Americans supported the war and that George W. Bush was emblematic of all Texans. “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” The crowd at Shepherd’s Bush cheered.

Back in the States, the ensuing hullabaloo changed both their lives and music forever and had the happy side effect of turning them into great artists. Always superlative musicians, now they had an edge and purpose like never before. Taking the Long Way is a resplendent pop and country album (the best of 2006 by a mile), their most fully realized work to date, and “Not Ready to Make Nice” is its crowning jewel. The song’s lyrical and musical defiance — check out those rising crescendos as Maines hits the final chorus — mark it as perhaps the most memorable musical protest surrounding the Iraq War. Not confronting the war directly but vehemently advocating freedom of speech while lambasting people that “write me a letter / Sayin’ that I better shut up and sing / Or my life will be over”, the Dixie Chicks created a modern masterpiece. – Sarah Zupko

16. Brother Ali: “Uncle Sam Goddamn” (2007)

Like that one history teacher who refused to tell the sugar-coated version of events, “Uncle Sam Goddamn” finds Brother Ali rolling through centuries of deplorable American history, from the transatlantic slave trade to modern warmongering, with incisive wit: “The government’s an addict / With a billion dollar a week kill brown people habit.” Its title and opening lines are an allusion to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”. this is Ali’s most visceral protest song, and like its inspiration, the song made waves: The Department of Homeland Security flagged him. Verizon withdrew sponsorship, forcing Ali to end a tour early.

But what’s striking about “Uncle Sam Goddamn” is how Ali goes beyond boilerplate criticism. He doesn’t want just to complain. He wants to make things better, and his frustration is palpable: “Fist raised, but I must be insane / Because I can’t figure a single goddamn way to change it.” By the end, it’s clear that nothing will change—the poison is too deep—so Ali signs off with a directive that means even more in the era of NFL protests and recent policy changes than it did in 2007: “Now stand your ass up for the National Anthem.” – Adam Finley

15. DJ Sprinkles: “Midtown 120 Blues Intro” (2008)

DJ Sprinkles’ Midtown 120 Blues is a literal and brutally effective protest record, though its cause is a little more specific than most topical music’s broadly messianic leanings. It’s a treatise on the co-opting of the specifically Black, Latino, and queer phenomenon of house music into commercial approximations that belonged to no one but the labels. For “Midtown 120 Intro”, Sprinkles’ strategy is to spin one of the richest, lushest, most luxuriant deep house beats you’ve ever heard and spoken so clearly over it—and with such conviction—about the situation of house music that one physically cannot listen to the music without applying the context.

“House isn’t so much a sound as a situation,” goes the thesis of the record, and what she says next might just change the way you think about music forever. It’s especially brave because while it’s easy to make protest music that rails against a faceless Other, Sprinkles invites you to ask yourself if you’re part of the problem. If you are, it has faith you can change. – Daniel Bromfield

14. M.I.A.: “Paper Planes” (2008)

British rapper M.I.A. wrote “Paper Planes” as a subversive narrative. The track is partially inspired by M.I.A.’s family’s immigration history and her frustrations over obtaining a work visa to record in the U.S. due to Homeland Security’s objections. The ordeal inspired “Paper Planes'” opening line, “I fly like paper, get high like planes / If you catch me at the border, I got visas in my name”. M.I.A. suggests “Paper Planes” brings awareness to the marginalization of and prejudice towards immigrants. This is underscored by sampling the Clash’s “Straight to Hell”, a censure of immigrant mistreatment.

Through the lyrics and video, M.I.A. satirizes the stereotypes constructing immigrants as violent malingerers. She purposely uses gunshots and cash register sound effects to depict the stereotype aurally. This is reiterated by the lyrics, “All I wanna do is (gunshots) / And (cash register) / And take your money.” Others see the gunshots representing the culture of violence refugees fled. The juxtaposition of the gunshots and cash register is also interpreted as the connection between capitalism and the military industry. Here, M.I.A. produces a critique of the financing and profiteering from gun culture and global warfare. – Elisabeth Woronzoff

13. Lady Gaga: “Born This Way” (2011)

Prior to the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, gay marriage and the rights surrounding it in America were probably the hottest talking points during the Obama administration. Within that argument, the discussion of whether sexual orientation comes from environmental factors or from birth was a heated one. So when Lady Gaga, a pop star at the height of her career, put out “Born This Way” in the midst of this debate, it was sure to receive plenty of backlash.

But that didn’t stop the song from topping the Billboard chart for six straight weeks in early 2011 as it became an anthem for the LGBT community and a strong message of inclusivity as Lady Gaga delivers in the bridge, “Whether life’s disabilities / Left you outcast, bullied or teased / Rejoice and love yourself today / ‘Cause baby, you were born this way.” It would be a hard argument to make to say that Lady Gaga’s song created a big impact on such things as supreme court cases. But there is no doubt that her music at this time was a unifying anthem for those fighting for their rights. – Chris Thiessen

12. Fatima Al Qadiri: “Desert Strike” (2012)

In 1992, Electronic Arts released Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf for the Sega Genesis. Its mere existence had a profound impact on a young Fatima Al Qadiri, who, having escaped the invasion of Kuwait a year earlier, now found herself able to play a video game based on it. Released on Kingdom and Prince William’s Fade to Mind label at the height of its vitality, Al Qadiri’s Desert Strike EP faced the forcible intersection of these kinds of paradigms (war, imperialism, and the cultural detritus surrounding it) through sonics.

The title track, “Desert Strike”, is like transporting through some unseen liminal space between the past and present, between adolescent confusion and adult wisdom, and between the signified and the bizarre, nearly unrecognizable simulacrum the signifier becomes. While post-grime music has made percussion comprised of found sound artillery commonplace, there’s very little that’s hyper-aggressive or explosive in Al Qadiri’s “Strike”. Instead, there’s an uneasy navigation of this tricky cultural terrain, creating a new space where modern club rhythms meet dated 16-bit synth sounds. The Sega score is not just incorporated; it haunts the mix as if the alchemical conversion of volatile live events into video games unleashed some mystical energy into the world. – Timh Gabriele

11. Kacey Musgraves: “Follow Your Arrow” (2013)

With few exceptions, country music is not well-known as a medium of protest, especially pop country. More often than not, the ideals and lifestyles supported by the country industry are exactly the ones being protested by other subversive genres like hip-hop or punk. So when someone infiltrates from the inside and presents new ideas, it’s bound to turn heads. Ultimately, Kacey Musgraves‘ “Follow Your Arrow” is a “haters gonna hate” message about how whatever you do, your actions will always be criticized by some other group of people.

“If you save yourself for marriage, you’re a bore / If you don’t save yourself for marriage, you’re a horrible person,” Musgraves begins with a comedic emphasis on the “whore” in “horrible”. But while most people can get behind a message of “you do you”, the protest begins when Musgraves asserts that following your arrow is for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike: “Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.” At the height of YOLO culture in America, Musgraves’ hit country single decided it was time for country music, the music of the status quo, to make a change. – Chris Thiessen