Hear the Revolution: The Sound of Protest in a Year of Trump

A Tribe Called Quest
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes during The 59th Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 12, 2017 in Los Angeles.

The revolution doesn't sound like Bob Dylan anymore. It shouldn't.

To say that the past year has been void of any sort of notable protest music would be doing a disservice to the music community -- some of our biggest artists have been making political statements on the largest scales for some time now. Protest music has simply shifted from the beloved Bob Dylan-esque efforts to sound more like the population affected by the situations at hand. The soundscape has turned away from folk-rock, toward hip-hop and pop, and music more reflective of the moment in time. 

Voices cried out in protest at the election of a reality television show host as president one year ago. Whether they realized the outcome was a possibility before it happened, or were taken aback by the way their peers may have failed them, the sentiment was all the same. The new regime was set on silencing oppressed voices and furthering their own goals for economic gain, from taking funding away from healthcare services the population relies on, like Planned Parenthood, to discussing police brutality and rape as if it were a hilarious joke that none of us are in on. 

In the weeks leading up to the election, the music world's protest had already begun. Feminist art collective Pussy Riot released “Make America Great Again” on Oct. 27 of 2016, asking listeners what they wanted their world to look like in the coming days. The video juxtaposes very real clips of Trump spewing disgusting rhetoric at his crowds of supporters with an imagined version of a possible Trump presidency (which, unfortunately, doesn’t seem so fictional when looking back a year later), over front-woman Nadya’s cool voice singing, “Let other people in/ Listen to your women/ Stop killing black children/ Make America Great Again.”

Hip-hop veteran Common, as well, added to the pre-election anxieties with his song "Letter To The Free," for Ava DuVernay’s film 13th, which focuses on the exceptions still present in the 13th Amendment, which technically only partially abolished slavery, allowing it as punishment for a crime. Common takes a direct hit at the prison industrial complex, “Sweet land of liberty, incarcerated country/ Shot me with your ray-gun/ and now you want to trump me/ Prison is a business, America's the company.”

Theater star Leslie Odom Jr. teamed up with singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles for an imagined reaction by then-president Barack Obama to the crisis at hand. “We can't pat him on the back and send him on through/ No man's ignorance will ever be his virtue/ Is this the best we can be?/ Seriously?”  The Hamilton star invokes the emotions of a president who warned the nation of the harm Trump could do should he be elected, asking for listeners to pay attention before the “demagogue flexing” drowns out the truth.

All of this happened prior to the day America pivoted, with the electoral college vote deeming Trump champion. In that, the sound of the revolution became reactive, and some musicians clamored to focus their emotions into creative output -- not an easy feat, if you can clearly remember the somber mood among those who were not in support of Trump on that Nov. 9 morning. Rapper Lizzo appeared on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, mashing up her feel good anthem “Good as Hell” with  James Weldon Johnson poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” in an emotional performance the comedian host introduced by saying, “You’re not allowed to run away to Canada. We have to stay here and fix our mess. So, we are going to get up, change our Pampers, brush off our shoulders, and push on through together.

A Tribe Called Quest’s triumphant return to music in 2015 was just in time to join the chorus of voices crying out against Trump’s presidential campaign. Just over a week after the race was decided in Nov. 2016, Tribe offered “We The People…,” from their new album, We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service parodying Trump’s hateful chants echoed by supporters in the hook, “All you Black folks, you must go/ All you Mexicans, you must go/ And all you poor folks, you must go/ Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways/ So all you bad folks, you must go.”

At the 2017 Grammys, Busta Rhymes joined the group onstage for a direct message to Trump, who he referred to as a toxic presence with the nickname "President Agent Orange," as he yelled "I wanna thank President Agent Orange for perpetuating all the evil that you’ve been perpetuating throughout the United States. I wanna thank President Agent Orange for your unsuccessful attempt at the Muslim ban. Now we come together," before beginning to chant "We the people." 

Post-election, pre-inauguration,The Hamilton Mixtape tapped iconic names in hip-hop and elsewhere to put a more explicit political sentiment to the subversive musical’s soundtrack. “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)” smartly calls out, “But there ain't a paper trail when you living in the shadows/ We're America's ghost writers, the credit's only borrowed.” Nas inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to put in his own take on the mixtape as well, calling out his experiences with the racially biased judicial system in “Wrote My Way Out,” and noting he holds “No political power, just lyrical power.”

In the final hours before President Obama left office, alt-rock stars Arcade Fire shared their track “I Give You Power” with sou legend Mavis Staples, emphasizing that the power can be taken away just as it is given. In a much more angsty sentiment, "freak folk" duo CocoRosie and art-pop artist Anohni welcomed Trump into the White House with “children and wives waving forks and knives/ Burning down the house,” in “Smoke ‘Em Out.”

Chicano Batman offered a more positive spin on their reaction to the political climate more than once. The day before inauguration, the group shared “Freedom Is Free,” calling out in the chorus, “You got your guns up on display/ But you can’t control how I feel no way/ ‘Cause freedom is free.” Earlier on, the band also shared a bilingual take on “This Land Is Your Land” as a call to unite listeners with a reminder of the iconic American song’s sentiment.

The reactive response continued as Trump fired off his own backwards views on Twitter, calling for this ban and that ban, revoking recent protections put in place to spite Obama while also ignoring the ills that had yet to be cured. Pop singer/songwriter Wrabel wrote “The Village,” a tribute to the trans community released in reaction to the now POTUS’s ban on trans-individuals in the military. The lyrics call more closely to everyday struggles within the trans community rather than the ban itself, as it was written months prior, exclaiming “One page of the Bible isn’t worth a life.”

Fiona Apple contributed “Tiny Hands” to the Women’s March, and while it was less deep and moving than others, definitely got the point across with the chant, “We don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near our underpants.”

Women continued to call out the POTUS, whose “locker-room banter” with Billy Bush -- where he claimed that his celebrity status allowed him to "do anything… grab [women] by the pussy" -- was a clear indicator that his impending four years and new ideas would detrimental to the wellbeing of women. Feminist pop artist Zolita hid Trump's statement in her song “Fight Like a Girl,” this past August, adding “can’t grab me by the…” after her “My body, my choice, my rights and my voice” outro.

Back in February, M.I.A.’s “P.O.W.A.” offered up what may be the most incredible one-liner of the year amidst an overall strong track, “Supa-kala fascist, racist, espi-ala-tazors.” M.I.A. is of course, no stranger to making explicit political statements, and in Sept. 2016 with “Freedun” pointed out that the issues at hand are “bigger than a politician,” that these ills of the nation are much, much deeper than an orange man taking a powerful seat.

Country-folk outfit Hurray for the Riff Raff’s March release “Pa’lante” is a triumphant call to move forward, and to be something. In the third verse, "be something" becomes an impassioned plea added to the end of descriptors of an oppressed class, “Colonized, and hypnotized, be something/ sterilized, dehumanized, be something/ Well take your pay/ And stay out of the way, be something.” The title phrase is enlisted in the outro, calling out “pa’lante” to “all who had to hide” and “all who had to survive,” ending on a hopeful note.

Some tracks were easy to point to and label “protest,” and a simple search of “Not My President” on Spotify or YouTube will prove that protest came in droves. Singer/songwriter Taina Asili’s bilingual “No Es Mi Presidente” calls on her Puerto Rican heritage and U.S. Latino experience - of course, since the track’s March release, the attitude of the POTUS towards Puerto Rico and all those associated with it have become all-the-more clear. 

Neo-soul/hip-hop duo OSHUN similarly called on their heritage for “Not My President”  in April while also pointing out that Clinton wasn’t exactly a stellar opponent to side with, stating, “Not my president and I wasn’t with her/ I’ve been with my ancestors who did it first.” Rapper CNG walks down the street with his crew flying Mexican flags in his own “Not My President,” released back in February, offering the addictive hook “From the Wild Wild West, where they screaming ‘F--- Donald Trump.’”

Pop-folk duo First Aid Kit tuned their sonic focus into the harsh reality, penning rocker “You Are The Problem Here” for International Women’s Day in March, giving blunt takes on the status of rape culture in the nation with lyrics like “When did you come to think refusal was sexy?” and “That’s not how liquor works.” The duo combated the exhausting rhetoric of men surrounding the issue, as they only begin to care because they have a daughter or wife, singing, “And we don’t need to be diminished/ To sisters or daughters or mothers/ I am a human being, that is how you relate to me.”

Plenty of other artists continued with the explicit statements, especially within the hip-hop community. Joey Bada$$’s April full length release ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ has hot takes on every track. The album opens with “GOOD MORNING AMERIKKKA,” asking listeners “Now, what’s freedom to you?” before dropping lines like “Oppress my oppressor, suppress the opponent/ Channel my ancestor, he wouldn’t condone it.” The rapper points out his use of three K’s in naming the nation in “Land of the Free,” and in his first verse apologizes, “Sorry America, but I will not be your soldier/ Obama just wasn't enough, I just need some more closure/ And Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over.”

Rapper/singer Logic tapped Chuck D, No I.D., Big Lenbo, and Black Thought for his track “America,” from May's Billboard 200 albums chart-topping Everyday. In the first verse, Logic follows up Trump’s MAGA slogan with “Make it hate again/ Make it white/ Make everybody fight/ F--- that.” Chuck D comes in strong on the third verse, “Young blood, it takes another look and feel/ Slap that fear monger at that wheel/ Olive branches/ Alternative facts meant to lie and steal.”

“When the king is a garbage person,” hip-hop artist Open Mike Eagle explains, “I might wanna lay down and die,” in his Sept. 2017 track “Happy Wasteland Day.” He asks for “one day without violence,” or “one day without fear,” a question the nation continues to ask daily as the president keeps his trigger finger active on Twitter, egging on threats from other nasty world leaders. 

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Of course, the list could go on and on with the addition of more loosely related sentiments, responses to particular struggles of various populaces like in dark pop band Muna’s Dec. release “I Know A Place,” which invokes inspiration from the ballroom culture of LGBTQ community. The band tied it more closely with the president’s shortcomings on LGBTQ issues when they inserted lyric, “He’s not my leader, even if he’s my president,” while performing on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Punk band Priests angrily called out the false veil of participation that seems to be drawn by the use of the electoral college in the U.S. days before the election, singing in “Pink White House” of the country they’ve come to understand as, “A puppet show in which you're made to feel like you participate/ Sign a letter, throw your shoe, vote for numbers 1 or 2.”

So many more songs were also released not via any traditional marketing channel, but for charity, or even for free through sites like Bandcamp. Quasi put out Battle Hymns as a protest album benefiting Planned Parenthood, The ACLU, and 350.org, which featured incredible songs from Carrie Brownstein of Sleater Kinney via MEDS, called “No More Fizz,” and Mac McCaughan’s (Superchunk) “Happy New Year (Prince Can’t Die Again)” amongst others.

And of course, there was the 30 Days, 30 Songs playlist of anti-Trump anthems that came prior to the election in order to advocate against voting for him, featuring artists like Franz Ferdinand and Death Cab for Cutie -- which later turned to 1000 Days, 1000 Songs, following the news of the election, in order to "combat apathy, entertain the citizenry, and provide a soundtrack to resistance, over the next four years."

As listeners dive deeper past the shallow list of songs played on the radio, it’s not long before they are able to stumble upon a direct response to the past 365 days. The sound of protest may no longer parallel folksy tunes of decades past, but louder and more unavoidable than ever. 

Billboard Year in Music 2017