The 20 Best Protest Songs of 2017: Critics' Picks

From left: Lin-Manuel Miranda, MILCK & Joey Bada$$
Getty Images; Design by Jessica Xie

From left: Lin-Manuel Miranda, MILCK & Joey Bada$$

Music and politics have never been mutually exclusive. In 2017, however, a shift occurred where suddenly the two were more intrinsically linked than they've been in decades, and protest was at the forefront of conversation.  

Donald Trump officially took over the White House in January, and his less-than-humane tactics have incited a wave of backlash known informally as the #Resistance. And musicians have played a key role in the movement: From the Women's March on Washington to fighting against the various attempts at an immigration ban to outspokenness against police brutality aimed at marginalized people, artists have used their platform to speak out on what matters to them.

In honor of a year filled with the sound of protest, Billboard has ranked 2017's top protest songs.

20. Eminem, “The Storm”

Eminem made headlines for lashing out against Donald Trump in a venomous freestyle that played at the BET Hip Hop Awards. The rapper unloads on everything from the tweet-happy president’s disrespect of the military to his ineffectiveness in Puerto Rico to his attacks on Colin Kaepernick. Eminem then draws a line in the sand against his fans who are Trump supporters and ends the verse with a call to action: “The rest of America stand up/ We love our military, and we love our country/ But we fucking hate Trump.”

19. Mac McCaughan, “Happy New Year (Prince Can’t Die Again)”

It’s all in the name, isn’t it? This tongue-in-cheek indie rock track points out the worst has already happened back in '16 (Prince passed away), but does get a bit more real in the verse when Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan points out, “Okay, but this could be a great year if you're rich/ Or if you're a racist craving an authoritarian hand/ And the sun will shine on you if you hate women/ And then the sun itself will turn us all to sand.” The track was recorded for the Battle Hymns compilation CD, which benefitted Planned Parenthood, The ACLU, and

18. Mona Haydar, “Hijabi”

Much of the lyrics to the first verse are made of micro-aggressions, constant loaded questions asked of Syrian-American Mona Haydar in real life: “What that hair look like/ Bet that hair look nice/ Don’t that make you sweat/ Don’t that feel too tight?” Haydar claps back quick, singing, “Not your exotic vacation/ I’m bored with your fascination/ I need that PayPal, PayPal, Paypal/ If you want education,” noting that she isn’t responsible to teach you about her culture.

17. Chicano Batman, “Freedom is Free” 

The idea that freedom isn’t free has been the ideological fuel behind America’s hyper-militarization for a long time. But the Latino outfit Chicano Batman challenges that notion on this funk-soul jam by singing, “You got your guns up on display/ But you can't control how I feel no way/ ‘Cause freedom is free.” The music video adds a brutally visceral twist to the message, as each member is tortured by waterboarding as they sing underwater.

16. M.I.A., “P.O.W.A.”

M.I.A. is no stranger to political messages, and the riotous “P.O.W.A.” is a middle finger to the Trump Tower. While most headlines focused on M.I.A. declaring, “I’m not Rihanna, I’m not Madonna,” the hypnotic sample of The Marcels’ “Blue Moon” swirls around playfully political lyricism: “Supa-kala fascist, racist, espi-ala-tazors.”

15.  Open Mike Eagle, “Happy Wasteland Day”

A dirge about a “garbage king” who presides over a violent wasteland. The lyrics allude to police brutality (“Zombie sheriffs is tryna to lynch us") while the Mad Max-meets-Black Mirror-inspired music video envisions a world where the king shoots junkyard civilians if they don’t sufficiently entertain him. Any subtlety over the identity of the real-life “garbage king” was dispelled in the video’s description: "We're releasing this video a year to the day of the election of the garbage king. May our national nightmare end sometime soon."

14. Downtown Boys, “A Wall”

Accented by the aggression in lead singer Victoria Ruiz’s voice, the lyrics to this punk anthem break down the power of the wall that Trump campaigned on building on the U.S.-Mexico border. By singing “a wall is just a wall and nothing more,” the band undoes the idea of the wall as a solution to deeper prejudices. 

13. Priests, “Pink White House”

Among the more symbolic lyrics of "Pink White House," incendiary rock outfit Priests take aim at the arbitrary nature of the electoral college and democracy in the U.S. Referring back to the Bush "shoeing" incident in 2008, they sing, “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/ consider the options of a binary.”

12. P!nk, "What About Us"

The lead single from P!nk’s seventh album, Beautiful Trauma, paints a grim picture of a broken America. The lyrics are just vague enough to be a pop anthem that can apply to any sort of injustice. But then New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s keynote speech at the Republican National Convention plays at the beginning of the music video, and the song's rallying cry against “broken promises” seems to zero in on the current administration.

11. CNG, “Not My President"

In a visual that eventually went viral, rapper CNG flies the Mexican flag proudly while walking down the street with his crew, chanting the jam's addictive hook, “From the Wild Wild West/ Where they screaming ‘F--- Donald Trump.’”

10. Miguel, "NOW"

Miguel sheds light on immigration detention centers on the closing track of his album, War & Leisure. In the music video, he’s performing at a #SchoolsNotPrisons rally near the Adelanto High Desert Detention Center, which houses about 2,000 detainees from Latin America. Protesters are shown holding up signs that etch out the words “detention center,” replaced with the word “prisons” in red ink. He calls out Trump’s xenophobic policies toward undocumented immigrants with lines like, “CEO of the free world now / Should we teach our children hatred?”

9. Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Pa’lante”

Roughly translating to “move forward,” “Pa’lante” is a call to action for the oppressed. Aside from the sobering sample of Pedro Pietri’s poem, “Puerto Rican Obituary,” singer-songwriter Hurray for the Riff Raff calls out issues while offering permission to simply do your best in the face of it all, “Colonized, and hypnotized, be something/ Sterilized, dehumanized, be something/ Well take your pay/ And stay out the way, be something/ Ah do your best/ But fuck the rest, be something.”

8. Lin-Manuel Miranda feat. Artists for Puerto Rico, “Almost Like Praying”

Pulitzer-winning Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda assembled A-list wattage from the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Camila Cabello and Luis Fonsi to raise funds for Puerto Rico with this bilingual track. While there is no overt reference to the Trump administration, the “love letter to Puerto Rico” is pointed in the context of the widespread criticism of the president’s inaction in delivering aid to Puerto Rico. The title is also a pointed dig at the ineffectiveness of politicians who profess to be “praying” for victims in the face of a humanitarian crisis they could directly impact with legislation. But in a less-than-veiled political message, Miranda tweeted that Trump was “going straight to hell.”

7. Zolita, “Fight Like A Girl”

A “revolution’s waking up” in Zolita’s head, and it shows. Among the many feminist one-liners in this track, Zolita chooses to directly reference a now infamous line, singing “My body my choice, my rights and my voice,” but adding “Can’t grab me by the…” in the backing vocals. The singer attempts to dismantle the patriarchy in a self-directed with her girl-cult donning red lingerie, looking ready to summon fierce feminist spirits to join the fight.

6. Logic feat. Black Thought, Chuck D, Big Lenbo, No I.D, "America" 

Logic stated in his Genius annotations for this Everyday highlight that he knew what he was getting into when he made his direct political remarks. In the first verse, he calls on the loaded catchphrase of the 2016 election, “Make America great again/ Make it hate again/ Make it white/ Make everybody fight/ f--- that.” Black Thought is the first to name drop the President in the second verse, noting, “It is not love, up at TrumpThugs, dot gov,” and Chuck D calls upon another Trump-era catchphrase, “Alternative facts mean to lie and steal.” And that’s only the beginning: The entire track is a call to action against a very specific foe, but responsibly rebelling against a violent narrative some have tried to sell in the past.

5. First Aid Kit, “You Are the Problem Here”

The Swedish duo abandoned their classic folk harmonizing for a harsher tone on this track, easily justified by the subject matter they decided to take on. In celebration of International Women’s Day, First Aid Kit served a direct hit at the many perpetrators of sexual assault, right off the bat singing, “I am so sick and tired of this world/ All these women with their dreams shattered/ From some man's sweaty, desperate touch/ God damn it, I've had enough.” The pair swiftly point out alcohol is not to blame for these decisions, nor is there a need to only care about women because of their relations as “sisters or daughters or mothers.” The final cut is the deepest, as one voice sings “And I hope you f---ing suffer,” over the final ringing guitar note.

4. JAY-Z, "The Story of O.J."

O.J. Simpson’s 1995 acquittal in the murder of ex-wife Nicole Simpson marked a seemingly unprecedented case where a black man was apparently granted the assumed innocence typically reserved for white folks in a society overrun by racist police brutality. But a decade later, the former NFL star was sentenced to 33 years in prison for armed robbery and kidnapping.

JAY-Z’s incisive song gets at what it means to be black in America and unpacks the idea that success can separate one from their race. The rapper spits, “I’m not black, I’m O.J … OK,” inflecting that last word with the vocal equivalent of an eye-roll. The lyrics mirror the sample song, Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” that recounts the struggles of four black women of different skin tones. Jay-Z reclaims the minstrel cartoon style of the ‘30s and ‘40s in his controversial music video, reframing racist caricatures in the context of his ruminations on race. But taken as a whole, Hov is speaking hard truths as the president shouts "fake news!"

3. Kendrick Lamar, "The Heart Part 4"

In a world gone mad, Kendrick Lamar takes it upon himself to spit the truth. Released in anticipation of his critically acclaimed third album, DAMN., “The Heart Part 4” functions as a multipurpose dis track, aimed at an unknown rapper, Donald Trump and society at large.

Set against a swirling vocal loop from an uncredited Khalid, Lamar’s flow is constantly shape-shifting. He opens the first verse with rapid fire rhyming, eventually pausing for emphasis on the line, “I am the greatest rapper alive!” as if there’s an imaginary clapping hands emoji between each word. The rapper shifts his focus to the current administration’s Russia problem, calling the president a “chump.” “Electorial votes look like memorial votes/ But America's truth ain't ignorin' the votes.”

2. Joey Bada$$, "LAND OF THE FREE"

This Brooklyn-bred rapper didn’t tread lightly on his breakout album, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$. “Three K's, two A's in AmeriKKKa,” Bada$$ boldly declared within the first bridge of advance single "LAND OF THE FREE." The rapper navigates finding his fateful path (“I feel my ancestors unrested inside of me/ It's like they want me to shoot my chance in changing society/ But how do I go about it? Tell me where I start?/ My destiny rerouted when I chose to follow heart") while eloquently tackling racial tensions and the changing presidency: “Obama just wasn't enough, I just need some more closure/ And Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over.” Thanks to an album full of charged-up tracks like "Free," Bada$$ emerged this year as a musical-political force to be reckoned with.

1. MILCK, “Quiet”

MILCK eloquently summarized the subtext of a movement later highlighted by #MeToo in very few words: “I won’t keep quiet.” The impact came unexpectedly, as the artist shared sheet music with her fans and invited them to join her in singing it a Capella at the Women’s March on Washington. All rehearsals for the flash mobs were done online, only meeting in person two days prior to the performances, which would be recorded and eventually reach viral fame.

The “one-woman riot” MILCK sings of was anything but, as hundreds of thousands, even millions, have heard her emotional plea. While the singer had initially released a music video on Jan. 16, she offered new visuals just before the one-year anniversary of the election that properly fit the anger and poetics of the track. “Quiet” easily sums up the sentiment of so many political movements in 2017 -- the time to speak out, to take action, is now.

Billboard Year in Music 2017


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