The act of protesting is one of the most precious liberties Americans have. But protesting doesn’t just happen in the streets. Throughout the years, voices of dissent have penetrated American culture via rock, hip-hop and folk music. By putting a message to music, one voice can resonate for millions.
From Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan, 20th century protest music started out in the folk realm. On college campuses across America, the music of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and many more fueled the resistance to the war in Vietnam. We also saw many artists come out in support of civil rights. Nina Simone, James Brown and Marvin Gaye all gave voice to black pride and concerns in their music.
Now, with many calling out president-elect Trump’s popularity among white supremacists and his racist campaign rhetoric in general, the United States might be seeing an uptick in protest music over the next four years. The topics of militarized police, the systematic treatment of minorities within the United States, and unequal distribution of wealth are already being showcased in songs. We’ve seen some performances that have left us in awe, and as America moves forward, artists like Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and Common are giving voice to the disenfranchised.
Even if people don’t always like what they see or hear, the power of song to bring about change and healing remains strong to this day.
Let’s run down some key protest songs throughout the decades. While not all of the artists below are American, they still hold messages that are applicable to our culture. And it’s shocking how many of these songs are still relevant.
From the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War to the assassination of JFK, the 1960s were a very vocal time for American artists. College campuses and streets were places to hear these songs, but plenty of them were radio hits, too.
Barry McGuire – “Eve of Destruction”
Sam Cooke – “A Change Is Gonna Come”
Buffalo Springfield – “For What It’s Worth”
James Brown – “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”
Joan Baez – “We Shall Overcome”
The ’70s had their fair share of problems as well. The end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, environmental concerns, and the Kent State shootings informed the nation’s unrest. These songs were part of the culture that went against the status quo.
Gil Scott-Heron – “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – “Ohio”
Joni Mitchell – “Big Yellow Taxi”
Helen Reddy – “I Am Woman”
The Wailers – “Get Up, Stand Up”
The ’80s painted many horrors in neon colors. The Reagan administration brought on the war on drugs, causing many poverty-ridden places to suffer further. This caused massive cries from the punk and rap community. As MTV started to gain steam, some of these songs were brought into American households otherwise removed from the ill effects of certain policies.
N.W.A – “Fuck Tha Police”
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five – “The Message”
Bruce Springsteen – “Born in the U.S.A.”
The Clash – “Know Your Rights”
Dead Kennedys – “Holiday In Cambodia”
The Replacements – “Bastards of Young”
While nostalgia for the ’90s is at an all time high, there were plenty of things in that decade that can’t be viewed through a rose-tinted lens. The L.A. riots over police officers being acquitted in the beating of Rodney King and the Waco Standoff showed a darker side of America. These songs speak to American upheaval during that time.
Rage Against the Machine – “Killing in the Name Of”
Le Tigre – “Hot Topic”
Main Source – “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball”
KRS-One – “Sound of da Police”
Mos Def – “Mathematics”
The 2000s brought international wars and terrorism to the forefront of the American consciousness. The War in Iraq, the Bush Administration’s misinformation about WMDs, and economic unease inspired some artists to rally against the powers that be.
Eminem – “Mosh”
Lupe Fiasco – “American Terrorist”
Green Day – “American Idiot”
The Flaming Lips – “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song (With All Your Power)”
Bright Eyes – “Road to Joy”
After a few quiet years, protest music is returning to prominence as police killings of unarmed black people and Trump’s election light new fires of discontent. Here are a few protest anthems that come from our current times.
Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”
M.I.A. – “Born Free”
D’Angelo and The Vanguard – “The Charade”
Beyoncé ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Freedom”
Prince ft. Eryn Allen Kane – “Baltimore”
YG & Nipsey Hussle – “FDT”