At a time when righteous anger has much of the nation protesting, whether through social media posts or in the streets, many are turning to protest songs as a much-needed outlet.
Music doesn’t exist without emotion. And rhythm and lyrics have always come together to express the purest state of the songwriters’ emotions, whether it’s love, joy, fear, or downright disgust.
Each generation has had songs that have put words to those emotions. And, as Wesley Snipes character tells Woody Harrelson’s in White Men Can’t Jump, some listen to the songs. And others — those who have first-hand experience with injustice — hear the songs.
“Why you playing Jimi?” Snipes asks.
“Well, I like to listen to it,” Harrelson responds.
“That’s what the f***king problem is. Y’all listen.”
“What am I supposed to do, eat it?”
“No, no,” Snipes says. “You’re supposed to hear it. There’s a difference between hearing and listening.”
Whether you can hear or just listen to these protest songs, here’s our pick of some of the best from the past 60 years.
1960s – “Fortunate Son” and “Respect”
The 1960s produced so many powerful protest songs, so it’s really not fair to single out one. We’ll try to settle on two.
Creedence Clearwater Revival released “Fortunate Son” in 1969, when the Vietnam War had been raging for 14 years and had another six years to go. The song, written by John Fogerty, speaks about the relentlessness of the war.
“Some folks inherit star spangled eyes. They send you down to war, Lord. And when you ask them, ‘How much should we give?’ They only answer ‘More! More! More!’”
Our second favorite from the 1960s isn’t in response to war but to sexism. The song “Respect” was written and originally released by American recording artist Otis Redding in 1965. But it became a hit — and a mantra for women everywhere — when it became a signature song for Aretha Franklin. The song is about a young, confident, independent woman telling her man that she does everything he wants from her and doesn’t see any why he disrespects her. According to her, all she demands from him is nothing short of “respect.”
Aretha’s version went on to be one of the most famous women empowerment songs of all time.
1970s – “Get Up Stand Up”
The song was written by Jamaican reggae musicians Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. According to Marley’s then-girlfriend, Marley wrote the song while touring Haiti. He was moved by the country’s poverty and the hopelessness of Hattian’s lives.
“Get Up, Stand Up” was also the last song Marley ever performed on stage. He sang it, for the last time, in September 1980 at Stanley Theater, now the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
1980s – “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “F*** tha Police”
It’s hard to choose between these two timeless protest songs, so we’re including both.
First, U2’s ““Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” Bloody Sunday refers to a mass shooting in 1972 in Northern Ireland. British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a protest march. They were protesting the internment of 342 people believed to be involved in the Irish Republican Army. Irish rock band U2 commemorated the tragedy in a 1983 protest song. “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is the opening track of the band’s album “War.”
California hip-hop group N.W.A. spoke up about racial profiling and police brutality in their 1988 song, “F*** tha Police.” The song parodies court proceedings inverting them by presenting rapper Dr. Dre as a judge hearing a prosecution of the police department.
Three members of the group, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E, take the stand to testify as prosecutors. Through the lyrics, the rappers criticize the local police force of singling out and killing black residents. The song ends with the jury finding the police department guilty of being a “redneck, white-bread, chickenshit…” You know the rest.
1990s – “Killing in the Name”
The band’s name alone says they’re willing to speak their mind. Inspired by the LA Riots, Rage Against the Machine released “Killing in the Name” in 1992. The lyrics allude to the history of the U.S. police force as being led by white supremacists, whose symbol is the burning cross.
The song was adopted by a Facebook campaign in 2009, 17 years after its release. It quickly climbed to the top of the charts and became the fastest-selling digital single to date, according to loudresound.com.
2000s – American Blood
Austin-based country band Reckless Kelly caught attention in 2008 when their “Bulletproof” album got political. Their song “American Blood” is an anti-war song about an 18-year-old solider going off to war.
The lyrics decry the fact that the boy is too young to drink. “But he’s eighteen and pretty handy with a gun. They shipped him off to a foreign land.”
When the song was released, Reckless Kelly used the platform to speak about their appreciation and support of American military men and women.
2010s – “This is America”
Actor, comedian and rapper Donald Glover (alias Childish Gambino) released this attention-getting song in 2018.
The lyrics lament America’s societal ills, especially as related to gun violence and the disenfranchisement of the black Americans.
“This is America” won in all four of its nominated categories at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Performance and Best Music Video.
2020 – “FTP”
The continued killings of black citizens at the hand of police officers has prompted a new wave of protest songs.
YG, a rapper from Compton, California, released his new song “FTP (F*** the Police) on Tuesday. The song dropped on Blackout Tuesday, a day in which the music industry opted to stay quiet to draw attention to the death of George Floyd and other black Americans as a result of police brutality.
Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.