Protest Songs I

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Born in the USA

Born in the USA

Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen is often interpreted as a patriotic song. It was even used as a campaign song by former President Ronald Reagan. However, the song speaks of the struggles of veterans returning from the Vietnam war. The lyrics concern a struggling small-town kid who gets in a “little trouble.” He is shipped off to fight in Vietnam. While fighting he loses his brother in the war. When he returns to the home he finds that there are no job options and little respect. Ten years later he still has nowhere to go.

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “son, don’t you understand”

Lyric sample from Born in the USA written by Bruce Springsteen

F**k the Police

Fuck the Police

F**k the Police” is a 1988 release by the rap group N.W.A. The explicit lyrics reveal the injustice of police brutality and racial profiling.  The words “Searching my car, looking for the product. Thinking every nigga is selling narcotics” point out the issue of stereotyping of black males. The song also expresses retaliation toward the police. This issue led to the FBI contacting the record company. The FBI believed the song incorrectly shows police in a “bad light”. The lyrics led to the police refusing to work NWA shows.

A young nigga on the warpath
And when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath
Of cops, dying in L.A

Lyric Sample from Fuck the Police written by Ice Cube and MC Wren

They Dance Alone

They Dance Alone

They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo)” is a slow song with a jazzy feel. It does not sound like a political or protest song, however, it is very much that. The song, written and performed by Sting brings awareness to the Arpilleristas. The Arpilleristas are mourning Chilean women who have lost their loved ones to the government of Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet’s evil regime is responsible for thousands of deaths and disappearances. In protest, the women join in the national dance of Chile, the Cueca. They dance alone holding photographs of their missing loved ones. They refuse to let the world forget those killed by a cruel and unjust government.

Why are these women here dancing on their own?
Why is there this sadness in their eyes?
Why are the soldiers here
Their faces fixed like stone?
I can’t see what it is they despise
They’re dancing with the missing
They’re dancing with the dead
They dance with the invisible ones
Their anguish is unsaid
They’re dancing with their fathers
They’re dancing with their sons
They’re dancing with their husbands
They dance alone 

Lyric Sample from the Dance Alone written by Sting

What’s Going On

What's Going On

What’s going on” written by Marvin Gaye and inspired by Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops. Renaldo witnesses the violence of police brutality during a peaceful anti-war demonstration in Berkley’s People Park. Shocked, he started asking himself “What’s going on?”. This question led to him asking more and more questions about the state of the world. Benson wrote a version of the song and offered it to his band, but they declined. He then offered it to Marvin. Marvin began to change and perfect the song.

During this period, Marvin is suffering from depression, in addition, he is affected by letters he exchanges with his brother who recently returned from the war. Marvin, frustrated with Motown’s control of him, sought to find his voice. Marvin began to alter the song to show his disgust with the world around him. Benson has stated that Marvin’s changes transformed it from a story to a song.

“What’s going on?” became a battle for Marvin to get it released under the control of Berry Gordy’s Motown. The song is a departure from their typical sound. The political nature made Berry unwilling to release it. Fortunately, for Gordy and Gaye a VP of Sales back ended the distribution which quickly led to two million records sold.

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, eheh
Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh

Lyric Sample from What’s Going On written by Alfred W Cleveland / Marvin P Gaye / Renaldo Benson

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