10 Great Protest Songs
Since the election of Trump, there has been an increase in political posts on Twitter. The tweets inspired me to create a post on protest songs. Many songs came to mind. Here are ten in no particular order. I realize that there are songs by Public Enemy, Midnight Oil, the Clash, Creedence Clear Water Revival, Neil Young, John Lennon, Buffalo Springfield, Tracy Chapman and others that I could include. Protests songs may eventually be a multi-post theme; here are the first. Let me know what you think. If you have other songs, please share.
Killing in the Name
Rage Against the Machine is known for their politically charged music. Released in 1992, “Killing in the Name” is arguably their signature song. Written as a response to the acquittal of Los Angeles policeman for the beating an unarmed Rodney King, soon followed by rioting in Los Angeles. The lyrics deal with police brutality and institutional racism. The theme is still relevant today. Numerous questionable killings such as Amadou Diallo. Ronald Madison. Kendra James. Sean Bell. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. and Alton Sterling continues. The passionate, powerful voice of Zach de la Rosa shows his frustration, revealed in such lyrics as “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses” and “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”
“Strange Fruit”, made famous by Billie Holiday, was originally a poem penned by Abel Meeropol. Meeropol used the pseudonym Lewis Allen. The poem is a protest of racism in America. The poem/song creates a vivid dark image of the strange fruit hanging from southern trees. The fruit is a metaphor for the lynching of black men, their bodies left to hang from a tree like rotting fruit. If anything, the song is haunting and hard to forget.
God Save the Queen
The Sex Pistols recorded “God Save the Queen” in 1977. It was the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee. The controversial song became banned from airplay on many television and radio stations. The song protests the mistreatment of the middle-class by the British government. The Sex Pistols did not see it as anti-country. However, the lyrics call the government a fascist regime and state there is no future in England. The song became interpreted as an attack upon the Queen and country. Lead singer Johnny Rotten explains: “You don’t write ‘God Save The Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up with them being mistreated. ” No matter how you see the song, it is one of the greatest Punk Rock songs of all time.
Fuck the Police
“Fuck 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 the retaliation toward the police. This issue led to the FBI contacting the small record company. They expressed their belief that the song incorrectly showed 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
Holiday in Cambodia
The Dead Kennedy’s are an American Punk band known for their political views. Lead singer Jello Biafra is the primary writer of their songs. “Holiday in Cambodia” is the exception. The entire band contributed as writers. The song begins by making fun of arrogant, self-righteous, American college students who think they know all about the world. They are blind to the atrocities occurring outside of America. It points out that students believe they understand the real plight of blacks in the projects from appreciating the soul in their music and art.
The mentions Pol Pot responsible for the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge. Up to three million people were killed  to create an Agrarian Socialist government. The song points out that America fought a secret war in Cambodia in which the naive died to make their bosses rich.
A side note, there is a reference to Dr. Seuss’s “The Sneeches.” A protest song that references Seuss can’t be bad.
Born in the USA
“Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen is often interpreted as a patriotic song. It used as a campaign song by former President Ronald Reagan. The song speaks of the struggles of vets 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. He loses his brother in the war, then returns to the US. There are no job options. Ten years later he still has nowhere to go.
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. They have lost their loved ones to the government of Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet’s regime is responsible for thousands of deaths. In protest, the women join in the national dance of Chile, the Cueca. They dance alone holding photographs of their missing loved ones in their hands. They refuse to forget those killed by a cruel and unjust government.
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 release 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.
Big Yellow Taxi
The Counting Crows “Big Yellow Taxi” reintroduced the recent cover to a younger generation. Joni Mitchell recorded the original. The song has a theme of environmental awareness. She expresses how we destroy our environment by industrialization and how chemicals used by farmers are killing nature around it. It is a warning that we don’t know what we have until it goes. That advice is simple enough to understand.
Blowin’ in the Wind
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is Bob Dylan’s most famous protest songs. His numerous songs could easily fill this list by themselves. The song became an anthem for the civil rights era. The song contains many open-ended questions. He asks “how many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?” and “how many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?”. Naturally, we know the answer is out there, somewhere blowin’ in the wind.
d-_-b “talkin’ bout a revolution” – Tracy Chapman
 John Lydon (2007t). “Sex Pistols Vinyl Reissues 2007: God Save The Queen”. John Lydon.com. Retrieved 29 January 2008.
 Frey 2009, p. 83.