The Fourth of July isn't just about fireworks and lukewarm hot dogs, it's about revolution. Two hundred thirty-five years ago, our Founding Fathers declared independence from tyrannical British control. In honor of that act of rebellion, we've decided to take a look of some of the most potent and important protest songs ever recorded by (mostly) American artists—because what's more patriotic on the Fourth than self-expression in the face of oppression?
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25. "Georgia Bush" by Lil Wayne
Lil Wayne's music is usually consumed by scatological metaphors, codeine references and lewd descriptions of sex acts. Needless to say, he's not generally the go-to guy for politics. But when New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the N.O. native broadened his lyrical scope to address the dire conditions of his home and blast President Bush for FEMA's lackluster response to the disaster. This standout song from 2006's classic DJ Drama—hosted Dedication 2 mixtape is a passionate representation of the feelings of abandonment felt by many of Katrina's victims.
24. "Dry Drunk Emperor" by TV on the Radio
Few bands encapsulated the malaise of post-9/11 New York better than Brooklyn indie heroes TVOTR, whose tunes blend romance and optimism with the desperate, disconcerting nature of our times. "Dry Drunk Emperor" is not about love in times of war—it's about action. In the song, frontman Tunde Adebimpe calls for all the bleeding hearts and the families of soldiers to get guns and march on Washington to put an end to the then-escalating war in Iraq. The band was so passionate about this song's message, they released it as a free download in 2005 almost immediately after it was recorded.
23. "When the President Talks to God" by Bright Eyes
Bright Eyes boldly played this wordy rebuke of President George W. Bush on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2005. Connor Oberst probably should have spent more time plugging the album I'm Wide Awake It's Morning that night, but like TV on the Radio, the war prompted a vitriolic response in him that superseded business as usual. The song, which satirically explores the uneasy relationship between war and the tenants of most religions, was released for free on iTunes.
22. "Hunger Strike" by Temple of the Dog
Temple of the Dog was a preemie supergroup. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden collaborated on this song and the short-lived group's 1991 self titled album before their respective bands blew up with albums Ten and Badmotorfinger. Cornell penned the steal-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor song lyrics, but its Vedder's Robert Plant--style yelp that puts this song over the top. When the voices of these two grunge gods collide, it makes anyone feel like it's a good idea to skip Chipotle for the cause.
21. "Lost Woman Song" by Ani DiFranco
There are a surprising number of songs written by men about abortion. Every guy from Neil Young to Kid Rock has given their two cents. But those songs often don't work because they're strictly ideological. DiFranco succeeds in navigating the minefield of this controversial topic by approaching it from her own personal experiences. "Lost Woman Song" was released on her self-titled 1990 debut album.
20. "Holiday in Cambodia" by the Dead Kennedys
Frontman Jello Biafra has always had problem with smug bourgeois suburbanites. He blasted them with songs like "Terminal Preppie" and "Winnebago Warrior," but "Holiday in Cambodia" was the first, best and funniest, because it sends the stereotypical yuppie to the Indochina Peninsula to see if he can cut it under torture and the tight work regimen doled of despot Pol Pot. The absurd predicament framed in this song, which comes from the band's 1980 debut, puts into perspective the rampant hypocrisy, latent racism and entitlement that Biafra felt had become second nature in America.
19. "99 Problems" by Jay-Z
Most protest songs are written from a worldly perspective, but Jay-Z is kind of self-absorbed—so "99 Problems" showcases Hova's personal struggle against the powers that be. In the song Jigga navigates a treacherous environment filled with crooked cops, greedy media bent on exploiting his image, the dysfunctional penal system and, of course, haters. The bombastic song was produced in 2004 by bearded hero Rick Rubin for The Black Album, which has become notorious for not being the swan dive it was promoted as. And that's a good thing. If a guy can build a political song around the the word "bitch" by creating multiple double entendres eight years into his storied career, we need him to keep putting words together.
18. "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
In the Vietnam War era, this song struck a chord with all those who felt that the rich and powerful initiated the war but the sons of the poor were forced to fight it. John Fogerty was said to have written it in 1968 after hearing of the elaborate wedding plans for President Eisenhower's grandson and President Nixon's daughter. Imagine Tricky Dick's face if they had played this rocker when Julie Nixon strutted down the aisle.
17. "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud" by James Brown
Blacks weren't allowed to flex their egos in this country for hundreds of years. But in the late '60s a new crop of rambunctious figures like Huey P. Newton and Muhammad Ali emerged, expressing great reverence for their own culture in the face of oppression. In 1968, James Brown epitomized that self-esteem shift with this anthem that burst with cultural pride and a sharp proto-rap cadence.
16. "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
The National Guard gunned down four Kent State University students on May 4, 1970, during a volatile Vietnam War protest. Nearly ten days later, Neil Young led CSNY into the studio to cut this scalding rocker lamenting the death of not only those young people, but also of the 1960s optimism that the counterculture could change the world.
15. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" by Gil-Scott Heron
In May, we lost one of our greatest modern poets and performers. Heron's catalog is peppered with personal and political lyrics that chronicle the absurdity and darkness that is an integral part of the American experience. But this song is where his ascension to poet laureate of the oppressed began. Featured on his 1970 debut, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, this poem spoken over music started its own revolution by not only setting the stage for hip-hop but also giving it social consciousness.
14. "Changes" by 2Pac
At the time of 2Pac's death he had moved away from the social consciousness of his early records for more gangster and party-based music. "Changes," which was released posthumously in 1998, sounds like vintage political 'Pac because it was actually recorded in 1992—well before his tenure at Death Row Records and his bid in prison. Strangely, when the record was dropped—six years after it was recorded and two years after his death—the lyrics seemed as if they were ripped straight from the headlines, helping fuel the idea that Shakur was still alive. Even today, couplets like "We got war in the streets and war in the Middle East" still maintain their relevance. Some things never change.
13. "Bulls on Parade" by Rage Against the Machine
This relentlessly pummeling track sounds like the Dresden bombing, the Hiroshima nuclear attack, and the Iraq War's shock and awe campaign all rolled into one—rightfully so, since it's lyrics are directed at the military industrial complex. Nearly all of Rage's songs are political anthems, but this cut from their landmark 1996 Evil Empire LP is a manifesto lyrically and musically. Here, not only does singer Zack de la Rocha explore themes of greed and war, but guitarist Tom Morello introduces his scratch technique, fusing the discord of punk with the scattered rhythms of rap.
12. "One" by Metallica
The travesties of war are not a new theme for metalheads, who've been slipping politics in with their guitar licks since Sabbath dropped "Iron Man" in 1970. However, "One" manages to be revelatory through its imagery inspired by Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun, about a soldier trapped in his mind after suffering injuries that leave him unable to communicate or move. The horrific circumstances detailed by frontman James Hetfield reveal that we can never really escape the war because it is always in our minds. As a fan favorite from from Metallica's commercial breakthrough, ...And Justice for All, "One" epitomizes the band's ability to crank out dexterous guitar riffs and give headbangers something to think about.
11. "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
This gritty cut from the formative rap group's 1982 debut is often pointed to as the beginning of social consciousness in hip-hop. Like Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," it paints a bleak picture of urban American life. Unfortunately, unlike Guthrie, the Furious Five offers no way out.
10. "Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen
This song is at once an exuberant expression of American optimism and a thunderous reproach of war. Underneath the grit and angst in Springsteen's howl lies a triumphant sentiment that the character of this song, who was born in a "dead man's town" and fought the Viet Cong, is still standing to tell the tale. "Born in the U.S.A." is one of the greatest album openers of all time, leading off the Boss's 1984 record that bears this song's name.
9. "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)" by Pete Seeger, performed by the Byrds
So Pete Seeger didn't actually write the lyrics of this song. He cribbed them from a poem in the Book of Ecclesiastes and added his own melody to it in 1959. The Byrds recorded their definitive version in 1965. Seeger and the Byrds each reintroduced this classic poem at times when America was positioned for great societal change. It is still turning today.
8. "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday
It's hard to imagine Americans picnicking around the lynched corpses of innocent people. But when Abel Meeropol wrote the source poem of this song for a Marxist publication in the '30s, the lynching of blacks was an all-too-familiar sight. Billie Holiday recorded the most haunting and widely known version of this song in 1939.
7. "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy
This rebel anthem sounds more like the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" than the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." It was famously featured in the opening and climax of Spike Lee's controversial movie masterpiece Do the Right Thing in 1989. "Fight the Power" still manages to sound urgent, as outspoken MC Chuck D attacks the powers that be over the Bomb Squad production team's greatest and most ear-busting beat.
6. "People Get Ready" by the Impressions
Inspired by an upcoming Martin Luther King--led march in his hometown of Chicago, songwriter Curtis Mayfield utilized his religious inclinations to give this song a spiritual gravitas that transcends the Civil Rights movement and speaks to universal will to triumph over oppression. "People Get Ready" was released as a single by the Impressions, from the album bearing the same name in 1965.
5. "Respect" by Aretha Franklin
Otis Redding actually wrote and recorded this song before Franklin's definitive version was released in 1967. The fact that she could commandeer a song from one of the most boisterous male voices in soul music and reclaim it for women is a testament to how powerful Franklin was at the height of her power. This song remains one the most popular and widely recognized anthems for the equality of women.
4. "Fuck the Police" by N.W.A
In 1988, four years before riots tore through Los Angeles—in response to a long history of police brutality that culminated with the acquittal of the L.A. police officers that brutally beat Rodney King—N.W.A predicted that groundswell of emotional intensity with this legendarily explicit song.
3. "Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan
Dylan has written so many outstanding politically charged songs, but "Blowin' in the Wind" is his crowning achievement. From war to Civil Rights, this song leaves no stone unturned. It's probably the most famous protest song ever, and he claims to have composed it in ten minutes. Showoff.
2. "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke
Apparently, Cooke wrote this revelatory Civil Rights tune in 1963, after hearing Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Like Dylan, Cooke manages to do the impossible with this song: address the plight of his day with language that has a timeless and universal resonance.
1. "This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie
This classic folk song has become a sing-along staple in elementary schools from sea to shining sea, symbolizing to many Americans the exceptionalism and equality that this country has embodied since our first Independence Day. In reality, however, Guthrie was a lefty activist who was disgusted by American capitalism. He wrote this song in 1943 as a snide reaction to "God Bless America." This simple folk tune is the ultimate protest song, not because of its societal critique, but for the invigorating call to arms in the last—and often unsung—stanza.