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Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band in concert at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, Madrid, Spain - 21 May 2016
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The best protest songs of all time

Let these protest songs by Billie Holiday, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen and more give voice to your dissent

Written by
Tolly Wright

Why shout your righteous anger when you could sing it with protest songs? From chart-topping Motown songs to roaring classic rock songs, musicians of all genres have voiced their support for causes such as civil rights and an end to war. With the recent surge of activism in New York and beyond, new activists can hum these numbers as they fight for immigrant rights or demonstrate to protect the environment.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to protests in NYC

Listen to the best protest songs

Best protest songs

“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday

1. “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday

When Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939, it became the first song by black artist to ever be released with such bold and explicit lyrics about racism. Holiday’s voice rings with an aching pain as she sings explicitly about the lynch mobs that killed thousands of black men, women and children in the South outside the judicial system. The haunting imagery of the violence (“Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze”) resonates today.

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“We Shall Overcome”

2. “We Shall Overcome”

Based on the gospel song of the same name by Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley, one of the most influential African American ministers of the turn of the 20th century, “We Shall Overcome” became synonymous with the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. The song was originally said to be sung by tobacco workers striking in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1945. By 1950, however, the song became a favorite among activist singers like Pete Seeger. By 1963, Joan Baez was leading a crowd of 300,000 protestors at the Lincoln Memorial in the song, and in 1968 Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted the lyrics in his last sermon before he was assassinated.

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“War” by Edwin Starr

3. “War” by Edwin Starr

“War,” as in “What is it good for? Absolutely nothing,” became a funky battle cry among the thousands of Vietnam War protesters on college campuses across the America. Though this song was originally recorded by the Temptations in 1969, Motown feared the counterculture soul song might be too controversial for fans of the otherwise conventionally sweet vocal group. Thus Edwin Starr’s recording became the definitive version after it was released and climbed to number one in the charts in 1970.

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“Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone

4. “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone

Written in 1963 by Nina Simone in response to the assassination of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist who fought to end segregation at the University of Mississippi, “Mississippi Goddam” is a song damning the racist actions of the Deep South. The deceptively jaunty show tune-esque beginning plays a direct contradiction to the lyrics “Oh but this whole country is full of lies/You're all gonna die and die like flies/I don't trust you any more.” Simone is clear about what she wants: “You don't have to live next to me/Just give me my equality.”

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“The Times They Are a-Changin” by Bob Dylan

5. “The Times They Are a-Changin” by Bob Dylan

Calling on everyone from the writers and critics, mothers and fathers, senators and congressman and “people wherever you roam,” Dylan pleas for an embracement of “change.” Recorded in 1964 for the album of the same name, “The Times They Are a-Changin” reflects Dylan’s own worldview as a folk activist. Instead of promoting a specific cause, Dylan instead asks the powers that be to embrace the youth movement working toward a more just world.

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“Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley

6. “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley

After witnessing extreme poverty on a trip to Haiti, Bob Marley was inspired to write this song with fellow Wailers member Peter Tosh. The reggae hit, which would become one of Marley’s most enduring numbers, argues that instead of waiting for gold and happiness in heaven, the poor should demand better treatment while alive on earth. It’s hard not to see his conviction, “You can fool some people sometimes/But you couldn't fool all the people all the time/And now we see the light/You stand up for your rights!”

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“Give Peace a Chance” by Plastic Ono Band

7. “Give Peace a Chance” by Plastic Ono Band

In 1969, the war in Vietnam was raging, the counterculture was gaining steam, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono were staging a “Bed-in” in their honeymoon suite in Montreal. It was from his bed in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel that Lennon—with the help of Smothers Brothers’ Tommy Smothers on acoustic guitar, some microphones and four-track tape recorder—first recorded this anti-war anthem that would be sung in protests for years to come. Just a few months after the recording the song, Pete Seeger led half a million demonstrators in singing “Give Peace a Chance” during the November 15, 1969, Moratorium March on Washington calling for the end to the Vietnam War.

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“Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2

8. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2

Today, U2 frontman Bono is one of the most famous celebrity activists alive, but when “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was released on 1983’s War it was only the beginning of the Irish band’s political reputation. But what a beginning. The bonafide rock anthem is about Bloody Sunday, the day in 1972 when British troops shot and killed unarmed civilian protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland. While the song is ostensibly about the turmoil in Northern Ireland, lyrics call for an end to violence in general, “And the battle's just begun/There's many lost, but tell me who has won.”

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“Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen

9. “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen

Don’t let the patriotic name and catchy chorus fool you: The boss is deeply cynical about his fellow Americans' actions and attitudes in this 1984 megahit. Written from the perspective of a Vietnam War veteran, Springsteen protests the poor treatment of the soldiers who survived a violent war that they may not have even wanted to fight in.

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“Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A

10. “Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A

Decades before the Black Lives Matter movement, N.W.A. were putting words to the anger they felt toward police brutality and racial profiling. With Dr. Dre presiding as judge, Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E each take a turn stating their case against the police, citing examples of stereotypes they’ve found assigned to themselves and other young black men based solely on how they look and where they’re from. “You’d rather see me in the pen/ Than me and Lorenzo rollin in a Benz-o,” accuses Ice Cube.

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“What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye

11. “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye

After Four Tops singer Renaldo “Obie” Benson witnessed police brutality against protesters on the Berkeley campus, Benson took his idea for a song about the violence to his label Motown Records, where he and Al Cleveland wrote the song. Because the other members of the Four Tops didn’t want to do a protest song, out of fear of backlash, Marvin Gaye took it on, adding a new melody and bringing his soulful solo voice to the number. The song, which promotes peaceful protesting (“Picket lines and picket signs/Don't punish me with brutality/Talk to me, so you can see/Oh, what's going on”), was No. 1 one on the Billboard charts for five weeks.

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“Meat Is Murder” by the Smiths

12. “Meat Is Murder” by the Smiths

The blunt title lets listeners know exactly how vegetarian (now vegan) Smiths frontman Morrissey feels about people eating meat. “The flesh you so fancifully fry/Is not succulent, tasty or kind.” Morrissey has often been very outspoken about his beliefs, stopping other members of the Smiths from eating meat in photographs and, as a solo artist, cancelling concerts at venues that don’t take meat off the menu. The song opens with eerie sounds that could be chainsaws revving and cows mooing before going into a graphic description of how livestock is slaughtered.

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“Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine

13. “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine

The lead single to the band's self-titled debut, this song introduced the world to RATM's unique style of rap-metal political outrage. Few things get a protest burning like a collective screech of "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!"

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“Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

14. “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

This foundational classic rock quartet's counterculture anthem was written with untempered urgency. After seeing the iconic picture of Mary Ann Vecchio standing over the body of Jeffrey Miller at the Kent State shooting, Neil Young wrote out the lyrics to this song, jumped into the studio with his bandmates, and released it less than a week later.

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