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.
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Listen to the best protest songs
Best protest songs
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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!”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.