From "Give Peace A Chance" to "Fuck Donald Trump" - Top Ten Protest Songs

Posted by Billyjam, April 11, 2017 02:10pm | Post a Comment

"War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again" - Edwin Starr "War" (1970 Motown) *
The above sentiment of Edwin Starr's popular anti-Vietnam protest song was right about war but with one key exception. War, along with other periods of serious social unrest, historically trigger some of the best reactionary art of all schools including music and some of the most powerful protest songs. Even before last Thursday's bombing of Syria and the inevitable future fallout it will cause, the Trump era had already helped kick start the latest renaissance of revolutionary protest music.  Like Edwin Starr's Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong penned 1970 single, recorded during the counterculture era, the latest wave of protest music is a form of artistic expression born out of passion and necessity. Traditionally protest music acts on two primary levels. It's the soundtrack to the actual protest / rebellion / revolution, as well as being as a medium to vent and share feelings of discontent. As well as being a catharsis for its creators offering listeners some sense of relief or bonding, good protest music can also provide a message of hope during historically challenging times. Since the beginning of time history has a habit of repeatedly presenting its citizens challenging times, with war and social injustices being recurring themes.

Some might argue that a true "protest song" is one that you sing at your own peril, at the risk of getting killed or at least arrested. Tireless contemporary protester Rev Billy, who has been arrested during more protests than anyone I know of in the past 15 years including during Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street protests, is often handcuffed while still singing gospel protest music with his following who make up the Stop Shopping Choir. Many of the best protest songs are rooted in simple repetitive chants, geared for singing in unison during protests. Examples include "We Shall Overcome," "Get Up, Stand Up," "Give Peace A Chance," "Fuck Tha Police," and of course the, "We don't need no education. We don't need no, thought control" refrain from Pink Floyd's "Another Brick In The Wall."  Another chant along classic would be course Country Joe & The Fish's memorable lyrics, "One two three what are we fightin for? Don't ask me I dont give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam" from “I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.”

Some artists appear to make a career out of protest music or at least are seen as such. Examples would include the protest music icon pictured on top of this page Woody Guthrie, Immortal Technique, The Dead Kennedys, Jasari XCrass, Pete SeegerGang Of Four, Ani DiFranco, Chuck D, Joan BaezFela Kuti, Billy Bragg, Paris, Boots Riley whether with The Coup or such side projects as Street Sweeper Social Club with Tom Morello who came to fame initially with rap/rock protest music act Rage Against The Machine. Then there are artists not normally associated with protest songs who record some memorable ones such as Prince's "Sign O The Times" and Michael Jackson's "“They Don’t Care About Us.” Then there are the occasional artist like Pussy Riot who are primarily all about the protest with music merely being one medium to express their message.

Some of the artists or songs mentioned above are included in the top ten below. This subjective list is culled from the past several decades but protest music (most of it not recorded) dates back hundreds and hundreds of years. But just in recorded protest music of the past half century, the number of protest songs are so numbered and varied (both geographically and genre wise) into countless subdivisions and categories of protest music that one could easily dedicate individual Top Ten lists to these endless sub-genres. "War" for example could be part of a Top Ten 70's R&B/Soul Anti War Protest Songs. Other Top Ten Protest lists could be include anti-British Irish folk protest male vocal music top ten protest songs or early 80's UK anti Thatcher post-punk, ska, & new wave protest music top ten. One could compile a strong Top Ten list of 80's anti Reagan hardcore punk protest songs,  anti-colonial Aboriginal hip-hop protest list, heavy metal protest songs etc. etc.

The sheer number of protest songs among these many genres over the past several decades alone proves how many bad times we've endured to inspire such a volume protest music. The top ten below could easily extended into a Top 1000 Protest Songs. Hence this list is a most subjective one honing in on just ten with honorable mention of many more within descriptions of the individual ten listed below. Other honorable mentions would have to include Leonard Cohen's "Democracy," Green Day's "American Idiot," Peter Gabriel's "Biko," Joan Baez & Mimi Farina's "Bread and Roses," Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," Pink's "Dear Mr. President (feat. The Indigo Girls)," Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," The Special AKA's "Free Nelson Mandela," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son," Tracy Chapman's “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” M.I.A.'a "Paper Planes" with its sample of The Clash's "Straight To Hell." Speaking of which "Rock The Casbah" and others by the Clash get honorable mention. 
Please add your favorite protest songs in comments not included.

Note: this top ten list also appears in the Spring/Summer 2017 Music We Like, Amoeba Music's free pocket-sized book of album reviews and best-of music lists. Head to one of our three store locations (Berkeley, San Francisco, Hollywood) to pick one up! Or order online here."

* "War" by Edwin Starr is the single from the artist's 1970 Motown album War & Peace, also found on Best of Edwin Starr)

1: Billie Holiday "Strange Fruit" found on such albums as The Centennial Collection, God Bless The Child: Best Of Billie Holiday, and Banned From New York City - Live 1948 - 1957, "It deals with my people and our oppression. It deals with America and the Black and White problem," said Nina Simone of the song that she later recorded an incredible version of. "Strange Fruit" has been recorded by many others including Annie Lennox and Jeff Buckley. But it is Billie Holiday's early recording that is the definitive version of the historic song. Just listen to her moving rendition in video above. Note that before Billie Holiday recorded and made famous the poignant Abel Meeropol penned "Strange Fruit" in 1939 no other song had so portrayed the horrors of the nation and vividly described the lynching of Blacks in the South.

2: Plastic Ono Band "Give Peace A Chance"  (1969) is found on such releases as John Lennon's Icon collection and Shaved Fish LP.   While many would rightfully argue that John Lennon's "Imagine" is a better song, and I agree on many levels, it is the sheer raw energy of "Give Peace A Chance" that wins me over plus the historic fact that this protest song was sung in unison by a half million demonstrators in Washington, DC in a 1969 protest at the Vietnam Moratorium Day.  Also check out the Plastic Ono Band's oft overlooked album of protest songs Sometime In New York City.

3: Public Enemy "Fight The Power" was the 1989 hit single from Spike Lee's film of that year Do The RIght Thing on whose soundtrack it would first appear, then the next year on the  PE's Fear Of A Black Planet as well as various collections. Not to be confused with the Isley Brothers equally revolutionary "Fight The Power (Parts 1 & 2)" found on their Greatest Hits that gets deserved honorary mention. Runners up here could include Common and John Legend emotionally charged "Glory" from the 2015 movie Selma. Hip-hop is packed with protest songs but a random few from a long list that deserve honorable mention would include 2Pac's "Changes," Killer Mike's "Reagan," and Kendrick Lamar's "Alright."

4: Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin" title track from The Times They Are A-Changin (avail in LP/vinyl) and found on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits was released in 1964 within a month of JFK's assassination and captured a mood and feeling in history. But it is only one of numerous Dylan protest songs that apply here. Others include "Masters Of War,"  "Only A Pawn In The Game,"  "A Hard Rain’s a’Gonna Fall," "Blowin In The Wind" and "Oxford Town" by the artist who was recently awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature (could easily have been for peace based on his music)  and whose upcoming  Columbia Legacy release Triplicate (also in regular vinyl/LP and DeLuxe LP/vinyl set)  can be pre-ordered from Amoeba. Notable mention here goes to Dylan's hero and his earliest major influence:  Woody Guthrie. The artist, who should be in this list and hence gets major mention here, is the father of American protest music and true voice of the working man. In the 1940's with his acoustic guitar covered in a hand drawn sticker that boldly read "This machine kills fascists," Guthrie recorded the timeless American protest anthem "This Land Is Your Land." Later that decade he recorded another ageless protest song that has taken on a renewed meaning in these current troubled immigrant days: "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)." Another honorable mention goes to an artist oft considered to carry on the traditions of Guthrie and Dylan: Bruce Springseen whose catalog is filled with protest songs from the perspective of the average American working man, including his biggest hit "Born In The USA."

5: Marvin Gaye "What's Going On" from What's Going On (on vinyl/LP) as well as a recent 10" vinyl single version of the song is not Gaye's only protest song. "Mercy Mercy Me" is another contender but "What's Going On" is his best and most timeless protest song that makes a whole lot of sense once again asking "what's going on?" and pleading how "we've got to find a way to bring some lovin' here today." Runners up in this category (60's/70's soul/RnB/funk protest songs) could include the aforementioned Edwin Starr song, The Impressions' "Keep On Pushing" and "People Get Ready," The Temptations' "Ball Of Confusion," The Chi-Lites' "Power To The People" (not to be confused with John Lennon song with same title), Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," numerous by James Brown but most notably "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," Stevie Wonder's "You Haven't Done Nothin,'"  The Honey Drippers' "Impeach The President," Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' ‘Wake up, Everybody," and of course Sam Cooke's definitive version of "A Change Is Gonna Come." .

6: Stiff Little Fingers "Alternative Ulster."  U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" may have addressed the so-called "troubles" of Northern Ireland's long embattled six counties under British rule and in particular the 1972 tragedy that gave the song its title. But when Bono and his future megastar rock band wrote and recorded the song for their 1983 album War, they did so from their comfort of their peaceful Dublin hometown in the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland to the south. Meanwhile up in Northern Ireland's war torn six counties Stiff Little Fingers wrote their punk rock classic "Alternative Ulster" in 1978 from a firsthand perspective of "the troubles"  amidst the stray bullets and petrol bombs that was life as normal in for so many years in Northern Ireland (see the accompanying slide show in video above for an idea). Hence the undeniable heartfelt passion of such commanding song lyrics as "Take a look where you're livin' / You got the army on the street. And the RUC [infamous Royal Ulster Constabulary] dog of repression is barking at your feet. Is this the kind of place you want to live? Is this where you want to be? Is this the only life we're gonna have? What we need is an Alternative Ulster. Grab it and change it, it's yours. Get an Alternative Ulster. Ignore the bores and their laws." "Alternative Ulster" followed the group's John Peel championed first single "Suspect Device" (also on the same topic) and can be found on their 1979 album Inflammable Material.  Honorable mention on the topic of Northern Ireland protest songs goes to Paddy McGuigan for the folk song "The Men Behind The Wire" about the victims of the British government's 1971 introduced internment without trial in Northern Ireland practices and the mayhem and civil abuse practices that ensued as a result. Another honorable mention (but in the punk as civil protest) goes to the Sex Pistols who directly influenced Stiff Little Fingers (among so many others in the latter 70's) with Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols and such songs as the number one (banned by the BBC) single "God Save The Queen" that was released during Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee in 1977.

7: N.W.A "Fuck Tha Police" from their landmark Straight Outta Compton album. Back in the late 80's upon its release N.W.A as a group with this song in particular delighted fans but pissed off authority figures of all types: particularly those in blue. The now classic "Fuck The Police" song which was a central story line in the 2015 biopic Straight Outta Compton outraged concerned community groups such as Focus On The Family and Tipper Gore's PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center). They also faced a media backlash with numerous radio and video programmers refusing to play any of their music. Even more noteworthy was the song's reaction by the FBI who sent a letter of intimidation to Priority Records who distributed their Ruthless Records release. Written on Department of Justice stationary, FBI assistant director Milt Ahlerich in August 1989 wrote an angry letter in protest of N.W.A's anti-cop song, writing that his "views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community."  The story made national and international headlines and portrayed the Compton rappers as the latest victims of freedom of speech and gave the group the type of publicity one could not buy, helping them promote "Fuck Tha Police" and N.W.A's other music to whole new audiences across the globe.

8: Bob Marley & the Wailers "Get Up Stand Up"  Most associated with Bob Marley, the protest anthem "Get Up, Stand Up" was written by Marley with Peter Tosh and originally appeared on The Wailers' album Burnin' released in 1973. Since then the reggae classic played live and recorded many times (oft alternate versions) by both The Wailers and as Bob Marley & the Wailers. Further Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer also did solo recorded versions of the song. [Note that there is another different "Get Up, Stand Up" titled song that is also written by The Wailers and recorded by Toots & the Maytals for that reggae band's album Pass the Pipe.] The song's lyrics were penned by Bob Marley as a reaction to levels of poverty and social injustice he viewed upon visiting Haiti. In the years since it has become a staple at protests the world over. Honorable mention of other reggae protest songs (and there are a great many including additional ones by Marley and Tosh) would include Linton Kwesi Johnson's "Sonny's Lettah," Jimmy Cliff's "Vietnam,"  Junior Reid's "One Blood," Dennis  Brown's "Revolution," Third World's "1865 (96 Degrees in the Shade)" and Steel Pulse's "No More Weapons."

9: CSNY "Ohio" is Crosby Stills Nash & Young's heartfelt counterculture era protest anthem that was written and recorded in direct reaction to the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970.  Recorded by all four group members and first released as a single in 1970 and the following year as a live version on the double album 4 Way Street as well as on several subsequent releases in the years since, the song was reportedly written in a short time period by Neil Young who was moved by images he saw of the massacre in Life magazine. A modern day equivalent would be last year's Mistah F.A.B. Black Lives Matter / police protest song "6 Shots" that the Oakland rapper rapidly wrote within hours after seeing online reports from the previous two days of the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police and of Philando Castile by Minnesota police.

10: YG Nipsey Hussle "Fuck Donald Trump" from Still Brazy (avail in LP/vinyl) (2016). Compton rapper YG ruled in 2016 with the release of his politically fueled (albeit still gangsta) second album Still Brazy that rocked hard and made heads both nod and think as proven by the anti-police brutality tracks:“Blacks & Browns” and “Police Get Away Wit Murder.”  But it was the album's second single, featuring Nipsey Hussle, that made the most noise, and controversy. "FDT" ("Fuck Donald Trump") the chant-along Swish produced track would become the anti-Trump anthem of the year played loud at events populated by "the blacks" and all the others marginalized by the man who would become president via a divisive campaign. The song officially ushered in the new protest music sub-genre of Anti Trump Rap.  Of note however is that not only was the single version censored and the later album released version edited and replaced with newer verses after YG revealed the government contacted his label regarding the song.  So popular was the song among Trump opponents (IE the average hip-hop fan) that it led to a second version of the song that replaced Nippsey Hussle's parts with YG been joined by white rappers in solidarity on the FDT tip, Mackelmore and new Bay star G-Eazy.

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