The world is not a perfect place. We know this is the case and always has been but that does not mean we should not strive to continue to make it better. Peaceful protest is often the best way to go about bringing change and often the marches and demonstrations staged to make a point are accompanied by anthems or songs that sum up the cause or highlight issues. Here, we look at 15 protest songs that made a difference.
1. Killing In The Name Of - Rage Against The Machine
Released six months after the Los Angeles riots, this song is a howling and vicious critique against institutional racism and police brutality. The song was inspired by the Rodney King incident that saw police offers drag a black man from his car and beat him. It also squarely takes aim at the military-industrial complex and all in the space of just six lines. Typified by its exhaustive use of a specific expletive, the version below is clean but the original is so forceful that it became the band's signature song and has been used by various protest groups (and I recommend you search it out if appropriate). In 2009, 17 years after its original release, a campaign was launched encouraging people to buy the song in the week running up to Christmas in order to prevent the winner of the X Factor television show from achieving the Christmas number one slot in the United Kingdom for the fifth year running. This in itself was a protest at the manufacturing of music and the direction the industry had been going and the song was successful in becoming the No.1. The band later played a free concert in London in order to show their support to the people who had got them to number one.
2. We Shall Overcome - Zilphia Horton, Pete Seeger
With its origins going as far back as the 18th century adapted from a Catholic Hymn, this has long been a song of many protest movements but it wasn't until 1945 that it gained significant attention after a labor organizer heard it at a union strike. Writing it down, she then re-worked it with her folk singing friend Pete Seeger who went on to use it during the civil rights movement. It became a defining anthem of the struggles that the movement endured in the 1960s and was sung at many of their marches and protests becoming synonymous with that period.
3. Mississippi Goddam - Nina Simone
A response to the murder of Medgar Evers, an activist who worked against segregation at the University of Mississippi, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama, two hate crimes that shook the civil rights movement. Simone was a long time supporter of this movement but it wasn't until this song that she became one of its figureheads as it was performed at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches and other demonstrations.
4. Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday
One of the first anti-racism songs ever to be recorded, this song started life as a poem by Abel Meeropol who was protesting racially motivated lynchings in the Southern states of the USA. Holiday recorded the song in 1939 and since then it has gone on to inspire many other recording artists to protest at the treatment of minority communities, has sold over 1 million copies and been inducted into the grammy hall of fame. Being covered by many other artists, its depictions of a lynching are truly terrifying in the modern age and are still capable of sending a shiver down the spine.
5. God Save The Queen - Sex Pistols
An anti-royalist anthem that is an attack on elitism and the treatment of working-class people, this became a defining moment in the British punk movement. The lyrics were so controversial at the time that it was banned by both the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Despite this, it still achieved phenomenal success and reached No. 1 on the NME charts and number 2 on the official charts which led to accusations of them being fixed so that it didn't hit number one.
6. Guns of Brixton - The Clash
The Clash were always a highly politicized band that rejected the nihilism of much of the punk scene embracing left-wing ideals and being associated with such events as Rock Against Racism. Guns of Brixton was perhaps one of their best-known protest songs about the disaffection surrounding poor and ethnically diverse communities in South London at the time and hauntingly predates the Brixton riots of the 1980s. An attack on police brutality, it was controversial for lines such as "But you’ll have to answer to / Oh, the guns of Brixton”.
7. War - Bob Marley
Politics, music, and religion all blended into one for Bob Marley who was a vehement opponent of racism and corruption. Many of his songs take aim at his perceived injustices of the world but War was an anti-apartheid piece that almost entirely takes its lyrics from a speech by Ethiopian Emperor and Rastafarian idol Haile Selassie gave to the United Nations in 1963.
8. War - Edwin Starr
One of the most popular protest songs of all time, this blatant anti-war piece was a direct response to the Vietnam war which the US was embroiled in. Originally written for The Temptations, their version was never released due to their more conservative fan base and so it was re-recorded by Edwin Starr who scored his first number one with it.
9. Give Peace A Chance - Plastic Ono Band
Written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (despite being credited as a Lenon-McCartney song) this song was recorded in a hotel room as Lennon and Ono were in a 'Bed-in' where they refused to get out of bed for a week in order to promote peace. It was adopted by the anti-Vietnam war movement and was sung by nearly half a million people on the Vietnam Moratorium March on Washington which was led by Pete Seeger, writer of We Shall Overcome.
10. We're a Winner - The Impressions
The Impressions were one of the first soul bands to openly associate themselves with the Civil Rights Movement under the guidance of Curtis Mayfield who went on to continue penning political songs. This is one of the first soul songs to explicitly engage with racial politics and so was notable for its unashamed stance on the issues in a time when people were worried politicizing their music would be commercial suicide.
11. Southern Man - Neil Young
Neil Young's best-known protest song was Ohio in response to the Kent Massacre but it was Southern Man that really struck a nerve as it was a response to racism in the Southern states of the United States talks about segregation and make a case for reparations. Young would later record Alabama on the same issue which Lynrd Skynrd famously responded to with the hugely popular Sweet Home Alabama but the point had been made.
12. I Am Woman - Helen Reddy
Australian singer Helen Reddy was relatively unknown when she recorded her Women's Liberation anthem but it slowly started to climb charts in America when women began calling into radio stations to request the song and it went on to sell over a million copies. A song filled with empowerment and positivity it made the singer a star and gave the movement an anthem to sing.
13. Zombie - Fela Kuti
The father of afro-beat was well known for his protest songs but Zombie was the one that really made its mark and provoked the very regime it was attacking. Criticizing the Nigerian military junta at the time, a thousand soldiers were sent to the commune where Kuti lived and burnt it down, killing his mother in the process. Far from being deterred Kuti delivered his mother's coffee to the general responsible for the attack personally and was arrested for it, one of over 200 arrests he suffered. As soon as he was released he recorded his next album aptly titled Coffin For Head Of State.
14. Bring Him Back Home - Hugh Masekela
Hugh Masekela had never written a political song before but when he received a letter from the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela, who was a fan of his music, he was inspired to contribute to the anti-apartheid movement and call for Mr. Mandela's release. This quickly became an anthem for the movement and just two years after its release, the movement had succeeded in bringing down the racist regime in charge and Nelson Mandela went on to become President of South Africa.
15. Hurricane - Bob Dylan
Many of Dylan's songs have become anthems for various movements throughout the 1960s but it was perhaps Hurricane that made the biggest difference. Telling the story of a man who was falsely imprisoned due to racially motivated accusations, the song brought international attention to the case and drove support for Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter who was eventually released after spending nearly twenty years in prison.