As President Obama looks ahead to four more years, let’s look at the 10 most important political protest songs of the last 50 years, from oldest to most recent. What did we miss? Leave a comment below.
(1963) Sam Cooke – A Change is Gonna Come
Upon hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963, Cooke was greatly moved that such a poignant song about racism in America could come from someone who was not black. (Source: The RS 500 Greatest Songs of All Time). This was an era of segregation, and Cooke was very popular with white audiences due to his hit “Twistin’ the Night Away,” so it took guts to create this song and perform it before the Civil Rights Movement had really begun.
(1964) Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A Changing
In 1985, Dylan told Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone, “This was definitely a song with a purpose…I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.” This song, along with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” cemented dylan as a lead counter-culture figure.
(1969) Creedence Clearwater Revival – Fortunate Son
Many of the best US political protest songs relate tot he Vietnam War, and one of the best is “Fortunate Son” by CCR. Fogerty is pretty blunt and loud in speaking for the working, middle and low-income earners, the sons drafted to fight. John Fogerty told Rolling Stone, “Julie Nixon was hanging around with David Eisenhower, and you just had the feeling that none of these people were going to be involved with the war.
(1970) Gil Scott Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Probably the biggest influence in hip hop history, even after his death in 2011, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is Gil Scott Heron’s most important and influential poetic track. Heron wins the listener over with his humor, but it’s one of the best political protest songs of all time due to it’s subversion during the Nixon era.
(1970) Crosby Stills Nash & Young – Ohio
“Ohio” was written by Neil Young as a reaction to the US military personel killing of four Vietnam War protestors at Kent State University, the event that effectively ended US support of the disastrous war. CSNY added to the pressure with this classic, catchy song that ensured that the the Kent State shooting stayed on the mind of the American public for months and years to come.
(1973) Bob Marley & Peter Tosh – Get Up,Stand Up
Like “Ohio,” “Get Up, Stand Up” is an overtly political song. Unlike CSNY, Bob Marley is best known for being the most prominent Raggae musician of all time, smoking copious amounts of marijuana, and for his political protest songs. (Alright, CSNY probably smoked lots of weed) And this track owns the best lines in political protest music history: “You can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. So now we see the light! We gonna stand up for our rights!”
(1984) Bruce Springsteen – Born In the U.S.A.
This song was mistaken as a positive American anthem for years, and still is today by many. Ronald Reagan even used this song in his 1984 reelection campaign and tried to claim Bruce as a supporter! Lyrically the song takes a realistic approach the effects of the Vietnam war on those that were forced to go fight in Southeast Asia, but if you manage to only listen to the chorus, it can be seen as a patriotic anthem. Brian Doherty wrote, “The song’s lyrics are about a shell-shocked vet with ‘no place to run, nowhere to go.’ Bruce once said it’s about “a working-class man…It’s like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He’s isolated from the government. Isolated from his family…to the point where nothing makes sense.” It’s not an overt political protest song, but it’s way closer to that then a national anthem.
(1989) Public Enemy – Fight the Power
“Fight the Power” was brilliantly used as Radio Raheem’s jam of choice and musical motif to the classic Spike Lee film Do The Right Thing. It was Public Enemy’s breakthrough song, and it incorporates references to many parts of African-American culture, including civil rights samples, black church services sounds, and the music of James Brown. And laying the smack down on Elvis Presley & John Wayne for their on-the-record white supremacist views certainly is the cherry on top of this political protest firestorm of a sundae.
(1992) Rage Against the Machine – Killing In The Name
Rage was one of the most politically active groups at a time when political protest songs weren’t and aren’t very common. “Killing in the Name” is the quintessential Rage Against the Machine song, with it’s confronting vocals that link police to racism with the line “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses,” and with the ending refrain “Fuck You, I won’t do what you told me.” Zach de la Rocha & Tom Morello almost inspired a riot at the Democratic National Convention in 2000. Then de la Rocha abruptly left the group, but Tom Morello has continued his political activity, most recently getting involved in the Occupy WallStreet movement.
(2012) Killer Mike – Reagan
Hip hop artist Killer Mike put out an excellent LP this year called R.A.P. Music, and Mike’s passion and effective deconstruction of Reaganomics & the man himself is stinging. He explores the Iran Contra scandal, privatization of the prison system, how all US presidents are puppets to the elite (including Obama). One of the best tracks of 2012, “Reagan” shows that political protest songs are far from dead.