The best protest songs of the decade
by: Libero Della Piana
January 13 2010
This is the season of 'best of the year' and 'best of the decade'
lists when it comes to books, movies, music and more. I decided to
compile a list of some of the best and most influential protest music
from the past ten years.
While talking about my idea for the article to friends and coworkers,
some wondered: "Protest music of the last ten years? Was there any?"
My answer is, definitely yes! No, you don't have to look back to Phil
Ochs, Marvin Gaye, Woody Guthrie or Joan Baez to find great political
music. Turns out the tumultuous 2000s (or "naughts" or what ever you
call the past decade) turned out some great protest songs. So here is
my list; I look forward to hearing from you about those I've missed.
The U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly inspired a lot of
anger and outrage from people all over the world. The wars also
inspired many songs.
One you may have missed is "That's the news" from country music
veteran Merle Haggard. Though his most famous songs, "Okie from
Muskogee," which ridiculed pot-smoking hippies and anti-war
protestors in the late 1960s, and the follow-up, "Fightin' side of
me", are likely more satirical than they were interpreted by
listeners at the time, Haggard's music was embraced as pro-war anthems.
But Haggard is clearly no hawk when it comes to the Iraq War. First,
Haggard defended Texan band the Dixie Chicks after some country music
artists and fans pilloried them for criticizing President George W.
Bush. Then in 2003, not long after Bush declared "victory" on the
deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, Haggard's song complained that,
Suddenly it's over, the war is fin'lly done.
Soldiers in the desert sand, still clingin' to a gun.
No one is the winner an' everyone must lose.
Suddenly the war is over: that's the news.
UK reggae band UB40 released "Who are you fighting for?" in 2005 on
the Grammy-nominated album of the same name. The chorus chants,
You do the shooting - they do the looting
You do the killing - they do the drilling
You do the dying - they do the lying
All the way to the bank
You can hear them crying
Alternative rock giants Pearl Jam dropped their song "World wide
suicide" in 2006, seeing it top the Modern Rock charts for three weeks.
2003's "Power to the peaceful" is the timeless anthem of Pittsburgh's
anarchist punk sensation Anti-Flag. It screams,
Sons and daughters of a dream
The urge to struggle for an ideal
To stay and fight
Oppose war fever
Refuse to kill or be killed
"Peace, salaam, shalom", by Emma's Revolution is as close to an
official anthem as we have for the peace movement that emerged
against the Bush-era wars. I remember it being performed on stage at
the first big national anti-war protest after 9-11 on April 20, 2002
in Washington DC. Peace activists around the U.S. and the globe sing
the song today. It succinctly reminds us that peace is a universal
principle and goal.
Neil Young wrote "Ohio," one of the greatest anti-war songs of all
time. After the September 11 terrorist attacks the expat Canadian
also released "Let's roll." Inspired by the famous quote from Todd
Beamer, a passenger on Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania after
being hijacked that day. The song is a not so subtle paean to Bush's
"war on terror" with the idea that "we're going after Satan." But
with the 2006 album Living with War, Young returned to form. Skip the
clunker of a song "Impeach the President" (right sentiment, bad song)
and go to the title track "Living with War."
British folksinger Billy Bragg wrote "Price of oil" (here being sung
at AFL-CIO headquarters in a get-out-the vote rally in October 2002)
to question the motivation for U.S. aggression in the Middle East.
"Boom!" is a loud and raucous cry against war by Armenian-American
hardrockers System of a Down who themselves marched along with
millions of others (the "other superpower") on February 15, 2003 to
stop the war on Iraq before it began.
The title of "Counting bodies like sheep to the rhythm of the war
drums" by rock supergroup Perfect Circle speaks for itself.
One of the great strengths of today's peace movement is the large
participation by and leadership from veterans, military families and
even active duty soldiers. Many of today's anti-war songs focus on
the plight of the soldier killing and dying for wars based on lies.
They remind us that being for peace is not being against the troops,
but just the opposite.
Country band Reckless Kelly are hardly activists, but their song
"American blood" documents the horrors of war and their impact on veterans:
Johnny can't drink 'cause Johnny ain't twenty-one
But he's eighteen and pretty handy with a gun
They shipped him off to a foreign land gave him a new pair of boots
and thirteen grand
And he came back home with American blood on his hands
The song mocks Bush by comparing the guilt of "George" to "Johnny."
Reckless Kelly even set up a website, Reckless Soldiers as a place
for active duty military to post pictures for family and friends.
In a similar vein is "Hero of war" by activist rockers Rise Against.
The song and the accompanying video first appear to be a military
recruitment video with folk-rock strumming which grows increasingly
loud and harsh as the tale of a young soldiers in Iraq turns dark.
Boots from Oakland Marxist hip-hop group The Coup penned the song
"Captain Sterling's little problem" for the award-winning documentary
film "Sir! No sir!", which tells the story of the G.I. rebellion
during the Vietnam War. But the song recalls Iraq as well. The song
was released on Pick a Bigger Weapon along with "My favorite mutiny"
another song about military resistance featuring rappers Black
Thought and Talib Kweli.
In "The day after tomorrow" Tom Waits brings us another great song
from the point of view of a soldier at war. It could be about Iraq,
Afghanistan, Grenada, Korea or anywhere:
You can't deny
The other side
Don't want to die
Any more than we do
What I'm trying to say,
Is don't they pray
To the same God that we do?
Tell me, how does God choose?
Whose prayers does he refuse?
Brooklyn, New York's Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra (which is currently
performing on Broadway as part of the musical Fela! based on the life
of African musical revolutionary Fela Anikulapu Kuti) brought us the
song "War hero" on their 2007 album Security. It's rolling grooves,
blazing horns and poetic and ruthless lyrics are reminiscent of the
best of afrobeat music.
Country singer-songwriter Steve Earle delivered one of the great
protest albums of the decade in the Best Contemporary Folk Album
Grammy-winning Revolution Starts Now. "Rich man's war" (Here's Earle
singing the track at the Operation Ceasefire concert during the
September 24, 2005 anti-war march in Washington DC) is just one of
many outstanding tracks on the album.
Hip-hop artist Nas has several politically themed songs in the past
period, but "Rule" dropped in 2001 before many mainstream rap acts
started adding anti-Bush comments in rhymes. Nas was inspired by the
Afghan war but goes on to condemn poverty, police harassment and
violence at home.
The Bush Years
War wasn't the only thing that inspired the creativity of songwriters
in the past ten years. We did have eight years of the scariest
President in history beginning with a stolen election and peppered
with inane quotes, ignorance and underpinned by corporate rapine.
Pop-punk giants Green Day sum up many people's view of Bush with
their hit, "American Idiot," which isn't really about George, but
about the paranoia and ignorance of the Bush years. It was the title
track of the 2004 rock opera album by the band that told the story of
the "Jesus of Suburbia". The highly political album rocketed the band
to international stardom, selling over 20 million albums and winning
the Best Rock Grammy. American Idiot is now headed to Broadway in
March in the form of a new musical featuring another Green Day single
"21 Guns" a more recent antiwar song from the band.
The ultra-offensive rapper Eminem, who usually inundates audiences
with sexist and violent fantasies took a turn toward conscientious
lyrics with his 2004 election eve single and stunning video for
"Mosh" (Pre-election version and post-election version), which was a
cry for voter participation bordering on social revolt:
And as we proceed, to mosh through this desert storm, in these
if they should argue, let us beg to differ, as we set aside our differences,
and assemble our own army, to disarm this weapon of mass destruction
that we call our president, for the present,
and mosh for the future of our next generation,
to speak and be heard, Mr. President, Mr. Senator
Indie rock artist Bright Eyes created some controversy when he
performed on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and sang "When the
President talks to God" which plays on the many claims by Bush that
God speaks to him and that God wanted him to run for President:
When the president talks to God
Are the consonants all hard or soft?
Is he resolute all down the line?
Is every issue black or white?
Does what God say ever change his mind
When the president talks to God?
You can still download the song for free on iTunes.
Immigrants and indigenous people
Few outside the Pacific islands may know of Hawaii-based reggae
artist Fiji. But you should. His groovy reggae romp, "Indigenous
life" is a easy-skanking anthem calling for the unity of all Pacific
islanders, but is relevant to all struggles by indigenous people and
any music fans everywhere.
"Migra" by East Los Angeles band Quetzal is a song about the terror
created by the immigration enforcement raids in immigrant communities.
"The Word" by Los Lobos joins "What's going on" and the "The times
they are a-changin'" as one of the great sweeping songs of the
political moment. The now veteran Chicano band from L.A. lays down a
bluesy rhythm to deliver a message of sticky problems and brewing change:
What will you say or do
When a child asks of you
What kind of world have you left here for me?
Too many sleepless nights
Too many questions why
This is not the way it's supposed to be
What happened to
The land, the trees and the rivers
Some have now all gone away
What happens if
We see them as sisters and brothers
Like the good Lord says we should
The times they are a-changin'
Protest song don't just catalog the ills of society or decry
injustice and war. Some of the greatest political songs have the
ability to sum up the political moment, to capture the essence of the
new period emerging from the old. Those unique musical artists that
put their finger on that intangible essence are able to create
Socialist hip hop duo Dead Prez are known for their black power
militancy and calls for revolution, but perhaps their most
politically resonant and lasting song is "I'm a African", a
highly-charged, pulsing black pride credo that rocked the dance
floors around the country as well as rocked minds.
In the 2000s Tom Morello of the groundbreaking activist head-bangers
Rage Against the Machine took on the identity of The Nightwatchman, a
guitar-wielding activist, like a Woody Guthrie for the new
millennium. Morello together with Serj Tankian of System of a Down
(see above) also founded Axis of Justice, a nonprofit organization
dedicated to progressive social change and music-making. The
Nightwatchman's "The road I must travel" is a classic political
ballad for our age.
Michael Franti has been on the cutting edge of progressive music for
25 years. From punk band Beatnigs to the culture-jamming Disposable
Heroes of Hiphoprisy and now his funky dance-rock band Spearhead,
Franti has been innovative musically and politically for a quarter
century. His song "Yell fire" gets crowds raising their lighters at
rallies as well as dance clubs:
A revolution never come with a warning
A revolution never sends you an omen
A revolution just arrived like the morning
Ring the alarm, we come to wake up the snoring...
Yell Fire, yo, yo ,yo
Here we come, here we come
Fire, yo, yo, yo, yo
Revolution a comin'
John Mayer's "Waiting on the world to change" was not only a
generational ballad of social change it was one of the biggest
commercial hits in pop music. The song, is less of a call to action
then a pleading lament about inaction and the tasks at hand:
Me and all my friends
We're all misunderstood
They say we stand for nothing and
There's no way we ever could
Now we see everything that's going wrong
With the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don't have the means
To rise above and beat it
So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change
We keep on waiting
Waiting on the world to change
Katrina and New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina and the government's inept and criminal response to
it shocked the world and many musical artists spoke out. Hip hop star
Kanye West famously said "George Bush doesn't care about Black
People" in reference to the former President's lack of response to
the flooding of New Orleans in Katrina's wake. New Orleans, a city
renowned for musical heritage also faced the displacement of its many
working musicians. Fans, fellow artists and others came together to
support New Orleans Habitat Musicians Village which was founded by
the city's own singer Harry Conick Jr. to ensure the rebuilding of
New Orleans includes song. Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans
and the Gulf Coast also inspired many songs.
Singer-songwriter Catie Curtis won the International Songwriting
Competition, Grand Prize in 2005 for her song "People look around"
which is a meditation on humanity, community, rain, Katrina and the war.
New Orleans band The Subdudes on their album Behind the Levee perform
the funky soul song "One word (Peace)" which portrays a scene from
communities around the country these past few years:
A man stands on the corner holding a sign
People yell at him as they drive by
I wonder what they read, made them so upset
I looked at the sign and all it said:
One word: Peace
Hip hop sensation Lil' Wayne who calls from the Ninth Ward of New
Orleans made a change of pace with his song "Tie my hands" featuring
crooner Robin Thicke. The song, which he performed at the 2009 Grammy
Awards is a R&B-tinged meditation on NOLA and the lives of those who
call her home.
If you haven't seen the Academy Award-nominated documentary Trouble
the Water, do so. The film features the experiences of Kimberly
Rivers Roberts, a.k.a. hip hop artist Black Kold Madina and her
family and friends during and after Hurricane Katrina. Madina's title
song for the film, "Trouble the Water," is a brutal raging testimony
to the tragedy in New Orleans.
The international scene
I haven't said anything so far about music from around the world. As
a big fan of African music, I have to give a big nod to Lapiro de
Mbanga, the jailed Cameroun musician, whose song "Constitution
constipée" (Constipated Constitution) helped bring thousands into the
streets of the West African Nation in 2008 in protest of the abuses
of the Biya Presidency and landed him in jail on trumped up charges.
De Mbanga won the 2009 'Freedom to Create' Imprisoned Artist Prize
but remains in poor health in a prison cell. You can download this
song and an entire tribute album Libérons Lapiro! - Free Lapiro! for
free if you sign the petition calling for his freedom.
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars garnered international success with
their 2005 album Living Like a Refugee and the amazing documentary
film Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, which was produced by hip-hop
artist Ice Cube among others. Leonean refugees fleeing the Sierra
Leone civil war formed the band in a refugee camp in Guinea. The
song, "Living like a refugee (it's not easy)" speaks to the
experience of millions of people worldwide that are forced to migrate
from their homes by war, poverty, climate change and political
upheaval. You can download a free track from the upcoming new album.
"Uh ah Chávez no se va!" by Grupo Madera became the de facto anthem
of the movement in support of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela
following the attempted coup there.
Another song dedicated to the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is
"Avanza" by popular singer Gustavo Arreaza. He sings:
La revolución que avanza
Por los cielos abiertos
No conoce fronteras
No tiene final
The revolution advances
For the open skies
It has no boundaries
It has no end)
Algerian-born Cheb Mami who is a hit-maker in France with his mix of
hip hop and raï, Algerian popular music, releases "Parisien du norde"
with rapper K-Mel in 2005 to protest racism and discrimination in his
adopted home in the wake of race riots in Paris.
Obama and the 2008 elections
A seemingly countless number of songs were inspired by the historic
2008 Presidential race of Barack Obama. Others celebrated his
victory. Reggae and soca artists seemed to be particularly fond of
Obama songs. There are far too many to list, but here are some of the
Ani Difranco - "November 5, 2008"
Spearhead - "Barack Obama"
Extra Golden - "Obama"
Cocoa Tea - "Barack Obama"
Rankin Cobra - "Obama"
Sizzla - "Black man in the White House"
Mighty Sparrow - "Barack de magnificent"
Steel Pulse - "Vote Barack"
Will.i.am and friends - "Yes we can"
Classic Protest Songs
Even thought this article isn't about them, the classic songs of
protest from the American folk revival, against the Vietnam War still
had an impact on the struggles and movements of the past ten years,
so it's no surprise that today' artists record and perform cover
versions of the classic progressive music of the 1930s and 1960s.
The best of theseand one of the best all-around albums of the decade
to bootis We'll Never Turn Back by gospel/soul singer Mavis Staples
of the Staple Singers, who were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s favorite
artists. The album features cover versions of classic songs from the
U.S. civil rights movement and a couple instant classics too.
Folk pioneer and indigenous rights activist Buffy St. Marie, who
penned the anti-war standard "Universal soldier" released Running For
the Drum in 2009, her first album in seventeen years. The song
"Working for the government" is a bluesy driving song about
bureaucrats and abuse of power, while her rendition of "America the
beautiful" has special poignancy.
More great protest song revival albums include Bruce Springsteen's We
Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions; Dolly Parton's Those Were the
Days; Pete Seeger's Pete Seeger At 89; and Keb' Mo's Peace... Back by
One interesting development is the proliferation of numerous cover
versions of and variations on Woody Guthrie's classic song of
America, "This land is your land."
Mexican American singer and global star Lila Downs made a classic
cover of the song in the form a searing medley with another Guthrie
classic "Pastures of Plenty/This land is your land/Land" on the album
La Linea (Border). Downs, who gained fame for her Academy
Award-nominated "Burn it blue" from the movie Frida, reminds us that
"This land is your land" truly embraces our nation of immigrants.
The grooviest, smoothest, most danceable version ever was laid down
by Brooklyn soul band Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. Their "This land
is your land" transforms the song into a soul standard.
Inspired by the massive outpouring of immigrant activism and pride in
the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride and the huge May Day protests of
the last few years, Juan Dies of the band Sones de Mexico translated
the song into "Esta tierra es tuya" from the Grammy Award-nominated
album of the same name. The band reworked it into a Norteño anthem of
the immigrant rights movement (great video too).
I close my long (but still insufficient because I have about twenty
other songs I want to add off the top of my head) listing of protest
songs from the last decade with a tribute to the late great Julius
Margolin, who passed away late last year. Julie was a good friend and
a reminder to one and all that music is for everyone.
His albums, produced together with musician George Mann, tracked the
progression of the past ten years in politics and protest song:
Hail to the Thief! Songs For The Bush Years (2001)
Hail To The Thief, Vol. II: Songs To Send Bush Packing! (2004)
Hail To The Thieves, Vol. III: Songs to Take Our Country Back! (2008)
Farewell to the Thief! (2009)
So, I hope that puts a rest to the idea that there was little or no
protest music in the past period. It should also put to rest the idea
that acoustic guitar is the only vehicle for a progressive troubadour.
Today's protest music can be a soul salutation, a punk rock rage, a
head-banging rant, an electronic orchestration, a bold beat box, a
rap attack, and even a strumming song. We certainly had our fair
share of struggles, tragedies, bracing defeats and historic victories.
It's no wonder the music was there at each step.