Ever since Donald Trump took the oath of office, the noisy majority of Americans who didn’t want him to win the presidency have been fighting back: marching en masse, jamming the Congressional switchboard, protesting at airports, pummeling the White House with angry letters and postcards, packing the Town Halls of our elected officials, huddling in our communities. The longer and harder we fight, the more we look less like a passing fad, and more like a durable movement. Well, every movement needs a soundtrack and, so, here is a collection of some of the best and most powerful protest songs over time and across musical genres. Power to the People!
Pre-1960s through 1970s
Not surprisingly, many songs of protest arose out of the political turmoil during the era of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement.
This Land Is Your Land—Woody Guthrie (1944)
Possibly the original protest song, written in reaction to the ubiquitous “God Bless America,” Lady Gaga used some of its lyrics during the last Super Bowl’s Halftime Show, perhaps to assert subtly but defiantly that America belongs to all of us, and not just American-born, white, Christian men.
We Shall Overcome—Pete Seeger (1948)
Adopted by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, and a protest anthem for the ages, the song inspires the downtrodden of all ilk to keep the faith that we shall indeed overcome whatever challenges we may face.
The Times They Are a Changin’—Bob Dylan (1964)
Penned by a folk artist whose unusually poetic political ballads ultimately earned him the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, this song captured the angst of the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movements.
Eve of Destruction—Barry McGuire (1965)
Although this mid-sixties song expressed great frustration with government and fears regarding the state of affairs at that time, many of us can’t help but now feel like we are in 2017, once again, living on the “eve of destruction.”
Revolution—The Beatles (1968)
This Beatles song is ultimately more about peacefully protesting the powers that be than an actual revolution.
Big Yellow Taxi—Joni Mitchell (1970)
Given that the new leader of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has a known track record of opposing measures to protect the environment, Mitchell’s folk anthem about preserving nature’s resources, even in the face of progress, stands the test of time and takes on new meaning.
Southern Man—Neil Young (1970)
Young’s indictment of southern white men’s role in supporting and furthering institutional racism unfortunately remains relevant, especially now that the anti-civil rights Jeff Sessions of Alabama is our new Attorney General.
I Am Woman—Helen Reddy (1971)
The original female empowerment anthem, Reddy’s folk tune is about women resisting the patriarchy in “numbers too big to ignore.”
Fight the Power (Part I)—The Isley Brothers (1975)
A common sentiment at the time, the concept of fighting “the powers that be” is fitting today, given an administration prone to abusing its power.
Don’t Stop—Fleetwood Mac (1977)
Used by Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign as a message of eternal hope and optimism, notwithstanding twelve years of Republican rule under Reagan and Bush, this song still has a similar inspirational message as we face at least four years under President Trump.
We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest (Ella’s Song)—Sweet Honey in the Rock
Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Ella’s Song” is relatively current, but it appears here because it forcefully uses the message of Ella Baker, a civil rights activist from the 1960’s. The message is one of perseverance and keeping one’s eye on the prize despite it seeming futile at times. Its relevance continues to resonate with the Black Lives Matter movement.
While the 1980s and 1990s can reasonably be thought of as a time of relative political apathy as opposed to rebellion, some songs emerged during this time that are noteworthy.
People Have the Power—Patti Smith (1988)
With a melody that sounds decidedly 80s, this song revives the theme from the Vietnam War era, reminding listeners that if we band together as a cohesive unit, we do indeed have power.
Talkin’ Bout A Revolution—Tracy Chapman (1988)
One of her lesser-known songs, it’s not a surprising sentiment coming from Chapman, that rare folk singer crooning about societal ills in the 1980s. “Finally the tables are starting to turn. Talkin’ bout a revolution.”
Fight the Power—Public Enemy (1989)
Public Enemy’s song is one of many hip hop/rap anthems from the 1980s and 1990s that evoked the mood of rightfully angry African Americans as they faced ongoing institutional racism following the Civil Rights Movement. Although wealthier white Americans benefitted from the trickle-down economic policies of the GOP, and could afford to be relatively apolitical in the 1980s and 1990s, blacks grappled with discrimination, income inequality, police brutality, and mass incarceration.
Youth Against Fascism—Sonic Youth (1992)
The title alone is worthy of mention given the decidedly fascist elements of the new administration’s policies. And this lyric: “You got a stupid man. You got a Ku Klux Klan. . . . You’re an impotent jerk. You’re a fascist twerp.” I know, hard to believe this song wasn’t written about our current president and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, right?
To The Teeth—Ani DiFranco (1999)
A rare song about gun violence prevention, this moving ballad, which laments America’s obsession with being “armed to the teeth,” was inspired by the massacre at Columbine High School.
If young America remained largely apathetic for much of the final 20 years of the millennium, that all changed after the terrorist attack on 9/11, which led to a war in the Middle East that most people ultimately considered to be entirely unnecessary and started under false pretenses. For the first time since the Vietnam War era, Americans were engaged politically in a way that led (at least some artists) to pen songs of resistance.
American Idiot & Holiday—Green Day (2004)
Perhaps the most successful of the Iraq War-era protest artists in the 2000’s, the 90s alternative rock band Green Day stopped singing about drugs, and found politics, penning a collection of anti-Bush administration songs, including these two anthems. The album “American Idiot” even inspired a hit Broadway show by the same name.
Not Ready to Make Nice—Dixie Chicks (2006)
While rockers have always been known for their irreverence and anti-establishment ways, not so much country singers, particularly female ones. Thus, when Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks made anti-Bush administration statements during a concert early on in the Iraq War, they were seen by country music fans as unpatriotic or traitors, told to “shut up and sing,” and even received death threats. Once a large segment of the population realized the folly of the Iraq War, and the Dixie Chicks made a comeback in a different political climate, they made clear that they didn’t forget how they were treated. This song is relevant today as progressive resisters are being urged to get with the program and support the President. I know that I am in good company when I say I most definitely am “not ready to make nice.”
Let’s Impeach the President—Neil Young (2006)
While Young obviously was talking about impeaching George W. Bush, the song is arguably even more apt for those of us resisting the Trump Administration. Just add this line: Stop Trump! Stop Pence! Impeach them for Emoluments!
Radio Nowhere, Livin’ in the Future—Bruce Springsteen (2007)
Bruce has always straddled the line between pop rock and folk music, but never combined the two as well as he did in his album “Magic,” which was an indictment of the Bush Administration’s policies and a call to action to those of us who are complacent or apathetic to politics.
Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall—Tom Russell (2007)
Before Trump peddled to his supporters a “wall” to keep out immigrants from the South, there was the Bush Administration’s threatened border wall. While the policy is inherently anti-immigrant, Russell’s song is designed to remind us all that immigrants have always been more of a help than a hindrance and that, ultimately, it is the wealthy and powerful white man who is the real threat to America.
We Shall Not Be Moved—Mavis Staples (2007)
Inspired by an African American spiritual, R&B singer and civil rights activist Staples recorded her version of the song. By using the term “we,” instead of the original “I,” she suggests that we are in the struggle together and will stand strong.
From the aptly titled album, “The Resistance,” Muse’s song is about fighting back: “They will not force us. They will stop degrading us. They will not control us. We will be victorious.”
As we continued to battle institutional racism and bigotry of all kinds, and saw ongoing economic woes for African Americans and others following the 2009 recession, no one could quite believe what would eventually come to pass: we would actually elect as our president a reality TV show star with no government experience, and a history of conning people out of their money. These songs reflect the current mood of so many of us fighting in The Resistance.
Fight Song—Rachel Platten (2014)
While Platten’s song is not inherently political, its theme of defiant resilience and lyrics about how a single person can “make an explosion” led to Hillary Clinton’s campaign using it for many of her appearances. The song continues to be relevant now that she (and those of us in The Resistance) lost the election to a man like Donald Trump.
Glory—John Legend & Common (2014)
Legend and Common co-wrote this anthem for the movie Selma’s soundtrack. The song’s theme of fighting the ongoing battle for freedom and justice transcends the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s.
J. Cole—Be Free (2014)
This heart-wrenching tribute to Michael Brown, a young black teen who was tragically shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, pleads that “all we want to do is take chains off, all we want to do is be free.” In other words, black lives should matter to us just as much as white lives do.
My Shot—Hamilton the Musical (2015) & My Shot (Rise Up The Remix)—The Roots, Nate Ruess, Busta Rhymes, Joell Ortiz (2016)
Lin-Manuel Miranda has made no secret about his political beliefs, including a disdain for Donald Trump. So, when he wrote the smash-hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” we suspected that the rap song “My Shot” applied to more than just the experience of our Founding Fathers rising up in revolution over two centuries ago. Indeed, The Roots agreed and recorded “Rise Up The Remix,” which is “My Shot” but with modernized lyrics. Both versions of the song are instant classics for The Resistance’s soundtrack. (Speaking of Broadway shows, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Les Miserables’ revolution anthem, Do You Hear the People Sing, which was first recorded over 30 years ago.)
Rise Up—Andra Day (2015)
Speaking of uprisings, Day’s jazz inspired anthem is about personal bravery, inner strength, and overcoming adversity.
FDT (F**k Donald Trump)—YG & Nipsey Hu$$le (2016)
That title. Enough said.
Million Dollar Loan—Death Cab for Cutie (2016)
From the anti-Trump collection “30 Days, 30 Songs” comes this indictment of Trump’s overly opulent way of life and less than humble beginnings.
Troubled Times—Green Day (2016)
One of the few bands to take on squarely the Bush Administration, Green Day released just before the election its album “Revolution Radio,” which is filled with angst and dread over our country’s state of affairs. The video that goes along with this song makes clear Green Day’s view that we are as much in troubled times now as we were back in the 60s.
Make America Great Again—Pussy Riot (2016)
The Russian punk protest band takes aim at Donald Trump in this scathing satire of his dystopian vision for America: “Let other people in. Listen to your women. Stop killing black children. Make America Great Again.” Indeed.
Where’s the Revolution—Depeche Mode & Chained to the Rhythm—Katy Perry (2017)
A pair of brand-new songs from very different artists but with a similar theme: if you aren’t “woke” yet, you better wake up. Right now.
Tiny Hands—Fiona Apple (2017)
With the very real audio of Trump uttering odious words about pussy-grabbing in the background, Apple’s chant of “We don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near our underpants” was tailor-made for the Women’s March on Washington and beyond.