Oppression, separation, classism, racism, sexism, capitalism, etc. have always had their way in this materialistic world of billionaires and privileged exploiters. After a point, it gets to you! How long are we going to take things sitting down, getting pinned down by the powers that be? It’s time to speak out and raise your voice! Standing for various causes or just highlighting the need for humanity through the past decades, here are our picks for the 10 biggest protest anthems that remain the soundtrack of change and revolution!
Black Sabbath – War Pigs
From what was originally supposed to be “Walpurgis”, which is like a Satanist’s Christmas, came ‘War Pigs’, because the record company was wary of the occult repercussions. But, contextually, the song was written with the analogy in mind – “Generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses”. Although the song was written around the time of the Vietnam war, Black Sabbath barely knew anything about it, and lyricist / bassist Geezer Butler meant for it to be an anti-war song in totality. ‘War Pigs’ originated from a set-filling jam session. Early Black Sabbath, who were supposed to play multiple sets every night at The Beat Club in Switzerland in 1968, didn’t have enough songs to perform, so they would jam to fill sets. What a result!
Plastic Ono Band (with John Lennon) – Give Peace a Chance
What could obviously be more anti-war than to ‘Give Peace a Chance’! One of the world’s biggest pop musicians of the time, John Lennon, on his honeymoon ‘bed-in’ in room 1742 of the Queen Victoria Hotel in Montreal with Yoko Ono, called a few friends and celebrities, and the owner of a local recording studio, André Perry with 4 microphones and a 4-track tape recorder. Besides footage of the live recording of the song in the video, there are heart-wrenching shots of police brutality at anti-war protests and Lennon and Ono performing the song at protests in various cities in the USA, which really highlights the mood of that era. Yoko Ono went on to re-record another version of the song in 1991 while the Gulf war tore apart the middle east, featuring a bunch of musicians from all walks of the music business – Lenny Kravitz, Peter Gabriel, Flea & John Frusciante (RHCP), Cyndi Lauper, Little Richard, MC Hammer, Sabastian Bach (Skid Row), Duff McKagan (GNR), Iggy Pop, Tom Petty and more.
Rage Against The Machine – Killing In The Name Of
“FUCK YOU I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!” – the enraging line delivered by Zach De La Rocha of Rage Against The Machine. ‘Killing In The Name Of’ became the band’s signature song after it was released as the first single from their self-titled first ever album in 1992. The album’s artwork was a graphic image of Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who set himself ablaze and sat calmly to his end as the flames engulfed him in protest of the Vietnamese government’s oppression of Buddhists. Due to the political nature of the lyrics, the song didn’t receive much airplay in the US, but grew to huge popularity in Europe. This incendiary piece of music has been at the centre of political and media attention time and again, even in more recent times. In 2009, the band re-released it as a single to topple the trend of reality TV competition X Factor’s winners dominating the Christmas No.1 spot on the UK charts.
Public Enemy – Fight The Power
Originally written for the Spike Lee directed film ‘Do The Right Thing’, the song ‘Fight The Power’ to be an anchoring part of the movie which focused on racial tensions in Brooklyn, New York. The crux of the lyrics, thematically, is a call to revolution, a call to fight ‘the powers that be’. Going back to a racist America in the 1980’s and 90’s, Public Enemy presents an unfiltered African-American perspective, confrontational and unapologetic, sick of the way they were marginalised and segregated and brutalised by the state and law enforcement. In the 3rd verse of the song, Chuck D associates the admiration of Elvis Presley’s music as racist, but later in life clarified that he was pointing out the lack of appreciation of the black artists who inspired Elvis and shaped his music. He also slams the glorified white American actor John Wayne who demeaned black people as irresponsible and unworthy of leadership in press interviews, backing white supremacy. Many other subliminal and direct references pop out through the song, so give it an attentive hard listen.
N.W.A. – Fuck tha Police
Probably the most aggressive, out-there, in-your-face approach to a protest song, ‘Fuck tha Police’ needs no explanation where the essence or theme of the lyrics is concerned. Back into mainstream hype with the movie ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (2015), based on the album of the same name and real-life events of the rap / hip-hop crew N.W.A., the song is a partially dramatised expression of the rappers’ feelings for inhuman racist police officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, where they lived and worked on their music back in the day. The dramatisation, as mentioned above, is a parodied verbal enactment of a court scenario where rappers Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E testify in a hearing to prosecute the police department, to hypothetical judge and the song’s co-producer Dr. Dre. The song riled up every community or people that have faced the brunt of unjust bullying nature of police brutality all over the world. So much so, that the group were targeted by the FBI, who sent N.W.A.’s record company a letter citing that the song enables misinterpretation of police. The infamous crew was arrested when they ignored an advance warning by the Detroit police authorities in 1989, while on stage performing ‘Fuck tha Police’.
Bob Marley – Get Up, Stand Up
Composed along with Peter Tosh while touring in Haiti, reggae legend Bob Marley wrote ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, deeply touched by the lives and poverty of Haitians. It took a while for the song to hit international acclaim. It was released in 1973, and post that became a rising hit at Bob Marley and The Wailers’ live performances all over the world, often being the last song on their set-list. Of all the protest music we’ve run through so far, reggae is the mellowest form of music by which one can convey messages of revolution and reform, and slowly across the span of his career, Bob Marley became a protest poet in his own right, with ‘Get up, Stand Up’ turning out to be one of his most popular songs till date, played at clubs, parties, covered by bands, re-interpreted and re-mixed by musicians in their own way. Like the lyrics say – “Stand up for your rights, don’t give up the fight!”
Childish Gambino – This is America
A bold look at a bunch of social issues faced by black people in America through an extremely well-produced violent music video, actor and rapper Donald Glover, under his stage alias Childish Gambino released the controversial but well-accepted ‘This is America’. It was so well-accepted, that it became the first ever rap song to win at the GRAMMY Awards in categories – Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Performance and Best Music Video. The song addresses, through visual means of course, the broader issue of mass shootings and gun violence in the US, since there’ve always been arguments for and against better control and legitimacy of gun ownership. How insecure can one get?! Apart from that other issues such as historically prolonged systemic racism and discrimination are smartly written about by Glover as he walks through the music video in peculiar fashion – from which some of his expressions sparked a whole new universe of memes as well. All in all, if you appreciate smart songwriting, well produced music and socially conscious music, this song and its music video are landmark material. Must watch!
The Sex Pistols – Anarchy in the UK
What many consider the origins of topically anti-authoritarian punk music, the release of Sex Pistols’ debut single ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ was a rude sonic slap in the face of the bland music scene of the mid-70’s. What really came as a first – the sensational and violent concept of anarchy – which was a result of economically marginalised and frustrated, angered, unemployed and socially alienated bitter youth of the time. Boldly kicking off the song with – “I am an Antichrist, I am an anarchiste”, it was clear that the band was speaking for a whole generation of frustrated individuals who shared the same ideology when the song became a huge hit. To add to it all, after reaching no.38 on the UK charts, the record label EMI dropped Sex Pistols after they used profanity in a televised live performance in 1977. They however procured a demo version of the song and released it on a bootleg album called ‘Spunk’, raising a big middle finger to the music conglomerate. True essence of punk! Fuck yes, Sex Pistols, fuck yes!
Lesley Gore – You Don’t Own Me
All about liberating herself from the patriarchal constructs of her lover and metaphorically the male-dominated society of the time, 17-year old Lesley Sue Goldstein, professionally known as Lesley Gore released one of her biggest hits ‘You Don’t Own Me’ in 1963. She received huge applause at her live appearances because she said what otherwise would be considered ‘bold’ or unwomanly at the time. The lyrics explain themselves, as she tells her lover that he does not own her, cannot tell her what to do or say and he should not be putting her on display. For younger women in the following decades, the lyrics became a great inspiration and is claimed to be a big factor in the second wave feminist movement. She was the inner voice women need to invoke, and slowly but surely did. So widely consumed by the audiences the song became, that it was number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 3 weeks in February 1964.
Run The Jewels – Walking In The Snow
2020, a calamitous year for humanity, gave us one of the best politically charged and contemporarily connected albums ever – ‘RTJ4’ by Run The Jewels, who are a rap / hip-hop due comprising of rapper Killer Mike from Atlanta and rapper + music producer El-P from New York. This particular song ‘Walking In The Snow’ is a look at how the machinery of fascism and economic exploitation work. El-P, in his verses is more existential and has a wider world view, whereas Killer Mike brings things down to a closer zoomed-in personal angle. Run The Jewels wrote and completed ‘RTJ4’ in 2019 and released it on 3rd June, 2020, whilst the rioting and the protests escalated all across the USA and the world due to the brutal inhuman daylight murder of George Floyd by the police, captured by multiple onlookers, scared to interfere because of armed cops. People started tearing down statues and monuments of historical racist leaders during the riots that followed. My words cannot describe the depth and anger that have been expressed by both these amazing writers. I am just going to leave you with my favourite lines from each of their verses –
“All oppression’s born of lies, I don’t make the rules, I’m just one guy
All due respect, if getting spit on’s how respect is now defined
Hungry for truth but you got screwed and drank the Kool-Aid, there’s a line
It end directly at the edge of a mass grave, that’s their design
Funny fact about a cage, they’re never built for just one group
So when that cage is done with them and you’re still poor, it come for you
The newest lowest on the totem, well golly gee, you have been used
You helped to fuel the death machine that down the line will kill you too (oops)
Pseudo-Christians, y’all indifferent
Kids in prisons ain’t a sin? shit
If even one scrap a what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different
What a disingenuous way to piss away existence, I don’t get it
I’d say you lost your goddamn minds if y’all possessed one to begin with”
Killer Mike –
“And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me
And every day on evening news they feed you fear for free
And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me
And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy
Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically
Fast forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it’ll be
I promise I’m honest, they coming for you
The day after they comin’ for me………….
……….All of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin’ but slaves
Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state”
Humanity is a concept that’s been missed by a few important people through time and even presently in the mix of world politics. But, rest assured, when the world loses focus, there’s always going to be a voice of reason, like these amazing artists above, who will remind us that we do not have to bow down under the foot of corrupt authority, no matter what shoe it wears – capitalism, patriarchy, bigotry, racism, classism, sexism and a host of issues. Just remember to show equal respect to all human beings and speak up for those who cannot. You are the change! You are the future!