The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the 2010s
Voices of Social Activism Bubbling Forth From The Underground
The 2010s is a decade which has given way to an increase emphasis in social activism. Examples of this include Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, March for Our Lives, along with numerous other protest movements.
Despite this supposed increase in social awareness, many are still asking: where are the protest songs? Who is writing the soundtrack for these movements?
The answer may surprise some. The protest songs haven't gone anywhere. As always, the underground is a rich treasure trove of politically charged music. The modern evolution of folk, punk and hip hop continue to make considerable contributions to the cannon of protest anthems.
Here is a list of the 10 best protest songs of the 2010s. Of course, with the decade still in progress this list will need to periodically be revised. But if injustice still exists, there will still be voices speaking out against it.
#10: White Man’s World -- Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
"White Man's World" is from Isbell's 2017 album, The Nashville Sound. The album is the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter most socially conscious. Many of the tunes grapple with deeply ingrained attitudes associated with the South.
“White Man’s World” addresses both white and male privilege. As a father with a young daughter Isbell hopes “this world could be hers one day, but her momma knew better”. He references the genocide of Native Americans and slavery. He also addresses the subject of ingrained and systemic racism that continues to be prevalent. Even though the song could be considered somber, Isbell does express optimism (I still have faith, but I don’t know why / Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes). The song ends with a hope that future generations will be able to bring about lasting change.
White Man’s World by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (Video)
#9: Transgender Dysphoria Blues -- Against Me!
During the 21st Century, the civil rights movement has evolved to include issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. The title track of Against Me! 2014 album tackles the discrimination that those within the trans community face. The entire album deals with the issue of gender dysphoria, and it is an appropriate subject in light of the coming out of the band's transgendered front woman, Laura Jane Grace. The title track deals with a transgendered woman's desire to be viewed as other females but everyone "just see a faggot”. This song and the entire album is the perfect soundtrack for those struggling with gender identity issues. It is also a good starting point for those who are trying to understand the issues facing transgendered individuals.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me! (Video)
8: FDT -- YG and Nipsey Hussle
When studying the history of protest music, it becomes quite evident that many of the most powerful protest tunes are also the most direct. There is nothing subtle about “FDT”. The “DT” is short for Donald Trump and I'm sure you can figure out what the “F” stands for. This tune was recorded before Trump was announced as the Republican nominees, the lyrics references his many ethnic slurs. It also addresses MAGA and many Latinos have a longer American lineage than the white supremacists that talk about taking the country back. Now that Trump is the President of the USA the response of many has been a resounding “FDT”.
YG also recorded “FDT Part 2” featuring G-Easy and Macklemore.
The video below does contain explicit lyrics.
FDT by YG and Nipsey Hussle (Video)
Women's March on Washington
#7: Quiet -- MILCK
"Quiet" was written back in 2015 and was first released online in 2016, but the tune went viral when a video of MILCK performing with a flash mob at the Women’s March On Washington on January 21st, 2017 was posted. MILCK is the alias of Connie Lim, and this poignant tune was based on her experience with both sexual and physical abuse.
MILCK continues to be a "one woman riot" performing at numerous political rallies. “Quiet" has become a modern day female empowerment anthem which especially resonates considering both the #MeToo and Times Up movement. The song also appears on her 2018 debut EP, This Is Not The End.
Quiet by MILCK (Video)
#6: We The People -- A Tribe Called Quest
“We The People” is from the album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, which was released on November 11th, 2016, three days after Trump got elected. The hard-hitting tune tackles the racist and homophobic attitudes expressed by Trump and his supporters. Also, the song was performed during the February 12, 2017 broadcast of the 59th Grammy Award, Busta Rhymes joined the Tribe on stage on stage,and he addressed Trump as “agent orange” in what was one of the most politically charged moments in Grammy history.
The song does contain some explicit language.
We The People by A Tribe Called Quest (Video)
#5: Gatekeeper -- Jesse Reyez
As soon as women came out against Harvey Weinstein, the floodgates opened. Giants in every industry have fallen. From the 2017 EP, Kiddo, “Gatekeeper” by the Colombian-Canadian singer-songwriter, relates Reyez personal #MeToo moment with a music producer. The producer is the title “Gatekeeper” who uses promises of stardom to try to sexually exploit aspiring singers. The tune can be uncomfortable to listen to, but lasting changes often starts with uncomfortable conversations.
The song does contain explicit lyrics.
Gatekeeper by Jessie Reyez (Video)
#4: Reagan -- Killer Mike
This hard hitting political rap tune is from Killer Mike's 2012 album, R.A.P. Music. The song is a lyrical onslaught on Ronald Reagan's US presidency. It addresses the adverse effects of Reaganomics and how the polices of the Reagan administration contributed to police violence and different race and class issues that continue to be prevalent. It should also be noted that Killer Mike views Reagan as a pawn in a bigger game and he also attacks the US presidents that followed: both Bushes, Clinton and Obama. As far as Mike is concerned all of these Presidents have the same puppet master and they all have fallen prey to greed and corruption (Why did Reagan and Obama both go after Qaddafi / We invaded sovereign soil, going after oil / Taking countries is a hobby paid for by the oil lobby/ Same as in Iraq, and Afghanistan)
During the 2016 elections, Mike campaigned strongly for Bernie Sanders. He spoke at a couple of the rallies and during a 2016 Coachella set, Bernie Sanders introduced Run The Jewels (which features Killer Mike and El-P) in a video segment.
Just as a note, the song does contain some explicit language.
Reagan by Killer Mike (Video)
#3: The Body Electric -- Hurray for the Riff Raff
This powerfully poignant political folk tune is from Hurray for the Riff Raff's 2014 album, Small Town Heroes. The song provides thought provoking commentary on music's history of promoting violence towards woman and minority. This trend is particularly evident when studying the historical developments of folk songs. For example, the song references the traditional murder ballad "Delia's Gone" (which was notably covered by Johnny Cash).
Alynda Lee Segarra, the lead singer and chief songwriter of Hurray for the Riff Raff, made the following statement about the intent of the song in a NPR interview:
"There is a weaponization of the body happening right now in America. Our bodies are being turned against us. Black and brown bodies are being portrayed as inherently dangerous. A black person's size and stature are being used as reason for murder against them. This is ultimately a deranged fear of the power and capabilities of black people. It is the same evil idea that leads us to blame women for attacks by their abusers."
In 2017, Hurray for the Riff Raff released the brilliant socially conscious album Navigator. Because of my one song per artist rule I'm reluctantly excluding “Pa’lante” from that album.
The Body Electric by Hurray for the Riff Raff (Video)
#2: The Words That Maketh Murder -- PJ Harvey
This scathing anti-war tune is from Harvey's 2011 album Let England Shake. The entire album is a socially conscious masterpiece dealing with Harvey cynicism of her native country. It is also an examination of how mankind seems to be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. This particular song is in response to the war in Afghanistan. It also mourns diplomacy's failure to end warfare (“The words that maketh murder" and "What if I take my problem to the United Nations?").
Just as a note, in 2016 Harvey released another solid socially conscious album entitled The Hope Six Demolition Project. This album addresses issues of poverty and social cleansing and it boasts a number of songs that could have easily been considered for this list.
The Words That Maketh Murder by PJ Harvey (Video)
Black Lives Matter
#1: Alright -- Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar is on the forefront of a revival of socially conscious hip hop. His 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly has a number of songs that merit consideration for this list. I ended up narrowing it down to "Alright" and "The Blacker the Berry". I ended up opting for "Alright" primarily because there was an officially released video for it. It is also an appropriate choice in light of the fact that the chorus of the song is commonly sung during Black Lives Matter rallies. The assurance of "We gon' be alright" provides positive affirmation in a similar vein to 60s socially conscious soul tunes, like Sam Cooke's "A Change is Going to Come", except that the optimism is a bit more cautious and the lyrics are a bit more gritty. In many ways it is the natural by-product of decades of pent up frustration. Political movements need soundtracks and Lamar is playing his part in helping to compose that soundtrack.
Just as a note, the song does contain some explicit language.
Alright by Kendrick Lamar (Video)
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© 2016 CJ Baker