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 the Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movements, along with the speaking out on issues such as climate change and various sorts of inequalities.
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. There are also members of the old guard from the 60s and 70s that are still raising their voices against the world's injustices.
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 as long as injustice still exists, there will still be voices speaking out against it.
10: A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop -- Neil Young and Promise of the Real
Neil Young is no stranger to activism and in his 70s he is still vigorously championing numerous causes. This song is off of Young's 36th studio album, the 2015 released The Monsanto Years. The entire album is a politically charge attack against the Monsanto Company for their use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). This particular tune also attacks the Starbucks coffee chain for their alleged use of genetically modified foods. As far as protesting goes, Young is rarely known for his subtlety. This is Young at his pointed and angry best.
The backing band, Promise of the Real, features two of Willie Nelson's sons, Micah and Lukas. The partnership developed from Neil's involvement with Farm Aid (which was co-founded by Willie).
A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop by Neil Young and Promise of the Real (Video)
9: Working For The Government -- A Tribe Called Red with Buffy Sainte-Marie
This song is a 2015 remix of a tune that originally appeared on Buffy's 2008 album, Running for the Drum. Just like with Neil Young, Buffy has been making socially conscious music for over 5 decades. This particular song pointedly deals with governmental corruption (Hot war Cold war/ M-m-m-money and guns/ It's all the same to him he/ Working for the government).
A Tribe Called Red is a First Nations electronic music group who blends elements of EDM with traditional aboriginal music. Many of their songs directly deal with Native issues and their collaboration with fellow Native Canadian, Sainte-Marie, is an appropriate symbolic passing of the torch. For a culture to survive and thrive, the next generation needs to stand up and be counted. A Tribe Called Red does that for the First Nations community.
Working For The Government by A Tribe Called Red with Buffy Sainte-Marie (Video)
#8: MariKKKopa -- Desaparecidos
Desaparecidos is the punk rock project of indie-folk artist Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes). This song was originally released as a single in 2012 and was featured on the 2015 album Payola. The song is in reference to Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. It also references Arizona's anti-immigration laws (comparing their efforts to the KKK). The song addresses the fact that Arizona was once part of Mexico ("They got some nerve to say they were here first") and in the eyes of Oberst, many of these anti-immigration sentiments and polices, are a result of white supremacist ideologies ("It’s time we had some justice for the white race on this earth" and "We keep our world and Maricopa pure"). The song also takes on added weight in the light of immigration becoming a hot button topic during the 2016 US presidential election.
MariKKKopa by Desaparecidos (Video)
#7: Save the Hammer for the Man -- Tom Morello: The Night Watchman with Ben Harper
The Night Watchman is the political folk alter ego of Tom Morello, the former lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. This duet with Ben Harper is off of the 2011 album, World Wide Rebel Song and is a ballad for the powerless who struggle in their fight against social injustices. The song is definitely a rallying cry for activism and speaking out against political corruption (Politics, apocalypse start to look the same/ For the pasts of my redemption will mean the end of many things/ The ransom for my soul the blood of generals and kings).
The video to this song also shows Morello and Harper performing at Occupy rallies. Morello is a long time supporter of labor unions and both artists are well known for their activism.
Save the Hammer for the Man by Tom Morello: The Night Watchman with Ben Harper
#6: 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)
#5: Miniskirt -- Braids
This song is from the Canadian indie experimental pop band's 2015 album, Deep In the Iris. This particular song is a strong indictment against slut-shaming (But in my position/ I'm the slut / I'm the bitch/ I'm the whore / The one you hate) and in a 2016 Pitchfork interview, front woman Raphaelle Standell-Preston mentioned that the song addresses a real life incident of her being molested by her stepfather.
The song is an inspiring tune of surviving sexual abuse. It also strongly addresses the issues of victim blaming (You feel you’ve the right to touch me / Cause I asked for it). Regardless of what someone is wearing they have the right not to be sexually harassed (It’s my little mini skirt / Think you can have it / My little mini skirt / It’s mine all mine). It is a powerful anthem of gender equality that sadly continues to be an ongoing social issue.
Miniskirt by Braids (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 failed preyed 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."
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)
#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.