CJ Baker is a published writer who recently started the podcast Ongoing History of Protest Music.
Voices of Social Activism Bubbling Forth From The Underground
The 2010s is a decade that has given way to an increasing emphasis on 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 canon of protest anthems.
#10: 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. It is an appropriate subject in light of the coming out of the band's transgender frontwoman, Laura Jane Grace.
The title track deals with a transgender woman's desire to be viewed as other females but "they 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 transgender individuals.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me! (Video)
9: FDT -- YG and Nipsey Hussle
When studying the history of protest music, it becomes evident that many of the most powerful protest tunes are 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 nominee in 2016.
The lyrics reference Trump's many ethnic slurs. It also addresses MAGA and how many Latinos have a longer American lineage than the white supremacists that talk about taking the country back. Since Trump became President, 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
#8: 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)
#7: 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.
When the song was performed during the February 12, 2017 broadcast of the 59th Grammy Awards, Busta Rhymes joined the Tribe on stage, and he addressed Trump as “agent orange.” It 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)
#6: 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's 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 start with uncomfortable conversations.
The song does contain explicit lyrics.
Gatekeeper by Jessie Reyez (Video)
#5: Reagan -- Killer Mike
This hard-hitting political rap tune is from Killer Mike's 2012 album, R.A.P. Music. The album was produced by El-P, who would end up joining Mike to form Run The Jewels. The song is a lyrical onslaught on Ronald Reagan's US presidency. It addresses the adverse effects of Reaganomics and how the policies 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. 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 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").
Just as a note, the song does contain some explicit language.
Reagan by Killer Mike (Video)
#4: 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's 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 several songs that could have easily been considered for this list.
The Words That Maketh Murder by PJ Harvey (Video)
#3: Pa'lante -- Hurray for the Riff Raff
“Pa’lante” is off Hurray For The Riff Raff’s 2017 album, The Navigator. Pa’lante is short for para adelante, which translates as forward. This stirring anthem poignantly explores the subject of the cultural assimilation and appropriation of Puerto Rico. It also effectively incorporates Pedro Pietri’s powerful poem, "Puerto Rican Obituary.”
“Pa’lante” was recorded before Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, which makes the song even more relevant. It is a much need optimistic anthem of resilience. Pa’lante!
Just as a note, Hurray for the Riff Raff's 2014 tune "The Body Electric" was previously on the list. Made the difficult decision to drop it due to the one song per artist rule.
The song also contains some explicit lyrics.
Pa'lante by Hurray for the Riff Raff (Video)
#2: This Is America -- Childish Gambino
When Childish Gambino released the provocative single and video for “This Is America” it was a pinnacle moment in protest music. It is tough to separate the powerful visuals of the video from the tune, but even without the video, the song stands on its own as a poignant exploration of being black in America.
The lyrics examine systemic American social ills, such as gun violence and police brutality. Also, the juxtaposing of cheerful choruses with gritty lyrics makes a potent statement about the perception of being black in America, compared to reality.
Just as a note the song contains some explicit lyrics and some of the visuals could be considered violent.
This Is America by Childish Gambino (Video)
Black Lives Matter
#1: Alright -- Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar is at the forefront of a revival of socially conscious hip-hop. His 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly has several 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 because 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 Gonna 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)
© 2016 CJ Baker
luis roman on June 22, 2020:
HubPages is people makes songs they name they songs
Austin Powell on July 10, 2018:
This is America by Childish Gambino
Land of the Free by Joey Bada$$ should also be considered imo
Brendan Gallagher on July 21, 2016:
Thoroughly enjoyed your selections.