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The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the '80s

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CJ Baker is a published writer who wrote the novel and started the companion podcast An Epic Soundtrack To A Mundane Existence.

Free Nelson Mandela Protest

Free Nelson Mandela protest, Berlin, Germany, September 20, 1986.

Free Nelson Mandela protest, Berlin, Germany, September 20, 1986.

Protest Music of the 1980s

Critics of the 1980s like to point out the superficial nature of much of the '80s music. However, it should be noted that this decade was a surprisingly rich period for the evolution of the protest song. The causes that were protested and the musical genres represented were very diverse. The protest song definitely has become much more than a folk singer strumming his acoustic guitar.

In the '80s socially conscious rap music emerged as a form of urban folk music. From the underground, the U.S. hardcore punk scene provided a voice for disenfranchised youth, much in the same way that UK punk scene did in the '70s. Also on the global front, there was a huge anti-apartheid protest movement that was developing.

Here is a list of the 10 best protest songs of the '80s. Feel free to protest the list by letting me know if any of your personal favourites were excluded.

10. "Dear God" by XTC

"Dear God" appeared on XTC's 1986 album Skylarking (even though the initial pressings did not include it). XTC's lead singer Andy Partridge was inspired to write the song, because of a series of children books by the same name that he felt exploited children.

"Dear God" strongly protests the existence of God ("I can't believe in you", "Did you make mankind after we made you?"), the validity of the Bible ("Us crazy humans wrote it ... Still believin' that junk is true / well, I know it ain't and so do you") and God's benevolence ("The wars you bring, the babes you drown, those lost at sea and never found").

Even if you don't personally agree with the atheistic sentiments of the lyrics, the song does raise some fundamental questions that need to be asked.

9. "Holiday in Cambodia" by Dead Kennedys

This hardcore classic was from the Dead Kennedys' 1980 landmark debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. The Dead Kennedys' was not only one of the most important bands to emerge from the U.S. underground punk scene, but they were also one of the most political. They were key spokesman for the underground protest movement.

"Holiday in Cambodia" protests the self-righteous attitude of American youth ("So you been to school/For a year or two/And you know you’ve seen it all/In daddy’s car/Thinkin’ you’ll go far") and the oppressive Cambodian Pol Pot regime ("Well you’ll work harder/With a gun in your back/For a bowl of rice a day/Slave for soldiers/Till you starve/Then your head is skewered on a stake"). The song is satirically biting and thought-provoking.

8. "Stop the Violence" by Boogie Down Productions

BDP was one of the leaders of the socially conscious hip hop movement. "Stop The Violence" is from the groundbreaking 1988 political rap album By All Means Necessary.

"Stop The Violence" was a protest song that campaigned against violence within the hip hop community. KRS-One wrote the song in response to the murder of his bandmate Scott La Rock & the killing of a young fan during a BDP & Public Enemy concert. Also in 1989 KRS-One formed the Stop The Violence protest movement with other prominent artists of the East Coast Hip Hop community.

7. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" by U2

This classic protest song was from U2's 1983 album War. U2 was one of the most socially conscious bands to emerge from the 80s. That being said, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" which dealt with the massacre that took place in Derry, Northern Island, on January 30, 1972, may have been the band's most political song that they ever recorded.

It is good to note that the scope of the song transcends an isolated event. Concerning this fact U2 drummer Larry Mullin made the following statement about the song:

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"... Like you talk about Northern Ireland, 'Sunday Bloody Sunday,' people sort of think, 'Oh, that time when 13 Catholics were shot by British soldiers'; that's not what the song is about. That's an incident, the most famous incident in Northern Ireland and it's the strongest way of saying, 'How long? How long do we have to put up with this?' I don't care who's who - Catholics, Protestants, whatever. You know people are dying every single day through bitterness and hate, and we're saying why? What's the point? And you can move that into places like El Salvador and other similar situations - people dying. Let's forget the politics, let's stop shooting each other and sit around the table and talk about it... "

6. "Free Nelson Mandela" by The Special AKA

This anti-apartheid civil rights protest classic was released as a single in 1984. "Nelson Mandela" was an unusual protest song, in the sense that it was upbeat and celebratory. But the celebratory nature of the song (and the African influence) probably contributed it being an international anthem. The song made its way to South Africa where it would be played at sporting events and anti-apartheid rallies.

This Ska classic was also performed during a June 27, 2008, concert in celebration of Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday. The performance which took place 18 years after being released from prison, featured vocals by Amy Winehouse.

5. "Rockin' in the Free World" by Neil Young

This proto-grunge classic from Neil Young's 1989 album Freedom has become a modern-day protest standard. "Rockin' in the Free World", bookend the Freedom album, opening with a live, stripped-down acoustic version and closing with the electric version.

The song was primarily a protest aimed at the George Bush Sr. administration, but the song was adopted as an anthem during other significant political events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. An edited version of the song was featured during the closing credits of the Micheal Moore's 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, protesting the George Bush Jr. administration.

4. "Biko" by Peter Gabriel

Here is another classic song from the anti-apartheid protest movement. "Biko" is from Gabriel third self-titled album (commonly referred to as Melt) released in 1980. The African musical elements make this one of the most moving protest songs of all time.

The song deals with the August 18, 1977, imprisonment—and subsequent September 12, 1977, death—of South African activist Stephen Biko. The intro and closing of "Biko" appropriately incorporates the singing of the South African anti-apartheid folk song "Senzen Na?" (translated into English, "What have we done?"). A live version of the song was released in 1987, and the video featured primarily clips from the 1987 Biko biopic Cry Freedom.

3. "Straight to Hell" by The Clash

"Straight To Hell" is from The Clash's 1982 album, Combat Rock. Like many of the great The Clash songs, it is a protest against social injustices. Also like many of The Clash protest tunes, Joe Strummer addresses a broad range of subject matters.

The song addresses economic issues (referencing the closing of many Northern England steel mills), American soldiers abandoning Vietnam children that they fathered, along with different occurrences of racism. It is one of the most moving songs that The Clash ever recorded. This is another example of why The Clash is one of the most important socially-conscious bands of all time.

2. "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley & The Wailers

This is from the last Bob Marley & The Wailers album released before Marley's death, Uprising. "Redemption Song" is essentially a Bob Marley solo number, just featuring Marley's vocals and acoustic guitar. It abandons the reggae elements for a straight-up folk feel.

This folk classic addresses the general idea of freedom. Concerning "Redemption Song" important place within the protest movement, U2's Bono made the following statement about the song:

"I carried Bob Marley’s 'Redemption Song' to every meeting I had with a politician, prime minister, or president. It was for me a prophetic utterance or as Bob would say ‘the small ax that could fell the big tree’. The song reminded me that freedom always comes with a cost, but for those who would prepare to pay it, maybe ‘emancipation from mental slavery’ would be our reward."

Bob Marley, known as the Rasta Prophet, wrote and sang many protest classics.

Bob Marley, known as the Rasta Prophet, wrote and sang many protest classics.

1. "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy

This hip hop protest classic was originally released as a single in 1989, written for the Spike Lee film, Do the Right Thing. The song also appeared on their 1990 album, Fear of a Black Planet.

The starting point of the song was the Isley Brothers' '70s protest classic of the same name, but Chuck D built on the lyrics to give it a more modern viewpoint. The song which is viewed as a black empowerment anthem is often misinterpreted. For example, Public Enemy's bass player Brian Hardgroove made the following the statement about the song: "Law enforcement is necessary. As a species, we haven’t evolved past needing that. Fight the Power is not about fighting authority—it’s not that at all. It’s about fighting abuse of power."

It is also good to note while other pro-black empowerment artists supported the idea of separation, Public Enemy promoted integration. The idea of standing up to oppression is not a concept limited to just one race. It is a universal concept. If humanity as a whole stood up to the abuse of power then the world would be a better place.

© 2012 CJ Baker


Fox Music on June 15, 2015:

Another great set of protest songs - there is no shortage on oppression in the world

Jean Bakula from New Jersey on June 20, 2014:

You already had me with U2 and Neil Young, but I can't even listen to Bob Marley's Redemption song without crying. It's so beautiful. It was the last song he performed on stage before he died, which he knew would be at age 36.

CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on May 11, 2012:

Faith Reaper - Nowadays even a lesser known indie artists in a small intimate venue, is going to cost more than $6. It is cool you had the opportunity to enjoy some really great $6 concerts. Thanks for the kind words.

Margaret Scarboro - Glad you approve. To me the choice was somewhat obvious. To me Public Enemy was to socially conscious rap what Bob Dylan was to socially conscious folk music in the 60's.

Margaret Scarboro on May 11, 2012:

Yes..."Fight the Power" by Public Enemy!

Faith Reaper from southern USA on May 10, 2012:

Yes, I remember back in the day, when the great of the great concerts were only $6.00. Ha. How ancient am I? Your knowledge of all music genres and eras is astounding. In His Love, Faith Reaper

CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on May 10, 2012:

Thanks for the comments. The 80's isn't necessary my favorite era for music, especially in connection with the mainstream music of that time. But that being said the 80's did have great musical developments, and some really great socially conscious songs. I seen U2 live a few years back, and I was disappointed. But that could be partly due to the fact that I paid close to $200 for the ticket.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on May 10, 2012:

spartucusjones, I almost said, oh no, not the 80's, but I am glad I read on, as I do remember going to a concert in Tampa back in the day when U2 was a warm-up band for guess who, the Jay Giles Band (spell!) Ha. Can you believe it? And when U2 came on stage, they rocked, and I loved it, but the audience, due to U2 being placed with the Jay Giles Band (You know, "My Baby is a Centerfold?" Uggg. The audience booed them off the stage, and they threw their guitars down and said some ugly words I will not repeat, but I guess they showed them! Ha. Oh, I loved, loved, loved, "Keep On Rockin In The Free World" You have brought back some cool memories from the cobwebs in my brain. In His Love, Faith Reaper

CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on May 10, 2012:

Thanks. I am glad if I introduced to to songs or artists that you may not of previously been familiar with.

Dianna Mendez on May 10, 2012:

OK. I must be living under a rock because I can't recall some of these songs. Glad you posted them because it brings about an awareness of what the era meant.

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