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15 Best Political & Protest Songs Since 1985

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A Fonte is a professional researcher, fact-checker, and content strategist. She predicts, investigates, and answers questions for a living.

The best social political protest songs of our time.

The best social political protest songs of our time.

They say the first stage of activism is thinking for yourself, the next is speaking your mind, and the next is putting your money where your mouth is (so to speak) and actively, physically working towards change. Protest songs are part of this progression, putting thoughts to words that provoke action in songs that move people towards change.

Because some songs do move us, literally and figuratively. They spotlight hidden truths, solidify amorphous fears, and unify disparate people. Certain songs evoke emotions so strong that we have to do something about it. These are the kinds of inspiring, provocative, powerful songs a crowd might sing at a protest because they raise awareness, bring people together, and remind everyone what we are fighting for.

These are 15 of my favorite songs since 1985, listed chronologically.

Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves (Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin, 1985)

Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics wrote and teamed up with Aretha Franklin and the Charles Williams Gospel Choir to sing this modern feminist anthem. In a 2006 interview, Annie Lennox said:

"There is such a strong need for feminism, particularly in developing countries where women are still relegated to third class citizen status— where they don't have choices about their fertility, education and life choices. I'm very grateful for the things that feminism has offered me. I can vote in a democratic system. Women and men are trying to progress together, but women very often carry the brunt of the burden in life. Actually, I do like to take the opportunity to speak up for women's rights."

This catchy feminist anthem has been covered many times by many notable artists.

Notable lyrics:

Now this is a song
To celebrate
The conscious liberation
Of the female state

Mothers, daughters
And their daughters too
Woman to woman
We're singin' with you

Fuck the Police (N.W.A., 1988)

In this long, 5+ minute-long song on the album Straight Outta Compton, four rappers of N.W.A. come together to "take the stand" and testify about being profiled, harassed, attacked, brutalized, and abused by police.

The song's title was so controversial at the time of its release that it wasn't even printed on the album's package. Instead, it was listed as “blank-blank-blank-blank Tha Police (fill in the blanks).” The expression "Fuck the Police" has become a popular and powerful mantra. In cities throughout the US, people chanted these words during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd.

Ironically, when threats of legal action didn't prevent the release of songs like this, in response to protesters who call out police brutality, law enforcement has doubled down on violent efforts to protest the protest song, which has only proved the need for songs like this.

Notable lyrics:

Fuck the police comin' straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad 'cause I'm brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
Fuck that shit, 'cause I ain't the one
For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun

Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution (Tracy Chapman, 1988)

Tracy Chapman's debut album was full of powerful and haunting protest songs, but this was perhaps her most famous. Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign even used it as an unofficial theme for his 2016 bid for the presidency, when he played it before many speeches and rallies.

Although Chapman recorded the song in 1988, she says she wrote it in the 70s, long before the world was listening. In a 1988 Rolling Stone interview she said,

"There’s only so far you can push people before they start to push back, and I’ve seen that in my life. That’s where the things I write about come from. It’s wrong not to encourage people to hope or to dream or even to consider what’s thought to be impossible. That’s the only thing that keeps people alive sometimes. For me and my family, that was one of the only things that kept us going."

Notable lyrics:

Poor people gonna rise up
And take what's theirs

Don't you know you better
Run, run, run, run, run, run
Run, run, run, run, run, run
Oh, I said you better
Run, run, run, run, run, run
Run, run, run, run, run, run

'Cause finally the tables are starting to turn
Talkin' about a revolution

People Have the Power (Patti Smith, 1988)

Here's Patti Smith's rousing, optimistic reminder that people have the power to change the world. Since its release in 1988, the song has been covered by many, and Smith has performed it often in various public places—notably in 2019, where she sang it with 250 volunteer singers in an extremely moving choral concert (see video). As with any good protest song, the more voices that join in, the more powerful it sounds.

In an NME interview, speaking about why she and her late partner Fred "Sonic" Smith created the song, Patti said,

“We had both protested the Vietnam War when we were young. We had been part of the 60s, where our cultural voice was really strong, and we were trying to write a song that would reintroduce that kind of energy. It’s sad for me but quite beautiful. [...] I’ve walked in marches all over the world where people spontaneously started singing it, you know, whether it’s been in Paris or with the Palestinians or, you know, in Spain or New York City, Washington D.C.—and it’s so moving for me to see his dream realized.”

Notable lyrics:

I awakened to the cry
That the people have the power
To redeem the work of fools
Upon the meek the graces shower
It's decreed the people rule

The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power

Rebel Girl (Bikini Kill, 1992)

Bikini Kill, the original riot grrrls, were all about female empowerment and solidarity. "Rebel Girl" is a loud, undeniable reminder that women can be rebels, too. This song voices loud, powerful appreciation of Women Who Dare to Be Themselves. The band was together for seven years and released an impressive discography of women-empowering songs.

Lead singer Kathleen Hanna (who coined the phrase "girls to the front!" to protect female participants during performances) said that performing this song often felt dangerous. "There were confrontations, things thrown at us, stuff like that. So doing that song always felt like putting my superhero cape on."

Notable lyrics:

When she talks, I hear the revolution
In her hips, there's revolution
When she walks, the revolution's coming
In her kiss, I taste the revolution

Youth Against Fascism (Sonic Youth, 1992)

Fascism is a "song" that Sonic Youth hates, and their song "Youth Against Fascism" is a list of abuses of power to fight against. In it, singer Thurston Moore calls out several fascist organizations (like the KKK, church, and judicial system) repeating, It's the song I hate, It's the song I hate.

In an interview, Moore said “But man, when that record came out and we toured across Europe, that was all everybody wanted to talk about.” He announced that the lyrics were “penned by me and I take full responsibility for their tackiness and genius."

Notable lyrics:

We're banging pots and pans to make you understand
We gotta bury you, man, it's the song I hate, it's the song I hate

Killing in the Name (Rage Against the Machine, 1994)

Rage Against the Machine's song calls for a revolution against abuses of power. The song's lyrics were inspired by the case of Rodney King, who was brutally beaten by cops after a high-speed chase; the 1992 LA riots were sparked by the acquittal of those officers). The refrain "some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses" points to that connection between the LAPD and the Ku Klux Klan.

Notable lyrics:

Some of those that work forces
Are the same that burn crosses

Zombie (The Cranberries, 1994)

"Zombie" is a protest song by Irish band the Cranberries, written as a response to the death of two children who were killed in an IRA bombing in England. The two boys were shopping for Mother's Day cards when the bomb detonated. It's about the grim effects of nationalistic mindlessness and blind obedience, questioning those who do not stop to question themselves.

Irish lead singer Dolores O'Riordan explained, "The IRA are not me. I'm not the IRA. The Cranberries are not the IRA. My family are not. When it says in the song 'It's not me, it's not my family,' that's what I'm saying. It's not Ireland, it's some idiots living in the past."

Notable lyrics:

It's the same old theme, since nineteen-sixteen
In your head, in your head they're still fighting
With their tanks, and their bombs, and their bombs, and their guns
In your head, in your head they are dyingIn your head, in your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie
What's in your head? In your head?
Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie-ie, oh
Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, eh-eh-oh, ra-ra

This Is America (Childish Gambino, 2018)

This song starts off all nice and sweet... until a gunshot changes everything. "This Is America" might not be a song you'd sing at a protest, but watching the video might make you so mad you wanna go out and start something. And, while most protest songs on this list are either angry or critical, this one is almost mocking in its treatment of the theme. You have to see the video; it's performance art.

When asked why he made "This Is America," Donald Glover's response was as sardonic as his song's lyrics: “I just wanted to make, you know, a good song. Something people could play on Fourth of July.”

Notable lyrics:

This is America (woo, ayy)
Don't catch you slippin' now (woo, woo, don't catch you slippin', now)
Don't catch you slippin' now (ayy, woah)
Look what I'm whippin' now (Slime!)
This is America (yeah, yeah)
Don't catch you slippin' now (woah, ayy)
Don't catch you slippin' now (ayy, woo)
Look what I'm whippin' now (ayy)

When Will We B Paid (Prince, 2001)

Prince took some lyrical liberties in his cover of the Staple Singers' 1970 song "When Will We Be Paid," but the message is basically the same, calling for reparations to Black people for a long history of oppression and human rights violations.

Notable lyrics:

Listen...
We worked this country (Say it!) from shore 2 shore (Well)
Our women cooked all your food (Food) and washed all your clothes
We picked cotton and laid the railroad steel (Said we laid it)
Worked our hands down 2 the bone at your lumber mill (At your lumber mill)
Tell me... when will we be paid 4 the work we've done?

Paper Planes (M.I.A., 2006)

With this chart-topping song, M.I.A. was accused of glorifying violence and advocating for terrorism, but fans know it actually protests xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiments and satirizes the rightwing American perception of immigrants. She wrote it after the US government refused to grant her a visa. They put her, a British citizen with no criminal record, on a list of suspected terrorists.

She said, "I don't support terrorism and never have. As a Sri Lankan that fled war and bombings, my music is the voice of the civilian refugee." She said the song is about

"people driving cabs all day and living in a shitty apartment and appearing really threatening to society. But not being so. Because by the time you've finished working a 20-hour shift, you're so tired you just want to get home to the family. I don't think immigrants are that threatening to society at all. They're just happy that they've survived a war somewhere."

"Paper Planes" samples the Clash's "Straight to Hell," a song that spoke to these same issues, off their 1982 Combat Rock album.

Notable lyrics:

I fly like paper, get high like planes
If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name
If you come around here, I make 'em all day
I get one done in a second if you wait

All I wanna do is [the sound of three shots being fired]
And a [sound of gun loading] and a [sound of a cash register]
And take your money

We the People (A Tribe Called Quest, 2016)

Epic label bigwig Sylvia Rhone called it the “soundtrack to the resistance.” Billboard called it "one of the most searing protest songs of the Trump era." Although the lyrics never once mention Trump by name, the song dropped on November 11, 2016, two days after he was elected, and the timing was impeccable.

Of the song, rapper Q-Tip said, “We wanted to make more of an overarching premise and not an exact indictment of anything. We just spoke to the people—Black, white, gay, poor—and to different religions. We tried to cover it all in three-and-a-half minutes.”

Its chorus (quoted below) parodies hateful Trump's campaign rhetoric.

Notable lyrics:

All you Black folks, you must go
All you Mexicans, you must go
And all you poor folks, you must go
Muslims and gays
Boy, we hate your ways
So all you bad folks, you must go

Don't Touch My Hair (Solange, 2016)

In this song, Solange claims herself, asserts her own autonomy, and sets a boundary between herself and those who try to possess, claim, co-opt, use, and own her.

In her essay "And Do You Belong? I Do," published on her website, she unpacked the song's meaning further: “You and your friends have been called the N word, been approached as prostitutes, and have had your hair touched in a predominantly white bar just around the corner from the same venue. You know that people of colors’ ‘spaces’ are attacked every single day, but many will not be able to see it that way.”

“When I felt afraid or when I felt like this record would be so different from my last, I would see or hear another story of a young Black person in America having their life taken away from them, having their freedom taken away. That would fuel me to go back and revisit and sometimes rewrite some of these songs to go a little further and not be afraid to have the conversation.”

Notable lyrics:

Don't touch my hair
When it's the feelings I wear
Don't touch my soul
When it's the rhythm I know
Don't touch my crown
They say the vision I've found
Don't touch what's there
When it's the feelings I wear

Freedom (Beyoncé, 2016, Feat. Kendrick Lamar)

"Freedom," which samples an old prison song and features a powerful verse by Kendrick Lamar, is a rousing affirmation of power and resistance. Rolling Stone called this song "one of the most striking political statements of [Beyoncé's] career." The Independent said it "roars like thunder and threatens to topple governments in its wake."

Notable lyrics:

'Cause a winner don't quit on themselves
I'ma wade, I'ma wave through the waters
Tell the tide, "Don't move"
I'ma riot, I'ma riot through your borders
Call me bulletproof
'Cause a winner don't quit on themselves

Nina Cried Power (Hozier, 2018, Feat. Mavis Staples)

It seems appropriate to end this list with a protest song about protest songs, honoring the power of protest singers. Hozier called it a "thank you note to the spirit of protest." His song honors those voices that have protested eloquently, powerfully, meaningfully in song, reminding us to "rattle your chains if you love being free."

The "Nina" in its title is, of course, Nina Simone, and the song is a nod to her Sinnerman ("I cried power"). The song names and features vocalist Mavis Staples (this is the second mention of Mavis Staples on this list), who sings a list of politically active artists (like BB King, Billie Holliday, Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Patti Smith, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie).

Notable lyrics:

It's not the wakin', it's the risin'
It is the groundin' of a foot uncompromisin'
It's not forgoin' of the lie, It's not the openin' of eyes
It's not the wakin', it's the risin'

It's not the song, it is the singin'
It's the heaven of the human spirit ringin'
It is the bringin' of the line
It is the bearin' of the rhyme
It's not the wakin', it's the risin'And I could cry power (power)
Power (power)
Power, Lord!
Nina cried power
Billie cried power
Mavis cried power
And I could cry power
Power (power)
Power (power)
Power, Lord!
Curtis cried power
Patti cried power
Nina cried power

More Protest Songs

The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the 60s

The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the 70s

The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the '80s

The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the '90s

The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the 2000s

The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the 2010s

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