(Article updates with video links June 21, 2020). Every week I look for inspiration for my next article and, admittedly, sometimes I struggle.
However, this week’s hit me like a ton of bricks. It comes on the first anniversary (yesterday) of the passing of my closest friend, cousin and fraternity brother Brian K. Roberts who also happened to be a modern-day freedom fighter. Having spent nearly all of his adult life fighting against the death penalty and other social inequities that disproportionately impact black people, Brian lost his last battle – with brain cancer – on April 22, 2014.
It also comes in the wake of recent coverage of high-profile events involving encounters between black men and the very people we’ve entrusted to protect us and enforce our laws – fairly and without unwarranted bias – our law enforcement officials.
As a people and as a nation, it’s become painfully clear that we are living in troubled times. The latest example of outrage is playing out in Baltimore, Md. as I type this.
Meanwhile, down the street in the nation’s capital, politicians are set to decide later today (4/23) on Loretta Lynch’s fate as the nation’s next top law enforcement official – the U.S. Attorney General. Congress has taken five months to confirm Ms. Lynch, who would become the first African-American woman in the job – a position that has federal responsibility for addressing criminal acts such as those that have been protested in cities like Ferguson, North Charleston, New York, Sanford and many others during the past two years.
This week’s article is in recognition of the many lives lost or otherwise altered at the hands of the police (or self-appointed law enforcement in the case of Sanford, FL), and in honor of yesterday’s rally in DC by members of my fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. (in support of Loretta Lynch’s Senate confirmation).
But most personally, this article is dedicated to the memory of my best friend and fellow Omega Man, Brian Roberts, who no doubt is with us in spirit as we continue to struggle with these issues.
Since this is a music blog, that’s where I’ll now turn my focus.
Most of the topics and music that I’ve covered in the short three-month history of djrobblog have been of the light-hearted variety. But some music has served a different purpose.
Sometimes music reflects the ills of society and the disappointment that comes along with it. At times it has protested those ills and has inspired us, at other times it offers protest in a way that shocks its listeners.
Regardless of which side of these issues one falls, I think most can agree that such music is at the very least provocative and can sometimes make a difference, or at least offer hope to a hurting community that the world can and will change.
I’ve put together a list of 20 noteworthy “protest songs” or songs making statements about social injustice or the imbalance in how laws are enforced – at least as seen through the eyes of the artists who created them. Some you’ll recognize, some you won’t.
I’m sure you’ll be able to name more as this list of twenty is obviously not all-inclusive.
There are many types of protest songs and far too many have had an impact to be able to capture in one article. This list isn’t meant to capture all those songs that simply make a political statement, for example, or those solely expressing anti-war views. Songs about women’s rights or marriage equality are saved for a future list.
Instead, these are among the best songs (in my opinion) that capture the ongoing conflict between the authorities and the oppressed. It’s mostly, but not exclusively, about the black experience in America.
I’ve provided a Spotify playlist of the songs, which you can conveniently access and listen to by clicking here. I must warn you that several of the tracks contain jarring language and topical content that may offend some. If you’re easily offended, I’d suggest you enjoy the stories below and skip the listening experience.
By the way, unlike most of the lists on djrobblog, these are in no particular order:
“Get Up, Stand Up” – Bob Marley (1973).
This song was mostly about political and religious freedom, particularly for Rastafarian people, but it has certainly been interpreted and adopted by many to represent other causes as well.
“Fight The Power” – Isley Brothers (1975).
The Isleys became more creative and provocative with their music when the two youngest brothers, Ernie and Marvin, and their brother-in-law, Chris Jasper, joined older brothers Ron, O’Kelly and Rudolph in the group. This anti-authority record was a key example.
“Living For The City” – Stevie Wonder (1973).
From his landmark “Innervisions” album, this isn’t so much a protest song as it is a statement about the inequities of life…set in the Deep South of Mississippi. But the most chilling part of the song is the depiction of a drug deal gone wrong and the protagonist’s encounter with the police, following which the N-word is uttered. Of course, Motown edited that vignette out of the single version, which became a #1 R&B/top-ten pop hit.
“Blowin’ In The Wind” – Bob Dylan (1963); Stevie Wonder (1966)
Dylan has two tunes on this list, but he could’ve easily had more as he’s created songs about many of this country’s social blemishes, including notorious ones like the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi. “Blowin’ In The Wind” has long been considered one of his best protest records.
“Ohio” – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (1970).
While not a statement about the plight of black America, this song resonated with many Americans after it retold the deaths of four student protesters at Kent State University in Ohio by National Guardsmen. The song most notably took a stab at the young Nixon Administration even though the guardsmen were under orders from the state, not the Feds. Still it made CSNY a face of the countercultural movement during the 1970s.
“What’s Going On?” – Marvin Gaye (1971).
No protest song list would be complete without including Marvin Gaye’s seminal hit, “What’s Going On.” This was perhaps Marvin at his creative best and it reportedly almost didn’t happen. He apparently fought with his record label, Motown Records, to even get the album released. All three singles from the album reached the pop top ten and hit #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart.
“Biko” – Peter Gabriel (1980).
Peter Gabriel is most known for his pop signature song, “Sledgehammer,” but his biggest fans are very familiar with this protest song about South African anti-Apartheid activist, Steven Biko, who was jailed, beaten and killed in 1977 for taking his stand. Biko’s dream was realized later, but the parallels one can draw between America and South Africa continue to exist.
“I Shot The Sheriff” – Bob Marley; Eric Clapton (1973 – Marley; 1974 – Clapton).
This big hit is NOT a celebration or advocation of cop-killing. Not by any means. Instead, it’s a story about a man who shoots a cop in self-defense – and is wrongfully blamed for the death of another. At least that’s the protagonist’s side of the story.
“(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go” – Curtis Mayfield.
I could have picked any number of Curtis Mayfield songs for this tribute, including several 1960s classics by his group the Impressions. But this tune sums up the current state of race relations – and the need to address the underlying issue of hatred that plagues America – better than most. If it sounds apocalyptic, then mission accomplished.
“We Shall Overcome” – Mahalia Jackson; Pete Seeger.
Though this song originated as a folk hymn and doesn’t have any specific credited writer or copyright date, it was widely adopted during the civil rights movement as a song of inspirational protest by African-Americans and other supporters of the cause.
“F*ck The Police” – N.W.A. (1988).
One of the first of its kind, this in-your-face hip-hop classic helped change the direction of rap, which up to that point (1988) had been mostly safe, dance-oriented fun tunes about girls, money and bragging rights. As one might imagine, it certainly didn’t sit well with mainstream America, but N.W.A. didn’t care.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke (1964).
This is another anthem of the civil rights movement. It was mostly inspired by events in Cooke’s own life, in which he had been turned away from eating establishments because of his color.
“American Skin (41 Shots)” – Bruce Springsteen (2001).
Long known as a champion of the underdog, Bruce is perhaps at his protesting best with this song. This one was written in the aftermath of the shooting death of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx, NY by cops who were later acquitted of 2nd-degree murder.
“Fight The Power” – Public Enemy (1989).
This song’s popularity was tied to the movie from which it came, Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” and further cemented Public Enemy (particularly members Chuck D and big clock-wearing Flava Flav) as household names and the rebellious voices of the young black community.
“Killing In The Name” – Rage Against The Machine (1992).
This song about corrupt police tactics was about as brash and in-your-face as this envelope-pushing rock/rap hybrid could get. It was big in other countries, like Australia, New Zealand and the U.K., but not here in the U.S. Several F-bombs are dropped throughout, especially at the end, but the message is received nonetheless.
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” – Marvin Gaye (1971).
One of three big classic singles from his “What’s Going On” album, this one was perhaps the best of his social commentaries. It includes the line “trigger-happy policing,” words that seem timeless from this 44-year-old treasure.
“Hurricane” – Bob Dylan (1975).
I have long respected Dylan, a man who has been an activist throughout his career, particularly through his music. This story about the wrongful, allegedly racially motivated conviction and imprisonment of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter came late in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer’s hit-making career. However, it’s still one of his best. Incidentally, Hurricane, who was immortalized in a film starring Denzel Washington in the lead role, died last August at the age of 76.
“Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” – Public Enemy (1989).
I could have chosen any number of Public Enemy records to include here, but two really stood out with me – including this one from their 1988 album, “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.” This one captures the story of a black draft dodger who is imprisoned and plots his deadly escape. It most notably attempts to explain the racially driven motives for the protagonist’s anti-patriotism, but the song’s prominent use of a high-pitched piano sample from an old Isaac Hayes hit gives it the urgency felt throughout and is what really sets it apart.
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” – Gil Scott Heron (1971).
Heron was a poet and self-described “bluesologist” who died four years ago. This song epitomized his poetic style of delivery and has often been cited or sampled in many recordings since its 1971 release. While not specific on what the revolution actually will be, the song walks us through many examples of what the revolution is not.
“Mississippi Goddam” – Nina Simone (1964).
Simone was a singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist who recorded this song in the wake of the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963. Simone was known for her more radical views on social protest, which seemed to align more with Malcolm X than with Martin Luther King’s peace-driven approach.
“Strange Fruit” – Billie Holiday (1939).
Blues and jazz legend Holiday captured the imagery of black lynchings with this metaphor-filled classic. She reminded us that not all blues had to originate from lost or unrequited love, as many of our people’s blues were tied to the state of affairs in America when this gem was recorded. Ms. Holiday was one of Brian’s favorites.
Maybe he’s up there singing it with her now.
(Originally posted April 23, 2015)