10 Best Protest Anthems of All Time
A great protest anthem is timeless, able to rile the anger of any idealistic soul that burns with aggression and desire to change the world. Many of the songs played at the Occupy Wall Street protests with acoustic guitars and hand drums were no different than the ones sung outside the 1999 Seattle WTO protests with acoustic guitars and hand drums or at the 1968 DNC protest with … well you get the point. Sadly we live in an age that wants for protest anthems. Young people and revolutionaries have no lack of causes. If he were alive, Phil Ochs could probably write a new protest song for every week that’s passed since 2004, and yet few musicians in the public eye have stepped up. Spanning the 1930s to the mid-'00s, our list of the 10 Best Protest Anthems of All Time is a reminder of how they don't write 'em like they used to.
Written for the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s 'Do the Right Thing' and featured on the band’s third record, 'Fear of a Black Planet,' 'Fight the Power' turned out to be the ultimate protest song by hip-hop's ultimate protest group. 'Fight the Power' is straightforward and hard-hitting, and it pays tribute to the Isely Brothers and James Brown. "Elvis was a hero to most / but he never meant s--- to me, you see," Chuck D raps. "Straight up racist that sucker was / simple and plain / Motherf--- him and John Wayne / 'Cause I'm black and I'm proud."
This discovery comes via Crass Records, which released most of the Mob's music in the '70s and '80s. The band had a sound that differed from any of the punk bands around England at the time, anarcho or otherwise, and 'No Doves Fly Here' exemplifies their approach perfectly. The Mob’s slow and dark drone was probably a precursor the budding goth scene that would follow the punk wave, and the Mob were likely a major influence on bands like Christian Death. “The playgrounds are empty and the children limbless corpse," go the devestating lyrics. "They never were before and they never asked for war / No-one is moving and no doves fly here / No-one is thinking and no doves fly here / No-one remembers beyond all this fear / No doves fly here."
Performed by both Marley and Tosh, 'You Can’t Blame the Youth' is the perfect wake-up call for a generation unwilling to solve problems at their root. Tosh's version is a little more cutting than Marley's, but either way, it's an unforgettable anthem. It's all about how the youth are taught about so-called "great mean" who were actually killers and imperialists. It’s a bit deeper of a cut than, say, 'Get Up Stand Up,' but the message stays strong: "You teach the youth about Marco Polo / And you said he was a very great man / you teach the youths about the Pirate Hawkins / And you said he was a very great man you teach the youths about Pirate Morgan / And you said he was a very great man / All these great men were doing, robbing, raping, kidnapping, and killing."
Crass didn’t’ just write great protest songs: They lived protest. The British government followed them as they toured, pulling over their van and searching them as they drove across the U.K. The band itself was a powerful revolutionary symbol, and their label, Crass Records, bred numerous bands that would go on to write great protest songs, such as 'Persons Unknown' by the Poison Girls and 'Might and Superior' by Conflict. Pretty much any Crass song selected at random could be given a spot on this list, but this one is perhaps the most anthemic of them all, and it's not quite as time-specific as 'Big A Little A.': “They can f--- off because they aint got me, they can’t buy my dignity.”
Hip-hop is a genre that is more than ever ripe for a new generation of protest songs. With the exception of acts like Dead Prez or Immortal Technique, few have stepped up to fill the void. 'Changes' was a sad but ultimately uplifting song by Shakur, whose life was fraught with struggle from the beginning. Pac was the son of Black Panther, and this song capped his career in a way that allows us to remember him as a optimist and a revolutionary. The song is also gutsy, with references to COINTELPRO shipping dope in the American ghettos and police brutality, 'Changes' was quite weighty, and yet it became a radio hit. It's not often the pop charts see lyrics like these: "I see no changes / All I see is racist faces / Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races we under / I wonder what it takes to make this one better place ... let's erase the wasted / Take the evil out the people, they'll be acting right / 'Cause both black and white are smokin' crack tonight / And only time we chill is when we kill each other / It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other."
A protest song about a protest gone wrong. Though the lyrics are about a very specific incident, they feel just as chilling today as they did back then. In calling out Nixon by name in this song, Young proved himself to be one of the bravest and most important protest songwriters of the era. The guitar riff from 'Ohio' remains as spine tingling today as it ever was, and then there are the lyrics: "Gotta get down to it / Soldiers are cutting us down / Should have been done long ago / What if you knew her / And found her dead on the ground / How can you run when you know?"
Choosing between this song and 'Sixteen Tons' by Tennesse Ernie Ford was a tough one, but since Guthrie actually performed both songs and was indisputably the godfather of the protest song, it would have been crazy to leave him off the list. This song is an important early installment in the cannon of workers' rights songs. "Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground," Guthrie sings, "From the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down / Every state in the Union us migrants have been / We'll work in this fight and we'll fight till we win."
Only one band on this list is still together. They are perhaps the only band around that has written protest anthems that will be sung for generations to come, and they are called Against Me!. Frontwoman Laura Jane Grace has now written so many anarchist anthems it’s hard to keep count, but they haven't become artistically stagnant. With each liberation hymn, the definition of anarchy or the kind of freedom Grace sings about changes. From global politics to personal politics to gender politics and beyond, the evolution of this band has become one of the great rock stories of our time. Picking the best amongst AM’s protest anthems wasn’t easy, but ultimately, this song is a simple yet universal masterpiece about struggle and maintaining integrity outside of society’s barometer of success. Though written very early in the band’s career, it has that lightning-in-a-bottle youthful energy you just cannot contrive.
The saddest Billie Holiday song is like the happiest Raffi song -- we’re talking extremes here. 'Strange Fruit' was not only bold for its time -- it was arresting and startling in its imagery and tone. Based on a poem by a Bronx schoolteacher named Abel Meeropol, the song was so risky in 1939 when it was released that Holiday’s label wouldn’t touch it, and it was released on what we’d call today an "indie label." If you have any doubt about the timelessness of 'Strange Fruit,' just look at Kanye West's recent 'Yeezus,' where the song is blatantly referenced throughout the record. But Ye's update has nothing on the original: "Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."
Often overlooked, Phil Ochs is arguably the best protest songwriter of all time. His entire existence seemed fueld by the same kind of fire he used to burn his draft card with at 1968 DNC Protests. Sadly, like many idealists, Ochs grew to find to find the world a grim place and killed himself at 35, but his music will always be cherished and rediscovered by each new generation of angry youngsters. Picking Ochs’s best protest song isn’t easy. 'Draft Dodger Rag' is a comical "how to" guide for young pacifists who want to avoid combat, and 'Cops of the World' is one of his most trenchant anthems, but 'I Ain’t Marching Anymore' is truly timeless. It addresses wars throughout history and across continents, and in the end, he comes to the conclusion that there’s little difference between them because the result is always the same: “It’s always the old who lead us to the war, it’s always the young who fall / Now look at all we’ve won with a saber and a gun. Tell me is it worth it all?”