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A Definitive Guide to Protest Music

Updated: Feb 12

Songs about revolution and change


What Is Protest Music?

People define Protest music is made to express a political opinion or to show support for a cause. Protest music is great because it usually provides raw emotion which makes it easy to connect to. Spanning a whole range of genres and cultures we can see music that pushes back against the status quo.


With an eclectic range of genres of protest songs from punk, country, folk, and rap. This politically charged music was made to be heard and it does this by mobilising communities to take action against injustices to human rights, injustices, and war.


Why Is Protest Music Important?

Protest music plays a crucial role in defending our right to express dissent and call for change. It serves as a powerful tool to raise awareness about social and political issues and inspire meaningful action.

At its core, protest music is a form of creative expression that enables individuals and communities to voice their anger, frustration, and disappointment. By highlighting the hypocrisy and injustices of those in power, protest music has the potential to drive positive social change and promote a more just and equitable society.

The history of protest music is rich and diverse, spanning genres from folk and blues to hip-hop and punk rock. Throughout history, protest music has been used to challenge oppressive systems, fight for civil rights, and bring attention to marginalized communities.

Perhaps one of the most powerful examples of the impact of protest music can be seen in the fight against the slave trade. Through songs and hymns, slaves were able to preserve their cultural identity and express their longing for freedom. These musical expressions played a critical role in inspiring the abolitionist movement and bringing an end to the transatlantic slave trade.

In today's world, protest music continues to be a vital form of creative resistance, allowing artists and activists to speak truth to power and advocate for change. Whether through lyrics, melody, or rhythm, protest music empowers us to imagine a better world and work towards making that vision a reality.


The History Of Protest Music

“For example, the song “Ride On, King Jesus” addressed the mistreatment of individuals by their enslavers. This spiritual informed both singers and listeners that enslavers were no match for the Lord who is merciful. Hopeful songs like this encouraged enslaved people to find strength in their faith. Similarly, spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Deep River,” and “Go Down Moses” actively contributed to the abolitionist movement to purge the United States of enslavement.”



Classic Protest Music

I personally love old protest songs. Music from the 1940’s that show a community vexed at the government and the mistreatment of people around them has a certain vibe to it with the jive vibe from that era.


Woody Guthrie

Guthrie's music often included straightforward and memorable tunes, combined with lyrics that openly expressed his disapproval of social injustice and economic discrimination. Born in Oklahoma in 1912, Guthrie was raised at a time of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, which profoundly affected his music and political views. He was a devoted member of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s, and his political stance was reflected heavily in his compositions.


Woody Guthrie - This Land Is Your Land

Woody Guthrie's beloved track "This Land Is Your Land" is a powerful protest song that brings together thought-provoking lyrics and a memorable, easy-to-follow melody. Composed in February 1940, the song was Guthrie's answer to the popular patriotic songs of the time, which he felt failed to recognize the hardships of working-class Americans.


The opening lines, "This land is your land, this land is my land," emphasize the notion of collective ownership and community. The verses that follow illustrate the stark differences between the wealthy and the poor, as well as the many injustices faced by minority groups.


For example, the lyrics "As I was walking that ribbon of highway, I saw above me that endless skyway; I saw below me that golden valley; This land was made for you and me" capture the beauty of the American landscape while also conveying the unequal access to it. Additional verses reference hunger, poverty, and the struggles of migrant workers, emphasizing the fact that the American Dream is not open to everyone.

Woody Guthrie - This Land Is Your Land Lyrics





Gil Scot-Heron

How could anyone forget Gil Scot-Heron? The famous American poet and activist was born in Chicago in 1949 and was very influential in the jazz, soul, and spoken-word scenes.

Heron's music was notable for its political content which addressed racism in America along with poverty and social inequality. He was always able to convey this in a poetic yet direct way calling upon personal experiences and weaving those into his social commentary. Gil Scot Heron was a crucial part of the Black Power movement and advocated for civil rights in such a powerful way.


Gil Scot Heron - The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" was released in 1971 on his debut album, "Pieces of a Man". The song is a classic protest song and has become an anthem for the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970 and remains an enduring statement of black empowerment.


Heron used the title of the song to spark the concept of the revolution sought by Black Americans can’t be televised or reduced to a broadcast rather than just inaction. Heron criticised the media in his song and their failure to showcase real aspirations and the struggles of Black people.


The song features Scott-Heron's passionate spoken-word vocals over a minimalistic jazz-funk backing track. The instrumentation is primarily composed of a soulful electric piano, a groovy bass, and lively drums, with a few subtle horn and percussion accents. The music provides a powerful and evocative backdrop for Scott-Heron's inspiring lyrics, which combine social commentary, satire, and humor.

Gil Scot Heron - The Revolution Will Not Be Televised Lyrics

Joe Strummer

Let’s talk about one of my favourite bands. The only band that’s ever mattered The Clash and most of all their frontman the Punk Rock Warlord Joe Strummer Born in Turkey in 1952, Strummer grew up in London and was heavily influenced by rock and roll, reggae, and other musical styles.


Although he lived as a squatter for a bit and played with The 101ers. Joe was switched on and quite educated, which led to him being able to craft some really smart punk lyrics which tackle social injustice, racism, and economic inequality.


Some of their most famous songs include "London Calling," "White Riot," and "Rock the Casbah," all of which became anthems for the punk and anti-establishment movements of the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to his work with The Clash, Strummer was also involved in numerous other musical projects and collaborations throughout his career. He was a prolific songwriter and performer, and his music reflected a wide range of influences and styles.


Joe said one of my favorite quotes without people you're nothing. And The Clash are one of the main reasons why I called this blog Stay Free.


The Clash At Rock Against Racism


The Clash's gig at the Rock Against Racism concert in London's Victoria Park back in April 1978 was an incredible moment for protest music. This concert was a big middle finger to the growing far-right movement in the UK, specifically the National Front, which was attacking immigrants and minorities with their awful propaganda.


The Clash's appearance at the event was a powerful statement of support for the anti-racism movement. The band put on an amazing show, playing some of their biggest hits like "London Calling," "White Riot," and "Tommy Gun." Their performance was so electric that the crowd went wild, and you can feel that energy in the footage of the concert.


The impact of The Clash's show at the Rock Against Racism concert is still felt today. It's a defining moment for both protest music and punk, and it continues to inspire and influence artists and activists all over the world.


Do yourself a favour and check out the footage from this gig and this festival as it was such an important time.




Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is an American singer-songwriter and one of the most influential figures in the era of protest music during the 1960s. Born in Minnesota in 1941, Dylan grew up in a middle-class Jewish family and was heavily influenced by folk music and the beat poetry movement.

Dylan's music was known for its politically charged lyrics, which often tackled issues of social injustice, war, and civil rights. Some of his most famous songs include "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are a-Changin'," and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," all of which became anthems for the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.


Dylan was also known for his use of literary devices and allusions in his lyrics, which added depth and complexity to his political messages. His lyrics often reflected a sense of disillusionment and skepticism with the status quo, and he was not afraid to challenge established norms and beliefs.


In addition to his music, Dylan was also a political activist and a vocal supporter of civil rights and anti-war causes. He was a close associate of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and performed at many rallies and protests throughout the 1960s.


Dylan's influence on protest music can still be felt today, and he is often cited as a major inspiration for later musicians who have used their music as a means of political and social commentary. His legacy has also been celebrated in numerous tribute albums, books, and documentaries, and his impact on American music and culture continues to be felt today. Dylan has been recognized with numerous awards throughout his career, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, which cited his "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."


Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen is an American singer-songwriter and one of the most prominent figures in the era of protest music during the 1970s and beyond. Born in New Jersey in 1949, Springsteen first gained recognition in the 1970s with his blend of rock and roll, folk, and soul music.


Springsteen's music often dealt with themes of social and economic inequality, the struggles of working-class Americans, and the search for meaning and identity in a changing world. He is known for his powerful and emotionally charged performances, which combine elements of storytelling, poetry, and political commentary.


Some of Springsteen's most famous songs include "Born to Run," "Thunder Road," and "The River," all of which reflect his interest in the lives and struggles of ordinary people. He has also written extensively about political and social issues, addressing topics such as war, immigration, and police brutality in songs like "Born in the U.S.A.," "American Skin (41 Shots)," and "The Ghost of Tom Joad."


In addition to his music, Springsteen has been an outspoken activist and advocate for social justice. He has performed at numerous benefit concerts for various causes, including the fight against apartheid in South Africa and the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He has also been a vocal supporter of unions and workers' rights, and his music has often been embraced by labor organizers and activists.


Springsteen's influence on protest music can still be felt today, and he is often cited as a major inspiration for later musicians who have used their music as a means of political and social commentary. His legacy has also been celebrated in numerous tribute albums, books, and documentaries, and his impact on American music and culture continues to be felt today.


Nina Simone

Nina Simone was an American singer, songwriter, and pianist, and one of the most important figures in the era of protest music during the 1960s and beyond. Born in North Carolina in 1933, Simone began her career as a classical pianist before transitioning to jazz and other musical styles.


Simone's music was characterized by its powerful vocals and politically charged lyrics, which often tackled issues of race, gender, and social justice. She was a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement and used her music as a means of speaking out against racism and oppression.


Some of Simone's most famous songs include "Mississippi Goddam," "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," and "Four Women," all of which became anthems for the civil rights movement and the struggle for racial equality. Her music was characterized by its fusion of jazz, blues, and gospel influences, and her powerful voice and emotional performances made her a beloved figure among audiences around the world.


In addition to her music, Simone was also a prominent activist and advocate for social justice. She was involved in numerous political and social causes, including the fight against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for LGBT rights in the United States.


Simone's influence on protest music can still be felt today, and she is often cited as a major inspiration for later musicians who have used their music as a means of political and social commentary. Her legacy has also been celebrated in numerous tribute albums


Bob Marley

Bob Marley was a reggae legend and one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. His music was characterized by its unique blend of political messages, spiritual themes, and catchy melodies that continue to inspire and move people today.

Marley's music was often political, speaking out against social injustice and oppression. His songs were inspired by his own experiences growing up in poverty in Jamaica, and he often used his music as a way to speak truth to power.

One of Marley's most famous songs, "Get Up, Stand Up," is a powerful call to action for oppressed people to fight for their rights. The song's lyrics are a rallying cry for people to take a stand against oppression and injustice, and the song's upbeat reggae rhythms make it impossible to ignore.

Marley's music was also deeply spiritual, reflecting his own faith as a Rastafarian. His song "Redemption Song" is a hauntingly beautiful acoustic ballad that speaks to the power of inner strength and personal redemption. The song's simple melody and heartfelt lyrics have made it a classic, and it continues to inspire people to this day.

Marley's music has had a profound impact on the world of protest music, inspiring generations of musicians and activists to speak out against injustice and oppression. His legacy continues to live on through his music, which remains as powerful and relevant today as it was when he first recorded it.

Rage Against The Machine

Rage Against the Machine was a politically-charged rap rock band that emerged in the 1990s. Their music was characterized by its unapologetic critique of government and corporate power, and it remains one of the most powerful examples of anti-establishment music.


Many of Rage Against the Machine's songs were explicitly political, calling out corruption, inequality, and oppression. One of their most famous songs, "Killing in the Name," is a fierce condemnation of police brutality and racism. The song's aggressive guitar riffs and pounding drums serve as a perfect backdrop for the lyrics, which urge people to resist authority and fight back against injustice.


Another example of the band's anti-establishment themes is their song "Bulls on Parade," which takes aim at the military-industrial complex and the role of the US government in perpetuating war and violence around the world. The song's intense energy and driving rhythms make it a powerful anthem for anyone who wants to challenge the status quo.


Rage Against the Machine's music was often controversial, but it was also incredibly popular. Their songs resonated with a wide audience of people who were fed up with the way things were, and the band's uncompromising message of resistance and rebellion inspired countless other artists and activists to follow in their footsteps.


Overall, Rage Against the Machine's music stands as a powerful example of the ability of music to challenge authority, inspire change, and give voice to those who have been silenced. Their legacy continues to inspire and motivate people to fight against injustice and work towards a better world.


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