Music may be first and foremost a means of entertainment – but in the right hands, it can sometimes become a tool that influences the ways of the world: when it becomes the soundtrack to significant demonstrations or lends a unified voice to movements, observers are revealed a glimpse of its uniquely emotionalizing impact on a vast scale.
At this point, we turn the spotlight on performers from a wide variety of genres that have not been content to accept their respective status quo meekly. Artists who have questioned questionable developments openly denounced grievances and fought injustice with their art!
(A Spotify playlist can be found at the end of this article.)
1. Bob Marley and The Wailers – Get up, stand up
Released on “Burnin’,” 1973
As unequivocally as Marley’s call is phrased in the hook, how could this classic, which transcends its genre by far, not be represented on this list? The song was written together with Peter Tosh and was inspired by a stay in Haiti, which has moved Marley deeply due to the poor living conditions of the local population.
The driving character speaks for itself and makes “Get up, stand up” an almost universally applicable protest song that motivates one to stand up for one’s rights. Significantly, it is also the last number that Marley ever played live!
2. The Cranberries – Zombie
Released on “No Need to argue,” 1994
Amid all the colorful memories of hedonistic Eurodance, it’s easy to forget that the nineties were by no means devoid of an awareness of what was significant: The Cranberries addressed the decades-long Northern Ireland conflict with their biggest hit, which earned them the top spot on the singles charts in several European nations, including Germany. In addition to the expressive performance by now-deceased frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan, the catchy, predominantly black-and-white music video also contributed to the by no means the self-evident success of this somber reckoning!
Depressing inspiration was provided by an IRA bomb attack in Warrington, England, in which two boys were killed in 1993.
3. NWA – Fuck tha Police
Released on “Straight Outta Compton,” 1988
Ice Cube’s accusation in this case that US police officers unabashedly rely on an “authority to kill a minority” seems shockingly timely even three decades after this infamous protest song was first released. Radio stations didn’t pinch the number at the time – but the references of countless subsequent performers to “Fuck tha Police” underscore that forbidden fruit has always tasted best.
Few songs provide a clearer understanding of the tense relationship between the executive branch and people of color culminating in the Los Angeles riots (1992), among other events, in the early nineties.
4. Plastic Ono Band – Give Peace a Chance
Beforehand: At this point, we consider “Imagine” a utopia set to music rather than a tangible protest song. At the same time, all Lennon fans can be assured that this is not the last time John appears on this list! At the side of his wife Yoko, the rebellious Beatle was intensively involved in the peace process and shaped the staging of the movement with, among other things, the famous “Bed-Ins.”
On the last day of a corresponding session, this piece, which settles accounts with all kinds of “-isms,” was written in room 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal. The legendary recording was attended by the two newlyweds and Timothy Leary, Petula Clark, and Allen Ginsberg!
5. Green Day – American Idiot
Released on “American Idiot”, 2004
After a small career-technical downswing followed the commercial breakthrough of the nineties, the spirit of the times was again ultimately on Green Day’s side in 2004: The trio released a concept album in the form of “American Idiot”, which can be understood as a “punk rock opera” and which easily climbed to the top of the domestic charts and was honored with a Grammy. The critical piece to the breakthrough success was undoubtedly the catchy title track, which didn’t have a good word to say about the media and the politics of then US President George W. Bush. Bush lets.
Against the backdrop of the Iraq war, Green Day opened an open door in many places!
6. Black Sabbath – War Pigs
Released on “Paranoid”, 1970
“War Pigs” opens the breakthrough album from these English heavy metal forefathers and aims at warmongers who ruthlessly send poorer people to the world’s battlefields to have them represent their selfish interests. For lyricist and bassist Geezer Butler, the war meant nothing less than evil par excellence, which is why the almost eight-minute song was original to be christened “Walpurgis” – but the responsible label objected because of the satanic connotations and demanded a change of title. Fortunately, the job was done with just a few minor adjustments, with the lyrics remaining the same!
7. U2 – Sunday Bloody Sunday
Released on “War,” 1983
More than a decade before the Cranberries, U2 were already dealing with the “Troubles” that threatened to tear their home island apart for a long time. At the center of the song released by Guitarist, The Edge and frontman Bono penned protest song stands the titular “Bloody Sunday,” which represents a sad, low point in the Northern Ireland conflict: At a demonstration in Derry on 30. January 1972, British paratroopers opened fire, killing 14 unarmed civilians.
Bono swung into an avid activist throughout his career, while “Sunday Bloody Sunday” still serves as a musical memorial at the group’s gigs years after the conflict ended!
8. Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name
Released on “Rage Against the Machine”, 1992
Rage Against the Machine would not allow a second of doubt about their intentions: The cover of their debut album is adorned by Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức, who set himself on fire to protest the oppression of his faith community. Meanwhile, this direct indictment of institutionalized racism in the US and related police violence served as the band’s first single.
The band conveys their distaste for any form of paternalism with an unfiltered and authentic rage that is matched by nothing better than Zack de la Rocha’s repeated “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” is clarified!
9. Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi
Released on “Ladies of the Canyon”, 1970
While many of the songs on this list deal in some way with the evils humans inflict on each other, Joni Mitchell’s most famous song is instead dedicated to the good of the planet: “Big Yellow Taxi” laments the lack of environmental awareness of her contemporaries, which flatten paradise for the sake of a parking lot, pollute the fields, and would love to display trees in museums for money. Mitchell nonetheless sounds enchanting and recalls an important lesson – sometimes, we don’t know what we had until it’s gone.
10. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
Released on “Born in the USA”, 1984
One of the best examples that songs should not be reduced to their most concise lyric line! To this day, some US patriots are all too happy to be swept away by the triumphant pathos of the hook – and overlook the fact that the verses penned by the Boss tell a far less sensational story: Springsteen depicts the feelings of a Vietnam veteran who has promised himself a way out of his lack of comfort and perspective by serving in the war.
Disillusioned, he realizes that society treats him with some distance; his sense of hopelessness seems more vital than ever.
11. Public Enemy – Fight the Power
Released on “Fear of a Black Planet”, 1990
After Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five put their “message” out into the world and thus paved the way for politically motivated rap, Public Enemy kicked it off seven years later with maximum determination: “Fight the Power” was written at the request of Spike Lee, who had already used a version of this song for his acclaimed 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” The strip deals with racial tensions in Brooklyn, which is why, according to a Time interview, the director wanted a musical contribution that fit the content and sounded “defiant, angry and very rhythmic.”
Chuck D and co. have certainly not disappointed him!
12. Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)
Released on “The Wall,” 1979
In addition to the consequences of war and societal ills, the legendary “The Wall” double album deals primarily with alienation on a very personal level. Written by Roger Waters, this global hit is less about the oppression of a specific group than about the compulsion to conformism that is instilled from an early age. In this respect, the number does not necessarily motivate a collective visit to a demonstration, but with the concise “Hey, teacher, leave us kids alone!” nevertheless a formidable battle cry for free spirits.
In South Africa, the song was banned by the apartheid regime in 1980 – a kind of accolade for a protest song, isn’t it?
13. Sex Pistols – God Save the Queen
It appeared on “Never mind the Bollocks, here’s the Sex Pistols,” 1977
Punk and protest have always gone hand in hand. With the monarchy, on the other hand, the corresponding currents are not very compatible, which is something the English Queen Elizabeth II. was made abundantly clear on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the throne of all things. The timing was due to a lucky coincidence, according to the band itself. Still, regardless of that, it helped the number to the second place in the domestic charts – although rumors persist to this day that the Sex Pistols could only be denied the top of the charts through manipulation.
The cover motif, no less controversial at the time, is now a cornerstone of punk iconography!
14. Kendrick Lamar – Alright
Appeared on “To pimp a Butterfly,” 2015
In October 2019, colleagues at Pitchfork named “Alright” the best song of the decade, while the 58. Grammy Awards has earned not one but two of the coveted trophies. However, one could argue in good conscience that the true importance of the hopeful rap act cannot be expressed through awards or rankings!
Young protesters elevated it to the anthem of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which denounces police abuse of power and the murders of dark-skinned teens, some of which go unpunished. The immense impact of “Alright” was multiplied by recordings of chanting crowds on social media – protest at its best.
15. Bob Dylan – Blowin’ in the Wind
Released on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” 1963
A Bob Dylan-less list all about the poetic protest on a musical basis? Hard to imagine.
We won’t even try and turn our attention to Bob’s sophomore album, which gave him his breakthrough on both an artistic and commercial level! Shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the accusatory “Masters of War” or the somberly prophetic “A Hard Rain’s a-gonna fall” was on the shortlist. Still, none had the far-reaching impact of this widely covered anti-war song. Equally hard to imagine: although it is world-famous today, it failed to chart at the time.
16. Dead Kennedys – Nazi Punks Fuck Off
Released on “In God We Trust, Inc.”, 1981
Artists can’t choose their audience at the end of the day. However, there are proven ways and means to at least resolutely counter disagreeable elements: Originally, this piece written by frontman Jello Biafra was supposed to be dedicated to the criticism of increasingly violent dance styles at concerts of the band.
Then, however, he also took severe offense at the burgeoning neo-Nazi currents within the punk and hardcore scene of the early eighties – and the rest is history once again. Through tributes from Napalm Death or in the film “Green Room,” the unambiguous message is loudly carried on until today!
17. Edwin Starr – War
Published on “War & Peace”, 1970
No one is likely to cut their teeth on a Performeration of this time-honored protest song either: with all determination and a spirited “Huh!”Edwin Starr explains in a catchy and straightforward way that war is good for absolutely nothing. A battle cry of a somewhat different kind, which the American peace movement adopted with joy during the military mission in Vietnam!
Starr climbed to the top of the US charts with his biggest hit after the Temptations, who had initially been scheduled to perform it, decided not to record the single even though the recording had already been completed – they preferred not to antagonize the conservative part of the fan base.
18. Marvin Gaye – What’s going on
Released on “What’s Going On,” 1971
Marvin Gaye’s undisputed soul milestone stood out at the time for its keen social consciousness, not necessarily considered a cornerstone of the genre until then. His concept album centers on the disillusioning impressions of a Vietnam veteran who, back home, registers mostly hatred and injustice. Springsteen was listening!
The title track expresses the insecurity of a generation that has long feared disaster, not only on the other side of the world. Three decades later, Gaye’s daughter Nona, along with Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Stipe, and many more artists, recorded a Cover song recorded shortly after the 11. September appropriate as ever appeared.
19. The Beatles – Revolution
Released on “The Beatles”, 1968
In 1968, demonstrators fought street battles with the police in London, Martin Luther King was shot, and French students went to the barricades. Driven by such events, Lennon ushered in his phase as a musical activist with “Revolution” and faced criticism from various movements that he did not support their respective causes openly (and publicly) enough.
Instead, John emphasized that the change of a society can be brought about primarily by the inner transformation of the people living in it – not by pressure and violence.
20. We shall overcome – Multiple performers
Famous by Charles Albert Tindley, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and more
To close the Top-20, let’s pay proper tribute to one of the longest-lived protest songs ever: Going back to a gospel by US pastor Charles Albert Tindley from the early 20th. It was used in the 1940s as a strike song by predominantly dark-skinned workers in the tobacco industry. A short time later, Pete Seeger and a large part of the folk-rock scene took notice of the song, which subsequently became the unofficial anthem of the peaceful civil rights movement.
Probably the most famous rendition is by Joan Baez, who performed the song both before a demonstration of 300.000 attendees (1963) as well as played live at the White House (2010)!
The ranks 21 to 70 of the best protest songs:
Protest Spotify Playlist:
Racism, police violence, bombings, gunned down citizens and civil rights activists, oppression, pollution, abuse of power, or war in all its facets: it’s like things that our protest songs gathered here to bring out some of the most unpleasant sides of humanity. At the same time, they give us hope, channel our pent-up anger, or strive for constructive contributions to complex problems. We gratefully take our hats off to this!