2020 went from being a year of clamor stemming from COVID-19 to being a year of clamor stemming from social unrest. Social unrest, of course, has been a constant in American history since before America’s founding.
In that spirit, we thought it would be opportune to reflect on 10 protest songs that seem especially relevant.
Pete Seeger, “John Brown’s Body”
John Brown was an abolitionist who initiated a raid in 1859 at a federal armory in modern-day Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He and the 21 men in his party planned on giving the weapons to slaves to equip them for uprisings. These plans ultimately failed, however, as a platoon of U.S. Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee reclaimed the armory and promptly arrested them. Brown was hanged less than two months later.
In 1861, a Union marching song called “John Brown’s Body” was written. The lyrics propped up Brown as a hero “in the army of the Lord,” and even went as far as to say that the very people who hanged him as a traitor were themselves traitors (which, if you use the transitive property to argue that Lee indirectly hanged him, is technically true.)
Pete Seeger’s 1960 recording of the song is perhaps the most evergreen version in existence. The sound quality is exceptionally raw and cathartic, and it makes for a hell of a singalong.
Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”
Kendrick Lamar’s delivery of this entire song will gives goosebumps to even the most indifferent of listeners, especially as toward the end he talks about Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teen killed by a white man in 2012. By that point, Lamar is forlorn, which is a stark contrast toward the grating anger he conveys as he spits one of the songs first lyrical passages:
My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide
You hate me, don't you?
You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture
You're fuckin' evil, I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey
You vandalize my perception, but can't take style from me
Janelle Monae, “Hell You Talmbout”
If there was ever an official anthem for the “Say Their Name” social movement, it’s Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which makes it a point to say the names of 18 victims of police brutality and racial violence, which include Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tommy Yancy, Jordan Baker, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Aiyana Jones, Kimani Gray, Eric Garner, Jerame Reid, Sean Bell, Phillip White, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Sharonda Singleton, Miriam Carey and Amadou Diallo.
Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”
The Aretha Franklin version of this song is just as chilling, but the original version by Sam Cooke deserves primo recognition on account of the fact that he wrote the song after he was denied service at a whites-only motel.
Still, the lyric that is perhaps most pertinent to recent events is, “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die.”
Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name”
Let the sounds of Zack de la Rocha screaming, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” be the soundtrack to the footage of protesters breaking curfew.
Syreeta McFadden of The Guardian called Beyonce’s “Formation” and its accompanying music video, “a protest and celebration, concerned with and in love with the very particular paradox of the black American identity and experience.”
Indeed, the song and the music video are bold statements, especially for someone with her star power. Beyonce's performance of the song at the 2016 Super Bowl Halftime Show was even more toothed, as it paid homage to the Black Panthers. This prompted politicians and police unions to call for a boycott against Sasha Fierce, and as any reasonable person could have expected, she didn’t kowtow.
Public Enemy, “911 is a Joke”
People often respond to criticisms of police brutality with the trite rebuttal, “Oh yeah, well who are you going to call when you’re in danger?”
Those people have clearly never listened to the many grievances against cops as it pertains to their emergency response (or lack thereof) toward people of color. As Flavor Flav so eloquently pointed out in Public Enemy’s 1990 single, “911 is a Joke,” “They only come and they come when they wanna / So get the morgue truck and embalm the goner.”
Bob Dylan, “Only a Pawn In Their Game”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom didn’t start with the “I Have a Dream” speech. It didn’t even start with Dr. King, but with a series of remarks from lesser-known organizers, and, somewhere along the way, continued with brief sets from protest musicians.
Bob Dylan was one of those who performed, and one of the songs he sang was titled, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” which was written in solidarity for civil rights activist Medgar Evans after his assassination, which happened two months before this very performance.
James Brown, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”
Four months after MLK was assassinated, James Brown released a protest song titled “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud." With self-empowering lyrics such as, “Some people say we got a lot of malice, some say it's a lotta nerve / But I say we won't quit moving until we get what we deserve,” this song immediately became an anthem of the Black Power movement.
Now, there is a studio recording for this, but one of its only live recordings is from a show he played at Memorial Auditorium in Dallas.
Childish Gambino, “This is America”
Upon the release of its music video, Childish Gambino’s “This is America” tapped into a collective frustration and unrest, and it did so without any inkling of a desire to sound profound and woke.
Unfortunately, the song and the music video were a bit too evergreen in the way they addressed gun violence, racist tropes that stem from minstrel theater and the way vanity can numb us to systemic inequality. These themes were addressed in the video in ways that were seen by some as gratuitous, but now, they seem too minimal.