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Top 5 Protest Songs of All Time

Top 5 Protest Songs of All Time

The last year has seen some truly unprecedented events in current affairs. From Brexit to Trump, Harambe to hacking – 2016 had it all. 2016 also saw a lot of nasty stuff happen. Scenes of American police brutality have dominated our screens, while fears about global war still dominate pop culture. Protest songs are one way in which artists are able to express their dissatisfaction with politics and society, and 2017 seems like it will be a busy year for such songs. In honour of this, here’s a list of some of the best protest songs of all time.

Pussy Riot – CHAIKA

How can you talk about protest songs without mentioning Pussy Riot? This furious feminist punk rock band from Moscow is the most well-known protest band to emerge in recent years. Mainly targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-LGBT legislation, the group have since turned their gaze towards the newly elected Donald Trump in their song ‘Make America Great Again’. Their bizarre music videos and uncompromising lyrics have cemented themselves as the go-to protest band of recent years. They’re also not afraid to get stuck in and protest, as in 2012 three members were arrested for hooliganism and their trial caused a huge stir at home, and in the West. In ‘CHAIKA’, they attack Putin’s conservative oligarchy in an almost poetic fashion. While you could easily pick any of Pussy Riot’s songs as a great protest, ‘CHAIKA’’s messages and music video set the bar high for future protest songs.

Bob Dylan – Hurricane

Legendary American singer/songwriter Bob Dylan has stamped his mark on pop culture throughout his career, and his classic ‘Hurricane’ is one of his greatest songs. Across eight blistering minutes, Dylan told the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, an African-American boxer who was accused of triple murder in 1966 New Jersey. Dylan, along with many others, believed that Carter’s trial was racially motivated, and the accusations untrue. The release of ‘Hurricane’ sparked outrage, with many believing that Dylan’s counter-accusations to be untrue, forcing Dylan to re-record with different lyrics, or be faced with lawsuits himself. Not only does ‘Hurricane’ tell a powerful narrative, but it is also a masterfully created song, accompanied by some hugely atmospheric violins and Dylan’s iconic, gloomy vocals. As a result of the huge attention that Dylan’s song received, Carter’s retrial occurred in 1985, and his conviction was overturned.

Image from graphicwitness.com. Carter being interviewed after Dylan’s concert, 1975.

Creedance Clearwater Revival – Fortunate Son

Think Vietnam War, and ‘Fortunate Son’ comes to mind. Thanks to the song’s appearance in Forrest Gump (1994) and Battlefield Bad Company 2: Vietnam (2010), John Fogerty’s powerful rock anthem has become the defining anthem of the Vietnam War. The song attacked the military patriotism of those who do not pay the cost of war – the Fortunate Sons of American political elites. Fogerty, who served in the US Army, became hugely disenfranchised with the war and mainstream politics throughout his career. ‘Fortunate Son’ has as a result become the go-to song for political activists across the world. The track attracted criticism at the 2014 Concert for Valor performance by Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, and Zac Brown, however Forgerty himself approved of the use of his song.

N.W.A – F** tha Police

A huge track on the Compton based hip-hop outfit’s renowned album Straight Outta Compton (1988), ‘F** tha Police’ has arguably had the greatest cultural impact of all of the songs on this list. While the song’s approval of violence against police is problematic, its opposition to police brutality and racial profiling are still relevant. The song is even more powerful when coupled with its music video, in which the group parodies the American legal system, with mock re-enactments of stereotypical racial profiling. The song’s lyrics were so divisive that it led the F.B.I to send a letter to the group’s record label, stating that they had been misrepresented. However, N.W.A’s manager Jerry Heller claimed that the letter was written by a lone agent eager for promotion. Regardless, the song’s pop culture significance is clear to see, as its name has been displayed on t-shirts and in art since its release.

Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name

Without a doubt the most well-known protest song of all time. The LA rap-rockers’ anthem is filled with anger towards institutionalised racism and police brutality, and has become the soundtrack to rebellion since its release in 1992. The lyric “some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses” refers to accusations that members of the US Police were also members of the Klu Klux Klan. Guitarist Tom Morello’s iconic guitar riff was allegedly created by accident whilst he was teaching a student about different guitar tunings, causing Morello to stop the lesson and record the riff. The song has drawn its fair amount of controversy, with BBC Radio One DJ Bruno Brookes accidently playing the uncensored version live on air, meeting a hundred and thirty-eight complaints. The song was also used at a United Kingdom Independence Party conference in 2012, to which Morello replied furiously “”Hey UKIP and Nigel Farage: Stop using ‘KILLING IN THE NAME’ for your racist/rightwing rallies. We are against everything you stand for. STOP. IT.” With only seven different lines of lyrics, and using the F word approximately seventeen times in the uncensored version, ‘Killing in the Name’ has become not only RATM’s defining song, but the world’s greatest protest song.

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