Essential Political Songs

8:44 PM

Since its creation, music has been a vessel for activists to spread their message. It is tradition for artists to sing about what affects them and those around them. It can be used as a tool to lift up the oppressed and fight for the rights of marginalized people, as well as give encouragement to those getting their hands dirty. 

By politics editor, Cameron Price

The order of these songs does not pertain to importance or greatness.

1. A Change Is Gonna Come - Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke’s upbeat song gives the listener hope, whether for when it was released in the 60s or for today. It goes through times where the narrator experienced hardships for the color of his skin, but through those times he knows a change will eventually come.

2. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - Gil Scott-Heron

This song is one of my favorites on this list for its sound and creativity alone. Gil Scott-Heron, a poet, gives us a track of spoken word poetry played over jazz music. The song was a call to action for the Black Power movements in the 60s, in which the song’s title became a popular protest slogan. It features cultural references, such as Johnny Cash, Natalie Wood, Bullwinkle, and more. It states that you will not be able to “cop out” of the revolution.

3. What’s Going On - Marvin Gaye

This song was inspired by what Obie Benson, of the Four Tops, witnessed while walking near an anti-war protest in Berkeley. Benson saw police brutality and violence during what was later dubbed “Bloody Thursday.” While the song was turned down by the Four Tops for being too political, Marvin Gaye felt inclined to sing it after the 1965 Watts Riots and hearing of his brother’s experience serving in Vietnam. Gaye recalled asking himself the question “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?”

4. Alright - Kendrick Lamar

Credited as a ”unifying soundtrack” for the Black Lives Matter movement, this song was nominated for four Grammys and won two. The chorus features the repeated line “We gon’ be alright,” a message to black Americans living through these difficult times. It is referred to as a “message of hope” by Lamar himself. With the lyrics “we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure…” Lamar makes a reference to the disproportion in which Black Americans face police violence. Lamar performed the song at the BET Awards in 2015. The performance featured Lamar standing on a police car in front of a large American flag, which is slightly ripped up. Geraldo Rivera of Fox News called the performance "disgusting,” which should serve as further encouragement to give the song a listen and the performance a watch. 

5. Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday

Originally a poem written by Jewish-American poet Abel Meeropol, Billie Holiday recorded this as a song in 1939. It was a protest against the lynchings that were occurring in the US. The song is extremely powerful and difficult to listen to. It is difficult to even describe the pain laid out in the song and its importance. I leave the lyrics below with the warning that they are very graphic.

Southern trees bear 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

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

6. We The People…. - A Tribe Called Quest

A direct response to Trump and his followers’ rhetoric, A Tribe Called Quest released this as their first single after being split for eighteen years. The chorus contains the lyrics “All you Black folks, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must go/And all you poor folks, you must go/Muslims and gays/Boy, we hate your ways/So all you bad folks, you must go.” Each line is a reference to groups that have been demonized by Trump and his supporters, demonization that has led to a spike in hate crimes for every group. The chorus is a complete juxtaposition to the verses, which are full of condemnations of conservatives.


7. White Man - Queen

This song was released on Queen’s fifth album, A Day At The Races, in 1976. It is one of my favorite Queen songs of all time. The song details how Indigenous Peoples’ land was stolen by colonizers who “created” what is modern-day America. It is sung from a Native person’s point of view and with lyrics like “Our country was green and all our rivers wide… You came with a gun and soon our children died...Don't you give a light for the blood you've shed…” it is an essential reminder of what horrible atrocities were committed in order to take this land. 

8. Make America Great Again - Pussy Riot

Serving as a wake-up call to Americans in Trumpian times, “Make America Great Again” lists examples of negative things Trump has said and done. The group reclaims Trump’s slogan, telling the liberal youth of America that it’s time to make America great by not killing black children, listening to women, and letting people into our country.

9. This Is America - Childish Gambino

“This Is America” just recently became the first rap song to win the Best Song category at the Grammys. When it was released, it became an instant hit and protest anthem. The song is a call out to America and how it prefers consuming black art to protecting black lives. The music video shows us the full story, riddled with imagery referring to the struggle black Americans face and how white people ignore it. 

10. Nina Cried Power - Hozier ft. Mavis Staples

This song serves as Hozier’s first single after a four-year break. It features a strong voice in the civil rights movement, Mavis Staples. It is a call to power to activists and names specific activists who “cried power” while fighting for rights of marginalized people. Hozier is not new to appreciating black activists and artists in his music, but this song is much more powerful in its directly political lyrics. The titular “Nina” is Nina Simone, whose name is repeated several times in the song. In addition to Simone, Hozier and Staples reference James Brown, Billie Holiday (whose most famous song was referenced earlier in this list), Curtis Mayfield, B.B. King and many others. 

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