7 Protest Songs That Made History

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was the straw that finally broke America’s back.

The American people have had enough of police brutality and the sickeningly frequent killing of Black people, and are making their feelings known by taking to the streets. As the situation intensifies and the American dream looks to be going up in flames, many celebrities, particularly musicians, are taking to social media to express their feelings and support for the protests. While musicians might seem unlikely to have much of an impact, music does have a long history with civil unrest and has helped document and shape the narrative of many major world events. Songs have provided a way for artists to share commentary on the injustices in the world and get their message across in a peaceful way to millions. While we haven’t heard too many new songs about the current protests, here are seven songs that made a difference when first released and still pack clout today.

N.W.A. – ‘Fuck Tha Police’

Few hip-hop acts in the 80s had as much impact on the genre as N.W.A. The Compton collective, comprising Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella, not only brought gangster rap to the masses but painted a sobering picture of life in the ghetto, particularly with their still-relevant anthem ‘Fuck Tha Police.’ Written after the group was harassed by the Torrance Police Department, the song describes racial profiling and the kind of police brutality African Americans endure constantly. It quickly became a rallying cry for the youth and was deemed so powerful by the FBI, that they sent N.W.A.’s record label a threatening letter expressing their dislike of the song.

Billie Holiday – ‘Strange Fruit’

While most of the younger generation are only aware of ‘Strange Fruit’ because Kanye West sampled it on ‘Blood On The Leeves,’ many artists have covered the powerful protest song over the years, but none better than Billie Holiday. Originally a 1937 poem written by Abel Meeropol about the horrors of the lynch mob, Holiday’s rendition hits the profound lyrics home with a goose-bump-inducing performance.

YG – ‘FDT’

Compton rapper YG gets straight to the point with his controversial hit ‘FDT (Fuck Donald Trump).’ Supposedly recorded in an hour by YG and the recently deceased Nipsey Hussle, the song was inspired by Hussle’s experience working with Mexican immigrants. Released before Trump got the top job, ‘FDT’ was hugely popular among America’s youth, becoming a viral sensation after the orange-haired fuck-knuckle took office. The secret service tried to get YG to drop the song from his album, and while he refused, a number of lines have actually been censored.

Plastic Ono Band – ‘Give Peace A Chance’

John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s collaboration as the Plastic Ono Band brought mixed results, but there’s no denying ‘Give Peace A Chance’ is a highlight. Recognised as the first official single from Lennon (despite being released under the Plastic Ono Band moniker), ‘Give Peace A Chance’ came about during Lennon and Ono’s ‘Bed-In’ as the Vietnam War raged. Recorded in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada, while Lennon and Ono were on honeymoon, the song became a surprise hit, peaking at number two on the British charts. One of the world’s most famous anti-war songs, Lennon’s plea to ‘give peace a chance’ is a message that still resonates today.

Public Enemy – ‘Fight The Power’

While N.W.A. took the American police force to task with ‘Fuck Tha Police,’ fellow rappers Public Enemy went one step further and attacked the government. Written for Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, ‘Fight The Power’ is a fireball of political and social commentary from the pen of lyricist Chuck D. Highlighting the plight of the African American community and the civil rights movement, the track even features Chuck calling Elvis Presley and John Wayne racists (He retracted the racist Elvis bit in 2014–Ed). Containing 21 different samples (including Bob Marley And The Wailers ‘I Shot The Sherriff’ and Rick James ‘Give It To Me Baby’) and an opening with a quote from civil rights activist Thomas Todd, ‘Fight The Power’ stands the test of time as one of the greatest protest songs ever released.

The Sex Pistols – ‘God Save The Queen’

Originators of the 70s punk rock movement, Britain’s The Sex Pistols legitimately didn’t give two fucks, as evidenced by their second single ‘God Save The Queen.’ The title makes the song sound like the band care for their royal overlords, but it’s in fact a vitriolic attack on the monarchy. Dripping with hate and spittle, frontman Johnny Rotten screams the sarcastic hook, ‘God save the queen, we mean it, man / We love our queen, God saves.’ At the time of its release, the tune was banned by the BBC but still managed to reach number two and helped The Sex Pistols become punk legends.

Bruce Springsteen – ‘Born in the USA’

A foot-stomping arena rock anthem often thought of as a celebration of American patriotism, ‘Born in the USA’ is in fact a gut-wrenching commentary on the way returning Vietnam Vets were treated and the futility of war. ‘Born in the USA’ exposed Springsteen’s left-leaning political views through good old fashioned rock and roll. Originally a very sombre song recorded for his album Nebraska, the Boss re-recorded the much more upbeat version that became perhaps his biggest hit.

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