Fight the Power: Protest songs through the decades
Through the decades, the greatest protests against systems of oppression have all had their anthems. From anti-war sentiments and the fight for racial equality in the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter movement of the present day, music has played a vital role in all movements.
We’re looking back on those very anthems through the decades and highlighting their respective movements.
We Shall Overcome
Written half a century prior to the Civil Rights movement, “We Shall Overcome” served as both a hymn and a protest song. Most often performed with a bellowing choir and deep vibratos, the lyrics are simple: a repeating chorus of “we shall overcome.” Nothing more or less is needed to so accurately describe the fight for Black visibility in the 1960s.
Few songs of the Civil Rights movement put it as clearly and bluntly as Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” An angrier approach to the issue of civil rights than that of “We Shall Overcome,” Simone spouts off about the treatment of Black people in the South in this show tune without a show.
“Lord have mercy on this land of mine,” she says. “We all gonna get it in due time.”
The song was banned in several states in the South – perhaps the greatest measure of success in a protest song – but was preserved in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2019.
If anyone in country music has the authority to speak on the Women’s Liberation movement, it’s got to be Loretta Lynn. Still making music at 88 years old, Lynn was one of the first women to have a lucrative career in the boys club that is country music. Lynn is also a mother of seven children, six of whom were born before she was 20 years old.
In “The Pill,” Lynn became one of the first women in her industry to display such brazen support for reproductive rights. With her classic Kentucky drawl, she sings of the newfound freedom that will come with birth control. Despite being banned from several country radio stations upon its controversial release in 1975, “The Pill” has become a seminal Loretta Lynn classic.
“This old maternity dress I’ve got is goin’ in the garbage,” Lynn sings. “… I’m makin’ up for all those years ‘cause now I’ve got the pill.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
The Vietnam War reached a boiling point in the ‘60s and ‘70s, both on the frontlines and in the U.S. Anti-war sentiments brought about protests on a number of college campuses across the country. Some – most notably those at Kent State University in Ohio – prompted officials to send in the Ohio National Guard.
On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on protesters at Kent State University, killing four students and injuring nine others. With a menacing electric guitar riff and a chanting chorus, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tell the tale.
“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming,” the band sings. “We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.”
They go on to ask, “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? How could you run when you know?”
9 to 5
Rarely thought of as a protest song, Dolly Parton’s seemingly innocent country ballad not only unites blue-collar Americans in the struggles of capitalist exploitation, but also unites women in the workplace.
“They let you dream just to watch ‘em shatter,” she sings. “You’re just a step on the boss man’s ladder, but you’ve got dreams they’ll never take away.”
Fuck Tha Police
Well into the 21st century, police brutality and profiling against Black people is an epidemic in this country. In the past year alone, we’ve seen the police slayings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd – only 2 of the many – spark an influx of Black Lives Matter protests.
The premise of N.W.A.’s controversial “Fuck Tha Police” is simple, and we needn’t look any further than the title. The Compton rappers are fed up with the treatment of Black Americans by police, making for a song whose relevance hasn’t wavered in the 32 years since its release.
“And not the other color so police think they have the authority to kill a minority.”
Political unrest riddled Northern Ireland for the better half of the 20th century in the conflict over the country’s constitutional status dubbed “The Troubles.” More than 3,500 people were killed in the conflict, over half of whom were civilians.
The Cranberries’ hit “Zombie” is a lament for those lives lost, and a protest against the pointlessness of age-old conflicts for which no agreement would be reached. Both sides are zombies, mindlessly fighting for an arbitrary cause.
“When the violence causes silence, we must be mistaken,” Dolores O’Riordan sings. “… with their tanks and their bombs and their bombs and their guns. In your head, in your head, they are dyin’.”
2000s – Present Day
Not Ready to Make Nice
As President George W. Bush prepared to send troops into Iraq out of fear of weapons of mass destruction, the Chicks criticized this move heavily. They risked it all and paid the price for not following the cookie cutter image of conservatism in country music when frontwoman Natalie Maines said she was ashamed the president was from her home state of Texas at a concert in England.
The band faced boycotts from country radio, excessive criticism from its own industry and even death threats for these sentiments. They became a prime example of the expectation of women in the music industry: shut up and sing, or lose it all. The Chicks, however, would do the opposite.
Three years after the fallout, the Chicks returned with their fourth record and deep-cut single “Not Ready to Make Nice” in 2006. The country-rock hybrid song takes note of the double standards they faced and defends their right to freedom of expression.
“It’s a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger,” Maines sings. “And how in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge that they’d write me a letter saying that I better shut up and sing or my life will be over?”
Listen to these and other protest songs on our “Protest, Protest, Protest” playlist: