The image is a classic one – a musician, possibly raspy-voiced and perfectly disheveled, eyes blazing with a purpose. Each note uttered is weightier and more passionate than the last, somehow managing to convey with fluidity and beauty the fiery sentiment of thousands. Fists may rise in emblematic agreement, the shrill and clamor getting only louder as the masses so vociferously express their consent. A chant may break out, or conversely, a hushed silence, as each of the musician’s definitive words is priceless and worth hearing. The song ends, the crowd roars, tears fall, and whispered arguments prelude the inevitable fists that soon will be drawn. Whether the message is for or against war, oppression, insurrection, equal rights or unequal conditions, protest seems to be surpassed only by love and heartbreak as the musician’s preferred motif.
Across the long corridors of time, from Beethoven to The Beatles, musicians have utilized their ability to capitalize on the most accessible form of self-expression, music, to convey their outrage or approval for the events unfolding around them. Whether disrupting the status quo or beseeching the youth to take a stand, protests songs so aptly demonstrate one of the many reasons we love and worship musicians in the first place – they say the words we cannot. Whether its millennial pop-punk band Green Day declaring “down with the moral majority” or controversial hip-hop supergroup NWA protesting racially-targeted police brutality with “Fuck Tha Police”, the protest song has been used to respond to the ever-changing state of the world. The careers of artists such as Bob Marley and The Clash may be defined by their opinionated works, while others may have only dabbled in rebellion on a singular occasion. Regardless, these seminal voices have time and time again challenged the issues at hand and given to the people a unified and harmonious rallying cry.
Today, the protestors of Occupy Wall Street have garnered worldwide attention, receiving what seems to be an endless onslaught of support and criticism alike. As expected, many musicians have reached out to the cause, using both their words and their music to express solidarity with the 99%. Guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, elusive Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Magnum and Brooklyn-born rapper Talib Kweli have all stopped by the Manhattan protest site and played impromptu performances for the disillusioned crowd. With such a star-studded backing of the movement, one can only speculate as to when the first musical endorsements of OWS will hit the airwaves. Until then, here is a look back at some of the most powerful and memorable protest songs ever made, may they serve as inspiration for the works to come.
1. Sam Cooke – “A Change is Gonna Come”
Released two weeks after Cooke was tragically shot at an L.A. Motel, “A Change is Gonna Come” went on to become the anthem for the civil rights movement, and a final farewell for one of the most successful and influential singers of all time. Backed by an enchanting orchestral arrangement, the pairing of Cooke’s soaring voice and the delicate strength of the orchestra meld together to create a deeply personal and poignant account of the prejudices and inequalities of the time. Cooke details his arrest while on tour in Louisiana for registering at a “whites only” motel and mourns the loss of his 18-month-old son with an astounding beauty and grace, leaving the song’s message of hope or despair open for interpretation.
2. Bob Dylan – “Hurricane”
If ever a definitive protest singer comes to mind, Dylan is certainly it. With countless songs that easily could fit on this list, including “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “The Times They Are A-Changin” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, I chose “Hurricane” simply because it is a personal favorite of mine. Biases aside, “Hurricane” derives its inspiration from the imprisonment of Robin “Hurricane” Carter, an African-American middleweight boxer wrongly convicted in the 1960’s of homicide. Teaming powerful lyrics sung in his trademark, raspy drawl with an uptempo blend of guitar, violin and drums, “Hurricane” demonstrates that few can chronicle social unrest like Dylan does.
3. Dead Kennedys – “California Uber Alles”
Formed in San Francisco in the late 1970’s, quintessential punk rock band Dead Kennedys came forth from the underground with a powerful energy and masterfully menacing wit. Their first single, “California Uber Alles”, showcases their tongue in cheek satire at its best, the title being an allusion to the former first stanza of the national anthem of Germany. The song, sung from then California governor Jerry Brown’s perspective, envisions a world overrun by hippie-fascists where the uncool are taken prisoner by the “suede/denim secret police.” With an equally sinister bass riff to set the tone while frontman Jello Biafra sneers that everyone will die from “organic poison gas”, “California Uber Alles” is hardcore punk rebellion at its finest.
4. Billie Holiday – “Strange Fruit”
After seeing a gruesome photo depicting a lynching in the Deep South, outraged schoolteacher Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” as a poem and performed it as a protest song with his wife. Using the original poetry of Meeropol, legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939, slowly drawing out her words for an incredibly haunting result. Lady Day’s dramatic rendition backs Meeropol’s chilling words with only sparse piano chords, emphasizing the deeply evocative images of “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze” and successfully raising awareness about the evils of lynching to what was once a largely indifferent public.
5. Gil Scott-Heron – “The Revolution Will Not be Televised”
Celebrated spoken word performer Scott-Heron played a key role in bridging the gap between the Beat poets of the 1950’s and the budding genres of rap and hip-hop in the 1970s, melding stream of consciousness with rhyme and a rhythm. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is his most-well known work, still quoted and referenced extensively today. Accompanying his powerful words with only a minimal groove arrangement, Scott-Heron lambasts the culture of television and the masses of Americans hypnotized by their TV sets: his message still remarkably compelling forty year later.