Fired Up: The Top Ten Greatest Protest Songs of the Past Decade

Do politics belong in music? When the songwriter knows what they’re talking about, hell yes. They can spark inspiration for others to speak out against social injustice or rally fans in a call to action for a good cause. But can a song change the world?

I remember driving around town listening to Z-Trip’s Party for Change mix in October of 2008. It’s a beautiful analog amalgam of turntablism and political speeches that urged young people to vote for the party that promised change. That memory broke through the floodgates recently while at a bar a couple of weeks ago. Ferguson was the topic of discussion and everyone was playing their favorite protest songs on the jukebox. After a dozen or so songs it was alarmingly obvious that they all had something in common. They were all old. There was hardly anything past the 80′s coming to mind for anybody. I had a few suggestions that the juke didn’t have but the overall sentiment was that the younger generations just didn’t know how to write a protest song like the kids of the Vietnam War.

Granted, some of the best protest songs go way back beyond the Vietnam War. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is probably the most haunting cry for injustice ever recorded. But our parents had CSNY and Buffalo Springfield. Those bands wrote timeless songs, of course. And a good protest song always seems to find new ways of being relevant. But I refuse the belief that the newer generation is totally vapid and can’t write like the old guys. I mean, George W. Bush alone had to be the reason for thousands of new protest songs. After a bit of digging, I’ve found that the recorded music from the younger generations include some of the best protest songs of all time. Period. So what are the most succinct musical call to arms of this new generation?

Killer Mike’s “Reagan”

This political pairing with producer El-P tears deep into the uninspired themes of today’s rap game and how more lyricists should perhaps be teaching our youth of how our politicians are seemingly doomed to carry out the mistakes of those previous.

“We should be indicted for bullishit we’re inciting, hand the children death and pretend that it’s exciting,” Mike raps before leaning in heavy into some bigger picture issues with corporate lobbying. He closes the history lesson with a not-so-secret tongue in cheek message, “Ronald (six) Wilson (six) Reagan (six).”

Killer Mike really didn’t like Reagan.

Bright Eyes’ “When The President Talks To God”

This particular live take is undoubtedly the most controversial performance of Conor Oberst’s career. He appeared on The Tonight Show in May of 2005 and was supposed to play another song for network television but surprised everyone with these then unreleased verses aimed at president George W. Bush. We have to share via Dailymotion as the video was removed from YouTube and other video sharing services.

Ben Harper’s “Black Rain

Ben has a way of merging angst with hope in a way that dares you to take action. This song is a response to the slow reaction to Hurricane Katrina but the lyrics after Juan Nelson’s bass solo are brow-raising when juxtaposed to recent events in Ferguson.

Harper wrote “Black Rain” while in the studio recording Both Sides of the Gun after he witnessed families getting swept away in the currents of Hurricane Katrina. With zero government response for what many deemed way too long, many families lost everything. The frustration of hopelessly watching this on live television spurred one of the strongest tracks on Ben’s last album with the Innocent Criminals.

Pokey LaFarge’s “Close The Door”

As Pokey put it in an interview once, “This one’s about our shoddy healthcare system here in America.” The lyrics say it all.

There’s at least half a dozen other videos of this song where everyone’s all mic’d up and sounding tight but this particular one take has a certain character to it.

We’d also recommend Bill Streeter’s video for “Good Lord Giveth” from this year’s Lo-Fi Cherokee event.

Catch Pokey LaFarge on September 12th at Old Rock House Outdoor Pavilion.

Passafire’s “Barcelona”

“Cop’s the same everywhere, they don’t care, got a job to do.” It’s a growing sentiment. The whole infrastructure seems to have ballooned into a size that demands more and more fines and tickets to keep up with overhead. This song’s about Passafire singer Ted Bowne being strong-armed by the Barcelona Policia to pay dearly to get his confiscated guitar back. He spent the night in jail and never saw his guitar again. It’s only fair that he wrote one of the band’s most successful songs out of the ordeal.

Prince Ea’s “Smoking Weed with The President”

Sorry, Marley. Our pick for best legalization anthem goes to St. Louis’ own Prince Ea.

These lyrics articulate the history behind the prohibition of America’s favorite furry buddy, something that was voted on for us not by us. Because that’s democracy, right?

Old Capital Square Dance Club’s “American Dream”

“The smoke, the mirror, and the TV. Put on your blindfold. C’mon and sing with me.”

The  skyrocketing profits of America’s super rich and plummeting wages of the middle and lower class over the past decade has left the American Dream to be just that. While trust in a good, stable career in the workforce has flown out the window for many Americans, chasing your own dream and starting something for yourself seems more relevant today than ever before. If it didn’t then perhaps St. Louis’ Jesse McClary of Old Capital Square Dance Club would’ve never written this gem.

Norah Jones’ “My Dear Country”

Every four years, a few days after Halloween, we have our biggest election day. Norah sings of how Halloween doesn’t hold a candle to how scary this day can be. She also takes a stab at news reporters for not knowing what they report on and then wraps the song up with a thanks to her country having the freedom to have a song she can sing on election day. Even when she writes a politically charged ballad, she’s subtle.

“My Dear Country” was released in 2007 on Not Too Late but when she performs it live she’ll often add the disclaimer that it was written in 2004 (when George W. Bush was up for reelection).

“Nothing is as scary as election day. But the day after is darker, and darker, and darker it goes. Who knows, maybe the plans will change. Who knows, maybe he’s not deranged.”

Cake’s “War Pigs”

Okay, technically it’s Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” And technically that makes it older than the past decade, but Cake makes this song their own and they’re coming to LouFest, so deal with it! Also, don’t miss them on Saturday at the Forest Park stage.

Wax Tailer & Ursula Rucker’s “We Be”

“We be joining the endless convoy of cultural hegemony.”

It starts with a sample from “What Is A Man” by The Watts Prophets before Ursula Rucker puts cynicism in its place. She answers every smirk and eye roll that one culture might give to another out of vain misunderstanding and suggests coming together to overcome the current status quo. In short, “We Be” protests our narrow-minded macroculture.

Pokey LaFarge photo by Steve St. Jean.

  • Zuver

    I’m protesting in the name of Against Me’s “White People for Peace” not making the list.