Using music both as a form of expression and as a method of coming together is so important, especially in our current time of social and political unrest; protest songs are one way people use music to do that.
But what exactly is a protest song? To put it simply, it’s a piece of music related to a social movement. These songs can be from any genre; the only requirement is that the music is about an issue or a movement.
The history of protest songs in America goes back centuries — as long as there have been objections to issues, like slavery, war and civil rights, there have been protest songs that aim to bring people together and promote change. The first recorded protest songs stem back to the founding of the country; Joseph Warren’s 1774 song “Free America” is an early protest song that was created in hopes of giving courage to American soldiers.
In the 1970s and 1980s, there were more songs that spoke out against injustice. “F— Tha Police,” a track off N.W.A.’s 1988 debut album, “Straight Outta Compton,” will go down as one of the most controversial protest songs in history. With lyrics like “Lights start flashin’ behind me, but they’re scared of a n—- so they mace me to blind me,” the song tackles the issue of police brutality in the Black community.
In response to its release, the FBI actually sent N.W.A. a letter expressing their dissatisfaction with the message of the song. “F— Tha Police” received both backlash and praise for taking a stance on a social issue, and it will leave a lasting legacy on protest songs of the future.
With recent racial and political events, there has been a surge in protest songs over the past few months. Here are five of the best ones in 2020 (so far).
1. “Thoughts and Prayers” by Drive-By Truckers
“Thoughts and Prayers,” performed by Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, is a protest piece with an unexpectedly lighthearted tone. The song, which is featured on the group’s album “The Unraveling,” pairs upbeat rock instrumentals with lyrics that reference mass shootings and gun violence against children.
As hinted by the title, the song invalidates those who offer thoughts and prayers as a solution when tragedy strikes, but who don’t want to change the loose gun laws that allow these deaths to happen.
This isn’t the first time Drive-By Truckers used their songs to express political views; their 2016 record, “American Band,” was released just months before the presidential election.
The album includes powerful songs like “Surrender Under Protest,” which was inspired by the aftermath of the Charleston church massacre, when civil rights activists successfully got the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina Statehouse.
Frontman Patterson Hood said about their new album, “I don’t think it occurred to us that things would take the turn they have taken nationally and politically, and s–t kept happening that kept inspiring us to write those kinds of songs.”
Strongest lyrics: “Stick it up your a– with your useless thoughts and prayers”
2. “Mr. Officer” by Tee Grizzly, Queen Naija, Detroit Youth Choir
“Mr. Officer” is a powerful anthem by Tee Grizzley that addresses police brutality and was inspired by the horrific murder of George Floyd. The song features R&B singer and songwriter Queen Naija, as well as members of the Detroit Youth Choir, a group that came in second place on Season 14 of “America’s Got Talent.”
The hard-hitting rap from Tee Grizzly, passionate vocals from Queen Naija and background choir music combine to create a beautiful piece with an important narrative.
The song continuously raises pressing questions with lyrics like “Mr. Officer — What if that was my brother? What if that was my dad? What if that was my uncle? What if they was all I had?”
In a statement about “Mr. Officer,” Tee Grizzly said, “I’m not a politician or activist but right now it’s everybody’s job to speak up because the pain, the struggle for equality and the brutality is real.”
Strongest lyrics: “Y’all are supposed to be the heroes though, you know, protect and serve, not taking us off the Earth.”
3. “One Million” by Turismo Girlfriend World Tour
Most 2020 protest songs are about recent racial events, but French singer Julie Bernouis (whose moniker is Turismo Girlfriend World Tour) is keeping women’s rights relevant in the music world.
Her song “One Million” has catchy beats that will make you want to dance along, while the lyrics speak out against stereotypes women deal with every day. The song encourages girls to break down patriarchal barriers.
While “One Million” is definitely an uplifting anthem for female empowerment, Bernouis maintains a sense of humility about it. “I don’t pretend to be an activist. I’m not Bob Dylan. But I like a serious, catchy and upbeat song,” Bernouis said.
The lesser-known song, which has under 1,000 listens on Spotify, is truly one of the most underrated, fun and empowering protest pieces of the year.
Strongest lyrics: “Be strong, don’t look back, they won’t stand a chance.”
4. “The Bigger Picture” by Lil Baby
Atlanta rapper Lil Baby calls out for racial justice with this influential song about the struggles of the Black community. The song starts with a sound bite from the news describing the recent protests in Minneapolis. Lil Baby raps about stereotypes that Black people face, as well as the fear they constantly live with just because of their skin color.
The music video for “The Bigger Picture,” which includes a montage of chilling footage from recent protests, has over 39 million views on YouTube.
According to Lil Baby’s Instagram, proceeds from the song will go to organizations like The Bail Project and Black Lives Matter, with some going straight to Breonna Taylor’s attorney to help her family get justice for her murder.
The songs’ tone of anger and urgency is sure to make “The Bigger Picture” one of the defining protest songs of the year.
Strongest lyrics: “It’s bigger than black and white, it’s a problem with the whole way of life, it can’t change overnight.”
5. “I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R.
A little different than the fast-paced rap protest songs we’ve been looking at, this easygoing soulful ballad will have your heart aching. The R&B artist showcased her new song during the iHeartRadio Living Room Concert Series on June 10.
This song has a unique and compelling sound — during the second half, H.E.R. sings in a passionate slam poetry style, with relaxed beats and acoustic guitar in the background.
Before performing the single for iHeartRadio, H.E.R. said, “Just by the title, you know that it means something very, very kind of painful and very revealing … I think music is powerful when it comes to change and when it comes to healing, and that’s why I wrote this song — to make a mark in history.”
Strongest lyrics: “This is the American pride, it’s justifying a genocide, romanticizing the theft and bloodshed that made America the land of the free.”