Progressive politics, ideas & culture


How long must we sing this song? 40 years of resistance music

This Magazine Staff


The struggle for social justice has always had a rousing soundtrack—from solidarity-inspiring union hymns to folk songs to hardcore anthems. To mark This’s 40th anniversary, we’ve put together a list of 40 essential “songs of resistance,” starting with 1966 and going right up to the present. After the jump, see the list, check out clips of the songs and chime in with your comments!


“Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” Phil Ochs (1966)
Sardonic and satirical, this song from Ochs’s terrific live album takes a piercing shot at the soft left.

“Respect,” Aretha Franklin (1967)
Aretha’s No. 1 hit became the defining anthem of the feminist movement, reversing the original message as written by Otis Redding.

“Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” James Brown (1968)
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Brown wrote a song to instill pride and self-confidence in African-Americans.

“Revolution,” The Beatles (1968)
John Lennon draws the line in the sand in his support for revolutionary movements, espousing non-violence and deriding dictatorships. The song’s use in a 1987 Nike ad was seen as one of the most sacrilegious sins against music by the advertising industry, even 20 years after the fact. Check out the video version with Paul’s carefree backing vocals:

“Give Peace A Chance,” John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (1969)
It’s not much as far as songs go, but the fact that it was record during a bed-in for peace at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel gives it that protest song heft. Plus it’s always been a great thing to sing at peace marches. (Unfortunately, the message still needs to be shouted.)

“Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell (1970)
It’s been 36 years, but they’re still putting trees in tree museums, paving paradise in favour of parking lots and farming with harsh chemicals. But at least Mitchell articulated our outrage.

“War,” Edwin Starr (1970)
This stirring protest song is most remarkable for the energy conveyed in Starr’s outrageous performance, but the message sticks, too.

“What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye (1971)
Gaye turned heads with his heartfelt, compassionate plea that “War is not the answer” — a surprising protest tune from a long-time sex symbol. View the topical video below:

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil Scott-Heron (1971)
Scott-Heron was one of the first to combine soul and jazz music with spoken word in a precursor to rap, and this cautionary poem over music reminds listeners to take action if change is what they seek. Video for the condensed edit of the song:

“The Harder They Come,” Jimmy Cliff (1972)
This song and film helped bring reggae — the music expressing the struggles and realities of living in Jamaica’s slums — into the public consciousness. A video, featuring clips from the film:

“Manifiesto,” Victor Jara (1974)
The story of revolutionary Chilean folk singer Victor Jara is a tragic one, ending shortly after he writes and records “Manifiesto.” Jara was rounded up in General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup and taken to a boxing stadium, where he was beaten for four days and had his fingers broken before being shot to death. In “Manifiesto,” he sings: “My guitar is not for the rich, no, nothing like that. My song is of the ladder we are building to reach the stars.”

“Hurricane,” Bob Dylan (1976)
Dylan didn’t write many protest songs in the late ’60s or early ’70s, but this song telling the story of wrongfully convicted boxer Rubin Carter proves he hadn’t lost his sense of narrative — or of justice.

“God Save the Queen,” The Sex Pistols (1977)
Taking dead aim at Queen Elizabeth and the decline of the British empire, to much outcry and a BBC ban, Johnny Rotten has said the lyrics reflect loving the English and being “sick of seeing them mistreated.”

“Zombie,” Fela Kuti and Afrika 70 (1977)
The popularity of this song and album – a critique of the Nigerian military – resulted in soldiers beating Kuti and fatally injuring his mother in a raid on his artists’ commune. Listen to a 30-second clip of the song at Fela Kuti’s page.

“London Calling,” The Clash (1979)
Angst toward the direction in which Britain and the world were headed fuelled Joe Strummer’s ominous lyrics about humankind authoring its own demise, and the menacing, chaotic music fit perfectly.

“Redemption Song,” Bob Marley & the Wailers (1980)
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,” Marley urges on the final track of the last album released before his death.

“Kill the Poor,” Dead Kennedys (1980)
Jello Biafra spits pure sarcasm on the Kennedys’ defining track about annihilating the unemployed so the rich can party.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” U2 (1983)
The military drumbeat and The Edge’s trademark soaring guitar set the mood for this outcry against the horrific cycle of violence in Northern Ireland. No resistance song is more stirring, especially if you ignore the whole “tax haven” thing.

“Nelson Mandela,” The Special A.K.A. (1984)
Mandela had been in prison for more than 20 years when this side project of Specials frontman Jerry Dammers released the single that helped propel the fight against Apartheid. Predictably banned by the South African government, the song became a rallying cry around the world and helped put the spotlight on Mandela and other political prisoners. Dig the dancing in the video:

“Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen (1984)
Reagan tried to use this song in an election campaign, but it’s heart and soul is a story of a veteran broken by war and abandoned by his country.

“There is Power in a Union,” Billy Bragg (1986)
Take your pick from the Billy Bragg catalog, but this one’s a rousing version of the traditional union song. In the following clip, Bragg gets a receptive audience at the AFL-CIO building in Washington in 2002:

“Beds Are Burning,” Midnight Oil (1987)
Australian rockers address the injustices suffered by Aborigines, but their cry is applicable in North America, too, obviously.

“You Must Learn,” Boogie Down Productions (1989)
No wonder they call KRS-One “The Teacher.” Today’s lesson: Black history. The video is an alternate version of the song, but no less incendiary.

“Fuck Tha Police,” N.W.A. (1989)
Impossible to ignore as a bellwether of gangsta rap and an indicator of black frustration at the time, “Fuck Tha Police” also helped make it possible for a generation of expressive, creative rap radicals — including Dead Prez, The Living Legends and The Coup — to be heard. The video below is a live performance of the song in more recent times:

“Fight the Power,” Public Enemy (1989)
Confrontational and furious, this song became P.E.’s hallmark at a time when lower class and non-white frustrations were about to boil over. Check out the uncut version of the Spike Lee-directed video for the song, below:

“Save This House,” Spirit of the West (1989)
If Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” was a metaphoric articulation of the threats to the natural world, “Save This House” goes one step further, issuing a desperate plea to rescue the planet “before we trash this place.”

“Wake Up,” Rage Against the Machine (1992)
So many of this seminal protest rap-rock band’s songs are essential, but none work a listener up like this funk-heavy exposé on the deaths of dark-skinned revolutionaries. Hearing it again, it’s actually chilling. The sound on the following video clip is a bit rough, but it’s worth it to see a young Zach De La Rocha simply on fire:

“TV, Drug of the Nation,” Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (1992)
Michael Franti critiques our dependence on the idiot box and gives an indication of his future direction with Spearhead. The song goes especially well with the video, below:

“La Femme Fetal,” Digable Planets (1993)
If only every MC treated women with the respect Butterfly does on this mellowed-out, personal tale of the difficulties of abortion and the importance of the right to choose.

“Anti-Manifesto,” Propagandhi (1993)
In which Winnipeg’s punk troubadours let loose on those who see them as simple entertainers instead of revolutionaries with a purpose. Live performance below:

“Not A Pretty Girl,” Ani Difranco (1995)
As far as artists go, Difranco probably had a hand in politicizing more young women than any singer of her generation. In “Not A Pretty Girl,” it’s easy to see (or hear) why—few songs do the job of empowering women like this one. Listen to a 30-second clip of the song at Ani Difranco’s page.

“April 29, 1992 (Miami),” Sublime (1996)
Brad Nowell and company insist the riots in L.A. following the Rodney King verdict were more about class struggle than race issues. Note: the song’s title refers to the date and place Nowell wrote the song, not the day or place of the events in question.

“Clandestino,” Manu Chao (1998)
This could be the anthem for the “No one is illegal” movement, as Chao sings a lyric that translates roughly into “My life is forbidden/So says the authority.”

“Your Revolution,” DJ Vadim with Sarah Jones (1999)
Playing on a hip hop classic, Jones opens with the line, “Your Revolution will not happen between these thighs,” and proceeds to pointedly tear a strip off every black rapper who is hyper-aware of race issues but remains deeply misogynistic. Listen to a 30-second clip of the song at DJ Vadim’s page.

“Hot Topic,” Le Tigre (1999)
Roll call time! Le Tigre gives a quick lesson on who to pay attention to if you’re woman-positive. Listen to a 30-second clip of the song at Le Tigre’s page.

“Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist,” The Weakerthans (1999)
A song about despair, angst and, eventually, hope for over-educated twentysomethings offers stunning lyrics, including: “Swear I way more than half believe it when I say that somewhere love and justice shine/Cynicism falls asleep/Tyranny talks to itself/Snappy slogans all come true/We forget to feed our fears.”

“Ban Marriage,” The Hidden Cameras (2003)
Toronto’s Joel Gibb gives a big middle finger to the institution of marriage in the midst of the same-sex marriage debate: “We aren’t fools to fall in love, but let coupledom die.” Live performance of the song below:

“Mosh,” Eminem (2004)
That the king of tasteless rap would write a forceful condemnation of a war that has torn apart inner-city families was a surprising indication of how pervasive anti-Bush sentiment was leading up the 2004 election. Check out the incendiary video that circulated around the internet in 2004:

“When the President Talks To God,” Bright Eyes (2005)
Blog This commenter Adrian called this song “pointed and inspiring,” and I’m not one to argue. The mock back-and-forth between God and Bush says it all. Check out how uncomfortable Jay Leno is after Bright Eyes performs this song on his show:

“Let’s Impeach the President,” Neil Young (2006)
Young broke into this modern classic in his appearance on “The Colbert Report,” but devoted “Republican” Stephen Colbert cut him off. The “flip/flop” segment interspersed with Bush sound clips is fabulous.

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