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The Art Of The Protest Song

Social inequality, war, corruption and brutality are some themes that unfortunately seem timeless. In the same vein, we do have people who rise up and speak against these injustices. Weighting their causes with immense creative talent, their impassioned pleas stand up across decades. Here we appreciate the artists who speak against these issue whether we face them now or have sought to combat them in the past.

Issues that have spawned great songs of protest over the years, songs that unite us to combat a universal evil. So in a time of political discontent we look back on the greatest lyrical protests in recent memory. Who needs a placard when you have a melody?

Rage Against The Machine – Killing In The Name

Probably the most recognised song by Rage Against The Machine, this angsty and incredibly raw track was crafted after the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 which have been noted as one of the worst riots in the US. What caused the riots? That previous year police officers were caught on film beating Rodney King, a man of African-American decent and causing grievous harm to his body. Later those same officers were acquitted of their offences, sparking widespread debate on police brutality and institutionalised racism.

Bruce Springsteen – Born In The USA

Listed by Rolling Stones as one of the greatest songs of all time, Born In The USA has been mistaken as a nationalistic song but incidentally, it’s quite the opposite. Written after the Vietnam War, the song addresses the harmful effects of war and a nation who turned against the soldiers who fought for it. Springsteen has firmly stood by the principles of the song, even rebutting President Reagan for misusing the track for his own agenda.

Midnight Oil – Beds Are Burning

Going from musician to MP and now back to musician, Peter Garrett and his band Midnight Oil wrote some of the greatest politically charged songs of the eighties. Beds Are Burning was an unfiltered plea to the Australian government to give the Indigenious Pintupi group their homeland back, after being forcibly moved during the 1950s and 1960s to different settlements. You may have heard this one churned out in high school geography class, but it’s message rings true today still.

NWA – Fuck Tha Police

No, this isn’t a song that was created due to a slight annoyance or minor grievance with the police. Fuck Tha Police stemmed from systemic issues in the US Police Force that didn’t address racial profiling and brutality against the black community. Despite the song condoning  violence against police, it remains one of most influential tracks of our time.

Paul Kelly & Kev Carmody – From Little Things Big Things Grow

Co-written by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody, From Little Things Big Things Grow holds its origin in the plight of the Gurindji Strike of 1966. This protest sparked much needed discussion around Indigenious land rights and was attributed to the creation of a Commonwealth Act that placed land ownership back into the hands of the Gurindji people.

A.B Original – January 26

Probably the most poignant track on this list, January 26 centres on the idea that Australian Day aims to be an inclusive holiday, yet ignores the oldest community of this fine land. Going as far as to have mobilised a grassroots effort to get it listed in the Hottest 100 of 2016 (it came in at no.16), the uncensored and brutal nature of the track makes a clear stance on the need to change the date for Australia Day. The track itself is infectious, which only helps to amplify the change the date cause.

M.I.A – Born Free

Always unapologetic and straight to the point, M.I.A isn’t ashamed to bring forth social issues throughout her music. Born Free portrays a world of oppression and reflects M.I.A’s perspective as a refugee and woman of colour who feels censored for providing a undiluted voice on the current state of the world.

A Tribe Called Quest – We The People

Many songs were released to protest the last US presidential election but very few presented their argument so eloquently. Hitting hard against the presence of racism in America, We The People goes to great lengths to show how deep the problem runs. Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims and Gays seem to be dealt with  similarly through the simple hook “you must go”, showing that nearly no one is off limits in the quest to make America great again.

Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Lead by transgendered front woman Laura Jane Grace, Against Me! have been bringing attention to the issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity for quite some time.Transgender Dysphoria Blues tackles the discrimination those in trans community face despite their longing to be accepted as they are.

Beyoncé Ft Kendrick Lamar – Freedom

 Not an overt attack on any individual, Freedom is Beyonce’s declaration of empowerment, more specifically black female empowerment. It puts power back into the hands of the individual and presses them to forget their state, their community and their enemies and eschew assumptions placed upon them. Passionately lauding listeners to push through and achieve their goals.

With eloquence and rhythm these tracks marry movement with soul, carrying their message with more virality than a emailed petition invitation. This list is by no means complete, with every injustice many tracks pop up allowing artist’s to speak their mind. There was John Legend’s Glory, Prince’s Baltimore or Tim Minchin’s address to Cardinal Pell, Come Home. All taking on a difficult subject matter with bravery and turning their cause into an artful movement, one bar at a time.

Image source: Rolling Stone. 

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