Top 10 Protest Songs
Script written by Aaron Cameron. Give them three chords and they’ll give you the truth. For this list, we’ve chosen songs that argue against the status quo, ask for change in social, political or other spheres and/or are associated with particular events, periods, movements, etc. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 protest songs. Special thanks to our users dave2318, happychaosofthenorth Noah J. Odom, antonius1903 and Margaret Rd for submitting the idea on our Suggest Page at WatchMojo.com/suggest
Give them three chords and they’ll give you the truth. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 protest songs.
For this list, we’ve chosen songs that argue against the status quo, ask for change in social, political or other spheres and/or are associated with particular events, periods, movements, etc.
#10: “We Shall Overcome” (1963)
Although the song had been kicking around in some form since… well, no one really knows, “We Shall Overcome” has become synonymous with Pete Seeger. The banjo-slinging folk legend certainly had a hand in shaping the song as we know it. Used as a musical form of protest during the Civil Rights movement, the anthem features simple but honest lyrics that made it a ready battle cry for any group facing adversity. Plus, it continues to be recorded in support of a number of causes today.
#9: “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1983)
Despite being drenched in U2’s signature echo-pop sound, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is actually the band’s response to the British Army’s armed attack of Northern Irish civil-rights protesters in 1972. Also known as the Bogside Massacre, the incident resulted in over a dozen deaths. Thanks to its clanging guitars and military-inspired beat, it’s become one of the group’s signature songs. But it’s the respect and authority with which U2 tackles the subject matter that really makes it stand out.
#8: “Fuck tha Police” (1988)
With this gangsta rap track, N.W.A. went “Straight Outta Compton” and straight into controversy. By presenting a clear, street-view look at racially motivated police brutality, “Fuck that Police” got the rappers noticed – by the FBI! The government agency’s attention to lyrics that appeared to support violence towards cops actually helped fuel the band’s cred and popularity. Meanwhile, the song has become a classic protest song and the weight behind its title phrase has become a recurring theme in hip-hop music.
#7: “Ohio” (1970)
On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard fired on several peacefully protesting Kent State University students. After he saw photos of the shootings that left “four dead in Ohio,” Neil Young wrote the lyrics to this protest song. David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash then joined him in the studio to record the rocker. Though some AM radio stations banned the single for its unflattering name-dropping of President Nixon, “Ohio” still reached the Billboard Hot 100’s top 20 following its release.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
#6: “Killing in the Name” (1992)
Never a group to shy away from tough issues, Rage quickly established themselves as a politically minded act with their debut single. The rap metal band turned “Killing in the Name” into a musical attack on police brutality, institutional racism, and the Ku Klux Klan, through its snorting basslines, Tom Morello’s unorthodox guitar parts and F-bombs. Lots and lots of F-bombs. Despite its explicit lyrics, the track has become their signature tune and has been covered by multiple artists.
Rage Against the Machine
#5: “Fight the Power” (1989)
While the Beastie Boys were fighting for their right to party, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and the rest of the Public Enemy crew were fighting for their right to do pretty much everything else. Fused with aggression, defiance, and rebellion, the lyrics of “Fight the Power” are steeped with samples of African-American culture and shots at the American establishment. Along with playing in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” the song has since become an anthem for urban, underprivileged young adults.
#4: “Get Up, Stand Up” (1973)
Struck by the devastating poverty found in Haiti, Bob Marley teamed up with Peter Tosh to write this 3-minute number. In the early ‘70s, many Haitians fled the country in the hopes of freeing themselves from these conditions. With its solid reggae groove and powerful lyrics, “Get Up, Stand Up” urged those who remained to fight for their rights. Thanks to its powerful message, it quickly became a concert staple for Marley and The Wailers and was the last song the Rastafarian performed live before his death in 1981.
#3: “The Times They Are a-Changin’“ (1964)
Written when America was on the cusp of great social change – and just prior to JFK’s assassination – this is Bob Dylan’s call for open-mindedness and a warning to the old guard. The coming generations quickly adopted it as an anthem of change due to its timeless lyrics. “The Times They Are a-Changin’” also reached the UK top 10 and cemented Dylan’s place in folk music and a protest singer.
#2: “What’s Going On” (1971)
In the first track and single from What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye questions the world and times around him. The initial spark for the song was an act of police brutality witnessed by co-writer Obie Benson during an anti-war protest. After Gaye added his own touches, the track was released without Motown boss Berry Gordy’s consent, as he hated the track. Lucky for us all, “What’s Going On” topped the Soul charts and became Motown’s fastest-selling single to that point.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
- “Fortunate Son” (1969) Creedence Clearwater Revival
- “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984) Bruce Springsteen
- “For What It’s Worth” (1967) Buffalo Springfield
- “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” (1967) Country Joe and the Fish
- “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964) Sam Cooke
- “Born Free” (2010) M.I.A.
#1: “Give Peace a Chance” (1969)
Paving the way for “Imagine,” this John Lennon-penned track provides the sentiment that Lennon is best remembered for. Quickly adopted as the anti-Vietnam war song, “Give Peace a Chance” was conceived and recorded during the ex-Beatle’s Montreal “Bed-In” with wife Yoko Ono and later sung by 500,000 people at the Moratorium March on Washington. While it reached the Billboard Hot 100’s top 20 and the UK charts’ top 5, it’s the song’s hopeful tune that has given it its enduring legacy in rock and roll.
Plastic Ono Band
Do you agree with our list? What’s your favorite protest song? For more rebellious Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.