In polarized communities and tense political landscapes, protesting can sound pretty appealing. It’s a chance to stand with people like you, fight for something you believe in, and let out the frustration over not yet having won.
This playlist of the best protest songs covers topics such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and daily problems like police brutality. These protest songs are inspirational and thought-provoking and might even give you chills when you start to think about the true power that protesting holds.
This is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst or, the Establishment Blues – Rodríguez
This protest song was born from anger and featured a too-long list of societal problems. Crime rates, political corruption, and religious conflict are just a few things that inspired this bluesy-style criticism of our social and political systems. A glimmer of hope is offered with the line “this system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune,” suggesting that the young protestors will succeed in bringing about change.
The World Turned Upside Down – Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg sings about the political turmoil present in England during the mid-1600s. Specifically, he talks about a group called the Diggers, who advocated for fair prices and fair society based on harmony and togetherness. At its core, this song is about finding strength and igniting change in a community where everyone is one.
Gimme Some Truth – John Lennon
The FBI actually investigated John Lennon for his supposed radical persona and anti-war views. Clearly, Lennon was not happy about this and sings about his disdain for politicians in ‘Gimme Some Truth.’ He’s tired of being judged and lied to by “uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocrites,” something many citizens can relate to in times of social unrest.
Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) – Pink Floyd
Perhaps one of the most recognizable songs in the genre of protest music, this classic rock song talks about the downfalls of a highly structured and over-demanding education system, featuring a children’s choir to drive home the point. Though not many people will argue that education is bad, it can be stifling depending on the school you go to and the teachers you have. The line “we don’t need no thought control” points out one potential problem—learning should be nurtured, not controlled, but some systems leave no room for unique thought.
Related: Find this song on our list of songs for school.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Gil Scott-Heron
This track is more poetry than a song, featuring spoken lines over a thrumming beat. Gil Scott-Heron speaks passionately about how “the revolution will not be televised.” The media will not cover oppressed groups working towards a revolution—if anything, they will try to hide any progress in hopes protesters will give up. But Gil Scott-Heron believes that this makes their work even more important—”the revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.”
Related: Here are some moving songs about racial equality.
Get Up Stand Up – Bob Marley and the Wailers
Bob Marley is one of the most well-known reggae artists and uses this groovy song to inspire his listeners. He wants people to take action against oppression and injustice. Even though it can be daunting, you can’t give up and have to “get up, stand up, stand up for your right.”
Related: Check out the best brave songs.
The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Bob Dylan
This song drew inspiration from the US Civil Rights movement and later became an anthem for the anti-government hippie movement. In an acoustic yet passionate song featuring some fun harmonica, Bob Dylan sings about how change is inevitable in an unhappy society. He encourages people to accept the change rather than resist it because it can’t be stopped.
Related: Get inspired by the best social change songs.
Killing in the Name – Rage Against the Machine
This aggressive rock music song uses intense instrumentation and angry lyrical delivery to get across the rage we feel knowing there is corruption in the police force. The lines “some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses” specifically reference how the police force in the early southern US had a relationship with the KKK and how we still see remnants of racism in the forces of today.
Uprising – Muse
Uprising’ unites listeners against corruption, throwing anger at the inept people with political power who only offer lies and empty promises to the people they are supposed to serve. This song was released in 2009, so it’s likely the financial crises of 2008 played at least a small role in its creation. Muse has reached its breaking point, singing, “they will not control us, we will be victorious.”
What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
The swaying motion and soothing feel of this song match its anti-violence sentiment. “We don’t need to escalate, you see. War is not the answer,” sings Marvin Gaye, making his stance on the necessity of war clear. He would much rather people talk it out and plead for peaceful, understanding conversation.
Related: Find peace with these songs about making a better world.
Nina Cried Power – Hozier ft. Mavis Staples
‘Nina Cried Power’ is an ode to all the musicians who have used their music to stand up for what they believe in. Hozier’s velvety vocals and Mavis Staples’ soulful ones combine to make an incredibly powerful song. They name inspirational musicians, such as Nina Simone, for whom the song is named. The line “It’s not the song, it is the singing, it’s the heaven of the human spirit ringing” shows just how powerful Hozier believes music to be.
Related: Grab a tissue and enjoy the best crying music.
Living for the City – Stevie Wonder
‘Living for the City’ follows a young boy born into poverty in Mississippi, describing the loving but unlucky family that surrounds him. The song uncovers the pervasive unfairness of life for some people. No matter their character or determination, sometimes it’s just not enough to make an actual living. “He tried and fought, but to him, there’s no solution.” It’s a bleak outlook but an all too real one for some.
Related: Hear this song on our social justice songs playlist.
Rebellion – Linkin Park ft. Daron Malakian
‘Rebellion’ merges rock and heavy metal elements to create a song that feels rebellious enough to suit its name. The song looks at privilege, the people “who’ve never faced oppression’s gun.” It recognizes that some people are so much better off in life-based solely on things like their economic status, race, or sexuality. Even those who got lucky need to recognize the need for rebellion, though, because “we’re like each other” and have an obligation to go after a society that works for everyone.
We Shall Overcome – Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger sings about a peaceful utopia in this acoustic ballad. He says, “deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome, someday.” There is no solution or timeline, which tells us how much work this ideal world will take, but it sounds well worth it. We can hope for a peaceful world with love at its core someday.
Related: Cheer up with the best optimistic songs.
Public Enemy – Fight the Power
‘Fight the Power’ was written for the movie Do The Right Thing and carries heavy anti-authoritarian themes. The song also champions black pride, taking shots at musicians like Elvis, who draw on black culture and music without giving any credit or showing any appreciation: “Elvis was a hero to most,” but he didn’t mean much to Public Enemy.
Related: Listen to these powerful songs.
How Many Miles Must We March – Ben Harper
Ben Harper sings about the necessity of not letting history repeat itself in this snappy song. He asks, “how much will have to burn before we will look to the past to learn?” How long does injustice need to go on before we finally eradicate it? Unfortunately, the people that benefit from injustice are not often inclined to fix it for others.
Fight the Power, Pts. 1 & 2 – Isley Brothers
The Isley Brothers use a unique funk style for their take on overcoming corrupt power. They believe that action is the best way to bring about change. They clearly feel a strong calling to get loud about what they believe in, saying, “when I rolled with the punches, I got knocked on the ground.”
Related: Fight the power with our playlist of fight music.
Know Your Rights – The Clash
This satirical song lists the three rights humans have: not to be killed (unless it’s by a policeman or politician), to have food and money (as long as you sacrifice some privacy and pride), and free speech (“as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it”). It expresses the frustration people have over knowing they technically have certain rights but feel like they’re not truly respected.
When the President Talks to God – Bright Eyes
This track sounds like a spoken word poem, and the emotion behind its words is palpable. The song is openly against President George W. Bush, who was known to “talk to God.” Bright Eyes questions if the president and God are really having conversations about the reality of society because the widespread injustice and death make it hard to believe.
Related: This song features on our playlist of war music.
Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival
The inequalities of class become incredibly clear in times of war. Poor men are the ones that have no chance of avoiding war, and it is they and their families who suffer even if they don’t support the cause. “Some folks are born silver spoon in hand,” giving them a privilege they probably never even question.
Related: Financial trouble? Here’s our list of economic songs.
For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
Protesting is often controversial. The more widespread the issue, the more tension it creates and the more polarized it becomes. This song is about the dangers of protesting and how “paranoia strikes deep.” Unfortunately, protests have a lot of potential to go wrong, and ‘For What It’s Worth’ follows the feelings that uncertainty brings up.
Related: You can hear this song on our playlist of Forrest Gump music.
Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
The “strange fruit” that is the muse of this song is the victims of lynching. It’s a dark song with vividly unsettling imagery like “the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.” The song wants to make you uncomfortable so that you are forced to understand the horrific tragedy of the event.
Related: Head over to our playlist of tragedy music.
Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2
This U2 track is a lament over innocent lives being lost. It specifically references the two Bloody Sundays in Ireland, where British troops killed Irish citizens. The lyrics feature heavy commentary on the public’s desensitization to violence—”it’s true we are immune when fact is fiction and TV reality.” We see so many tragic events on TV, that it no longer shocks us as it should.
Related: Learn about the past with the best history songs.
Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
‘Ohio’ was written about four students the US National Guard killed in 1970. The shots came during an anti-war protest at a college campus in Ohio. The shock over this event inspired anger and disbelief, seen clearly in this song. The line “soldiers are cutting us down” shows the fear over the fact that the people hired to protect the US killed four of its innocent citizens.
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll – Bob Dylan
A guitar ballad with a narrative style, this song talks about the murder of Hattie Carroll and the racist undertones of the trial that convicted her murderer. Carroll was black, and the assailant was an upper-class white man. It is suspected that his sentence was lenient because of the racial dynamic of the crime, as well as the man’s wealth.
Related: Travel the USA with these states songs.
I Ain’t Marching Anymore – Phil Ochs
‘I Ain’t Marching Anymore’ takes on the persona of a man who has fought in many wars and is now wondering what the point was. He asks, “tell me, is it worth it all?” before declaring that he will never fight again. No longer will he kill fellow humans for a cause that isn’t even valuable to him.
Meat is Murder – The Smiths
Writer Morrissey is a passionate vegetarian and brings his passion to this song. He wants to inspire his listeners to stop eating animals by making them feel guilty about their diet. He talks about what eating meat means to him: “this beautiful creature must die, a death for no reason.” He personifies the animals, hoping people will realize that eating them is not far from murder.
Related: Who’s hungry? Let us serve you our playlist of food songs.
People Have the Power – Patti Smith
‘People Have the Power’ had no specific cause in mind but instead worked to provide an anthem that could inspire any group of protesters. Patti Smith wants to remind people of the power of their voice. When enough people unite and fight for something they believe in, they force others to take action.
American Idiot – Green Day
With driving drums and heavy guitar, this song has all the elements of a great rock song. Green Day sings about their frustration with the state of US society, swearing that they will never subscribe to the corruptive and biased nature of politics and media. They “don’t wanna be an American idiot” that blindly trusts what the media is feeding them.
Idioteque – Radiohead
‘Idioteque’ takes place at the end of the world. The echoing snare adds anticipation and fear to the track as Radiohead sings about living in a bunker and the chaos that comes with an unsteady future. “I have seen too much, I haven’t seen enough” is a powerful line that shows how overwhelming this disaster is and how unprepared the narrator is to say goodbye to life.
Related: Here’s the top music of all time.
Biko – Peter Gabriel
This song is about Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid advocate in South Africa. Biko was killed while in police custody, and ‘Biko’ reflects the impact of his death on Biko’s supporters. “When I try to sleep at night, I can only dream in red,” haunted by the knowledge of this murder.
Related: Follow your dreams with this dream songs list.
Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) – James Brown
This song was released in the late 1960s, a time when race relations were full of tension in the US. James Brown advocates for black pride, reminding people to be unashamed of their race despite the many people telling them they should be. Brown sings “say it loud,” and a collection of voices sing back to him: “I’m black, and I’m proud.”
Related: Feel encouraged with the best be yourself songs.
Land of the Free – The Killers
The United States tagline is “land of the free,” but has that ever been true for every person living there? This song by The Killers takes a look at the irony of this saying in a land that has always oppressed minority groups one way or another. The Killers ask how many more people have to suffer and die for these issues to be taken seriously by political leaders. Unfortunately, there is no answer.
Related: Find more songs on our freedom music playlist.