Home » From John Lennon to NWA: 14 of the best protest songs, ranked

From John Lennon to NWA: 14 of the best protest songs, ranked

by Marko Florentino
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Louise Thomas

With Labour having now won the General Election, flashbacks to their last triumph – distant though it may be – have come flooding back, and with them, that indelible victory tune “Things Can Only Get Better” by D:Ream.

That track is just one of many, which speak to the power of music to make change – fom Pete Seeger’s unofficial anthem for the Civil Rights Movement to Childish Gambino’s satirical masterpiece “This is America”, which condemned gun violence and police brutality.

So, we’ve ranked the 14 songs – one for each year of Conservative rule – that best harness music’s power to make change.

14. ‘Waiting on the World to Change’ by John Mayer (2006)

John Mayer pictured on stage in 2023
John Mayer pictured on stage in 2023 (Getty Images)

John Mayer encapsulated his generation’s feeling of hopelessness at the hands of the government and global media on his 2006 single. “Me and all my friends, we are all misunderstood, say we stand for nothing but there’s no way we ever could,” he sings.While it’s likely neither Marley nor Scott-Heron would be too happy about Mayer’s stagnant inaction, the “New Light” singer argues that the public “don’t have the means, to rise above and beat it”.

13. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan (1964)

Bob Dylan flashes a rare smile during a meeting with the British press on 28 April 1965
Bob Dylan flashes a rare smile during a meeting with the British press on 28 April 1965 (H Thompson/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty)

Flicking back to the 1960s, Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A-Changin” aimed to speak up for a public without a voice at a time of struggle and turmoil, with the Civil Rights Movement constantly pushing for reform. With his voice like “sand and glue”, Dylan pleads with the US government, singing: “Come senators, congressmen, Please heed the call.”

12. ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon (1971)

John Lennon pictured in 1963
John Lennon pictured in 1963 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Before the song was butchered by out-of-touch celebrities hoping to uplift their fans during the pandemic, the ethereal 1971 track was an emblem of hope and unity. John Lennon sings sanguinely of a world without division between religions and races: “Imagine all the people, Livin’ life in peace”. Even the former Beatles star, however, is not so naive and readily proclaims himself a “dreamer” in harbouring such optimism.

11. ‘Straight Outta Compton’ by NWA (1988)

N.W.A's debut studio album, Straight Outta Compton was released in 1988
N.W.A’s debut studio album, Straight Outta Compton was released in 1988 (Facebook)

“Straight Outta Compton” depicts the everyday life of a Black man living in the Californian city, rife with police brutality, violence, and racism. Against a backdrop of harsh brass loops and drum breaks, the track shines a light on the many issues that marginalised Black communities in the US were facing.

The song’s huge popularity helped catapult NWA to star status, and in turn allowed for the group to speak directly to mainstream audiences about the systemic oppression they faced in Compton.

10. Redemption Song by Bob Marley (1980)

Bob Marley performs in front of an audience of 40,000 during a festival concert of Reggae in Paris, France, 1980
Bob Marley performs in front of an audience of 40,000 during a festival concert of Reggae in Paris, France, 1980 (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” was deemed by the poet Mutabaruka as the most influential Jamaican recording of all time. The Dylan-esque track, a departure from Marley’s typical style of reggae rhythm, makes a powerful statement about slavery and the racism of the 1980s. Marley speaks of the importance of being proactive in the face of revolution: “All I ever have, Redemption songs, these songs of freedom.”

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9. ‘Man in the Mirror’ by Michael Jackson (1988)

Michael Jackson performs during his ‘HIStory’ tour in 1996
Michael Jackson performs during his ‘HIStory’ tour in 1996 (Getty Images)

Michael Jackson’s iconic number takes a similar tact to Marley’s “Redemption Song” as seen . Here, the pop star similarily encourages listeners to look inwards and “make that change” for the sake of improving society as a whole.

8. ‘Introvert’ by Little Simz (2021)

Little Simz won the Mercury Prize in 2022
Little Simz won the Mercury Prize in 2022 (AP)

Little Simz’s single begins with a drum march reminiscent of a John Williams score and an epic “Duel of the Fates”-style choir, before it drops suddenly into a stripped back drum beat accompanied by a brass ensemble.

Her cadence oozes pain, with the lyrics to match: “There’s a war inside, I hear battle cries, mothers burying sons, young boys playing with guns.” Simz further evokes imagery of religious battles to depict contemporary chaos, corruption and internal despair: “The kingdom’s on fire, the blood of a young messiah/ I see sinners in a church, I see sinners in a church.”

Simz goes on to highlight the power of unity in the face of adversity: “I’m a Black woman and I’m a proud one/ We walk in blind faith not knowing the outcome/ But as long as we’re unified, then we’ve already won.”

7. ‘Born in the USA’ by Bruce Springsteen (1984)

Bruce Springsteen on stage in 2024
Bruce Springsteen on stage in 2024 (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Bruce Springsteen’s hit song is more often than not mistaken as a love letter to the Star-Spangled Banner, but the truth is far more dismal. Listen more closely to the lyrics behind the anthemic drums and Eighties sheen, and you’ll hear the Boss telling the story of a Vietnam war veteran returning to the US only to find himself ostracised from society and facing economic hardship.

6. ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday (1939)

Billie Holiday performs in 1947
Billie Holiday performs in 1947 (Rex)

Billie Holiday’s version of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” was heralded by Time magazine as song of the century in 1999. On it, the American jazz singer sings eerily of “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze”, painting a graphic image of the lynchings that occured across the American south, and calling for their immediate end. The accolades that Holiday recieved for the haunting track have set it apart as one of the singer’s defining works.

5. ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ by Gil Scott-Heron (1971)

Gil Scott-Heron went on to become a novelist
Gil Scott-Heron went on to become a novelist (Rex Features)

If you haven’t heard Gil Scott-Heron’s track “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, you certainly will have seen its title emblazoned on placards at various protests. On the bitter, sloganeering track, Scott-Heron calls out the passivity of bystanders in times of revolution in a similar vein to Marley, and encourages citizens to get out and push for change because as he so aptly puts it: “The revolution will not be brought to you.”

4. ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy (1989)

Flavor Flav, left, and Chuck D and of Public Enemy perform during the Pre-Grammy Gala in 2024
Flavor Flav, left, and Chuck D and of Public Enemy perform during the Pre-Grammy Gala in 2024 (Invision)

Public Enemy’s impassioned anthem remains one of the most influential hip-hop protest songs. It was conceived after director Spike Lee – inspired by the racially motivated Howard Beach attack of 1986 – asked the group to write a “defiant” and “angry” theme for his film Do The Right Thing. The chorus of “Fight the power! We’ve got to fight the powers that be!” has since been used by activists all around the world, serving as a rallying cry against oppression.

3. ‘Formation’ by Beyonce (2016)

Beyoncé at the iHeartRadio Music Awards in April 2024
Beyoncé at the iHeartRadio Music Awards in April 2024 (Getty Images for iHeartRadio)

The lead single from Beyonce’s surprise 2016 album sparked international debate, including allegations from right-wing pundits that she was spreading anti-police and anti-American sentiments. Released together with a politically charged video directed by her frequent collaborator Melinda Matouskas, the song sees Beyoncé proudly claiming her Southern heritage and Black culture – “I like my baby’s hair with baby hair and an Afro”. The video, meanwhile, is bookended by footage of New Orleans post-Katrina, and by a Black child dancing opposite a police line before the camera cuts to grafitti reading: “Stop shooting us.”

Across the US, protests for Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March erupted in the chorus: “OK, ladies, now let’s get in formation.”

2. ‘Alright’ by Kendrick Lamar (2015)

Kendrick Lamar performs his headline set Glsatonbury 2022
Kendrick Lamar performs his headline set Glsatonbury 2022 (AP)

Kendrick Lamar’s incendiary 2015 anthem “Alright” defied the notion that music is no longer an effective form of protest. In 2020, footage of Black Lives Matter protests chanting the song’s jazzy chorus was shared around the world.

Responding to song’s reception, Lamar said: “You might not have heard it on the radio all day, but you’re seeing it in the streets, you’re seeing it on the news, and you’re seeing it in communities, and people felt it.”

1. ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye (1971)

American soul singer Marvin Gaye in Notting Hill, London
American soul singer Marvin Gaye in Notting Hill, London (Getty Images)

The galvanising title track of the American soul singer’s 1971 album was, in fact, penned by Renaldo “Obie” Benson, who was inspired to write it after witnessing police brutality break out at an anti-war protest in California, a day now known as “Bloody Thursday”. The pleading lyrics call for an end to violence and urge the government to pull out of the Vietnam War. “There’s far too many of you dying/ You know we’ve got to find a way/ To bring some lovin’ here today,” he croons.



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