9 Protest Songs

On Friday night, I went with a posse of NYU jazz students to Cornelia Street Cafe to hear the brilliant Brazilian Trio of Chico Pinheiro (guitar), Eduardo Belo (bass), and Ari Hoenig (drums)— for the record Ari is not Brazilian, but he is perhaps the most skilled and tasteful drummer I’ve ever seen live. Back in early August, this trio was actually the very first band I saw perform in New York City. On Friday night, just like the time before, the band played with expert skill, incredible taste, and pure joy. They were a delight to listen to and an example of the height of human musical potential. Chico was especially inspiring to me as he seemed to make every note, whether loud, soft, short, or long, sing with musical purpose.

Yet unlike the first time I saw the group, this time a dark cloud hung over my enjoyment of the show. When I heard them play in August, you could likely find me and many others like me laughing confidently about the immanent election of our nation’s first female president. Life was good, our future was safe, and I could listen to beautiful Brazilian jazz free from worry. And yet here we are now. As we all go about trying to enjoy and prosper in our lives, there’s a giant sack of sub-human filth and his band of morally bankrupt mouth-breathers in the Whitehouse launching daily attacks on the Constitution, scientific knowledge, education, human rights, and basic undeniable facts.

As much as I did enjoy the show, I was distracted by the thought that there are much more pressing issues to address than the temporary entertainment of thirty or so erudite jazz lovers in a small bar. This is not meant to be a criticism of the band at all. Each artist has the right to express themselves however they wish; furthermore this trio undoubtedly brings joy to whomever listens to them. I’m pointing more towards a question for myself: what do I want from music? Since arriving here in August, I’ve been practicing hard to attempt to approach even half of the pure musical skill of someone like Chico Pinheiro. And yet ever since the inauguration of our nation’s first orange president, I’ve been yearning to get in touch with music’s more political face. In that spirit I would now like to share with you nine of the great American protest and political songs of the 20th century and today.

  1. Rebel Girl— Joe Hill 1915

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hR7fBCENkN0

There aren’t any recordings of Joe Hill singing his pro-worker songs so we’ll have to rely on this adaptation from Hazel Dickinson. Not to insult your intelligence, but due to the southern twang of this recording, I feel I must clarify that this is certainly not a “rebel girl” in the sense that the confederate flag is called the rebel flag. This rebel girl is someone who is rebelling against the oppressive working conditions in the early 1900s. I’d also just like to say that there is something terribly wrong when America’s president in 2017 has more antiquated views on women and human rights than someone born in 1879.

2. Strange Fruit— Abel Meeropol 1937

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

This was originally a poem and was first recorded as a song by Billie Holiday in 1939. It’s heartbreaking metaphor linking a tree’s fruit to victims of lynching is perhaps still the most stirring and powerful protest song of American racism.

3. This Land is Your Land— Woody Guthrie 1944

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxiMrvDbq3s

This song has experienced a resurgence lately as numerous artists have played and sung it in protest of Trump’s racist immigration ban. Although the more scathing verses were not originally released, this was a protest song from the beginning.

4. Alice’s Restaurant— Arlo Guthrie 1967

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m57gzA2JCcM

Musical resistance ran in the Guthrie family. I’m certain you don’t have time to listen to all 18 minutes of young Arlo’s meandering anti-Vietnam War epic, but you should make time.

5. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised— Gil Scott Heron 1971

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGaoXAwl9kw

No the revolution will not be televised, but it will probably hit Twitter.

6. Hurricane—Bob Dylan 1975

Plenty has been written for good reason about his political songs from the early 1960’s, but this song from his 1975 album desire is my personal favorite Bob Dylan protest song. It chronicles the racism towards and wrongful imprisonment of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and it just sounds really great.

7. Fuck Tha Police— NWA 1988

I can’t think of a more direct articulation of the frustration felt by black people after dealing with systemic racism on the part of the police. Unfortunately this song still feels relevant today.

8. Raegan— Killer Mike 2012

Noted Bernie Sanders supporter and rap genius Killer Mike wrote this song eviscerating the policies and legacy of Ronald Raegan. He viciously criticizes the war on drugs, Raeganomics, and Raegan’s foreign policy over an excellent instrumental made by his future Run the Jewels partner El-P.

9. Can’t You Tell— Aimee Mann 2017

This is just one of the many trump protest songs coming out daily. To hear more I’d encourage you to visit 30days30songs.com where the site’s producers have promised to assemble a playlist of 1,000 songs to help us all get through the next four years of “what promises to be a tumultuous and frequently dispiriting and certainly bizarre presidency.” Among new songs from Death Cab for Cutie, The Gorillaz, Mavis Staples/Arcade Fire, CocoRosie, and others, I chose this song from Aimee Mann for it’s emotional depth and because I just love the sound of her voice.

Music is a multiplicity. There is not a single right way to use or experience music. It can provide a sweet escape (hi pop music), mine the depths of harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic possibility (hello jazz), or get you pumped for your intramural basketball game (hey Space Jam soundtrack). It can also give a powerful and infectious voice to the resistance of oppression and injustice. In the dark shadow of the Trump presidency, it is cleansing, empowering, and important to turn on and tune into the righteous voices singing of justice, freedom, and equality for all.

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