"A protest song is a song that's so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit" —Phil Ochs
As we march past the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street (or politely make our way around it), I’m reminded that nothing keeps a good protest going like music. Long before Tom Morello and Jeff Mangum played Zuccotti Park, musicians have been harnessing and amping up the power of the people in song. Here are a few personal favorites.
"Which Side Are You On?" (Traditional)
This union anthem’s central thesis never gets old. There may be some complicated situations in the current political climate, but really it all comes down to what I like to call the Star Wars test: are you on the dark side of the force, or are you with the people — the rebels and the workers, the downtrodden, the mothers, the regular folks against whom the system is most often rigged? Pete Seeger leads it off here:
"Bella Ciao" (Traditional)
Out west in the little town of Oakland, we have a radical marching band called the Brass Liberation Orchestra. Rain or shine, they keep protest crowds animated and motivated with their kick-ass brass action. Although they don’t play it much anymore, "Bella Ciao" is one of my favorite BLO numbers. The song was originally an Italian anti-fascist tune, and despite the language barrier it never ceases to get everyone singing along. Here’s a mostly English version by Chumbawumba:
Nina Simone: "Mississippi Goddam"
It feels almost wrong to try and write any words about this stark, furious classic. It’s that good. We should all bow down before Nina Simone, and listen as she lays the horrors of racism in America across her keyboards and pounds them out the way only a genius can. God damn.
Public Enemy: "Fight the Power"
It’s hard for me to separate this song from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, in which it serves as a key narrative catalyst. Together, Lee and Public Enemy broadcast a potent cultural one-two punch that told America to wake up: racism is alive and well, and it's not going anywhere without a fight. As Chuck D says, "My beloved, let's get down to business."
Whether you love or hate its raw sound, riot grrl was the real deal, and this song is a chillingly straightforward “fuck you” to dudes who disrespect women. Hear it for the first time as a teenage girl, as I did, and you will never let misogyny go unaccounted for again.
Pulp: "Common People"
Okay, I wouldn’t technically categorize this as a protest song, but it’s an awesome, sneakily angry class-war fairytale. Brit-pop: dancin’ it out for the working-class since the fey 90s.
Bonus protest classics!
Woody Guthrie: "This Land is Your Land"
Phil Ochs: "I Ain’t Marching Anymore"
Sam Cooke: "A Change is Gonna Come"
Bob Marley & the Wailers: "Get Up, Stand Up"
Bob Dylan: "The Times They Are A-Changin’"
N.W.A.: "Fuck Da Police"
Billy Bragg: "Help Save the Youth of America"
Crass: "Do They Owe Us A Living"
Dead Kennedys: "California Über Alles"
…and about a million more. Leave your own faves in the comments. And then hit the streets.