A decade of protest songs

Kendrick

 

Hello again. This blog has been quiet for the last couple of years because I’ve been working on a new book, The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, which takes a very different approach to the theme of political art. (Here are links to order the UK and US editions.) However, I still receive occasional press requests to talk and write about protest songs, and the end of the decade is almost upon us, so I thought it would be useful to pull together a list of significant protest songs from the 2010s as a resource for anyone interested in the subject.

As Paul Valéry said, a work is never completed, merely abandoned. If I were to be asked to revise 33 Revolutions Per Minute now, I’m sure I would find plenty of lines I’d like to refine and omissions I’d be keen to correct. If I didn’t, it would mean I’d learned nothing in the intervening years. I’d certainly want to add a couple of chapters, including one on Kendrick Lamar, although that would capsize the title’s conceit and I wouldn’t have enough to upgrade it to 45 Revolutions Per Minute, so it is what it is. There’s only one line that I really came to regret, once I’d seen it quoted too many times by journalists and critics: “I began this book intending to write a history of a still-vital form of music. I finished it wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy.”

Now, I thought that wondered was sufficiently ambiguous but declinism is a hell of a drug and I didn’t reckon with the received wisdom that protest music was a busted flush in 2011. I rewrote the epilogue for the 2012 UK paperback edition, clarifying that eulogy line and pointing to a number of powerful songs from the previous year that suggested things were looking up but my accidental pessimism still bugs me.

To be fair to myself, protest songs were thin on the ground when I submitted the book in 2010. George W Bush, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina had been and gone. The global financial crisis had only inspired a handful of songs and the disastrous austerity program of Britain’s Conservative-led coalition was in its infancy. Objectively, it was a lull and you’ll notice that the number of songs per year increases dramatically as I move through the decade. I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say it rivals the 60s, 70s or 80s for the range and quality of protest music but it’s a significant improvement on the previous two decades.

I think the ground really begin to shift with the racist killings that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, which awakened the political consciousness of hip hop and R&B to a startling extent. Since the baleful arrival of Donald Trump on the political scene, protest songs have become de rigueur on a scale not seen since the early 1990s. In Britain, Brexit and the refugee crisis have proved similarly galvanising. Events are not enough, though. You need lodestar artists, and Kendrick Lamar is the Bob Dylan, the Marvin Gaye, the Public Enemy of his generation. Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers told me: “To Pimp a Butterfly is the London Calling of our decade.” In his wake, the likes of Beyoncé, Solange and Childish Gambino have taken politics into the mainstream for the first time in decades. Childish Gambino’s This Is America was the first protest song to top the Billboard Hot 100 since Stevie Wonder’s You Haven’t Done Nothin’ in 1974; Kendrick combines commercial success, critical acclaim and cultural importance as potently as Stevie did then.

What’s more, the way we talk about music has changed. The discourse around race, gender, sexuality, class and so on has become so politicised that someone like Taylor Swift is criticised for not being politically outspoken. When I read an issue of Q magazine these days, it’s rare to find an interview that doesn’t allude in some way to the state of the world. Countless artists have spoken about feeling an artistic compulsion and a moral duty to speak out in one way or another. That’s a remarkable turnaround in a short space of time. “For years, people were complaining that musicians weren’t writing political music,” Nadine Shah told me two years ago when I was writing about songs that addressed the refugee crisis. “All of a sudden, there are lots of people. And so there should be.”

So here’s my list, as a reminder to myself, and anyone else who is curious, that this has been an unexpectedly fertile decade for political music. I don’t love every single song (some are too gauche or sentimental for my tastes) but I think they are all worth mentioning. As I did in the book, I’ve cast the net wide. Especially when it comes to identity, artists are being political in subtle and idiosyncratic ways that may not fit the strict definition of a protest song and I would rather include them, and risk someone disagreeing, than leave them out. I’ve also noted when songs reached their full potential in videos or live performance. Online, these visual representations are not hard to find and increasingly often it is an image that makes a song unignorable. You’ll find veterans I covered in the book (U2, Springsteen, Tom Morello) alongside many young artists and stars as mainstream as Lady Gaga, Coldplay and Katy Perry. Police brutality towards African-Americans is by far the most common topic but there are also songs dealing with climate change, racism, homophobia, rape, war, austerity, refugees, technology addiction, the far right, Brexit, Trump, feminism, trans identity, blackness, and much more.

I hope you find this list, and the accompanying, roughly chronological Spotify playlist, useful and encouraging. If I were finishing 33 Revolutions Per Minute now, I would be ending it on a high — for the art of the protest song if not for the world.

 

 

2010

Akala – Find No Enemy

Aloe Blacc – I Need a Dollar

Captain Ska – Liar Liar

Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

Grace Petrie – They Shall Not Pass

M.I.A. – Born Free

Janelle Monáe – Cold War

John Legend & the Roots – Wake Up! album

 

2011

Beyoncé – Run the World (Girls)

DELS, Joe Goddard & Roots Manuva – Capsize

El Général – Mr President

The Nightwatchman – World Wide Rebel Songs

Grace Petrie – They Shall Not Pass

Lady Gaga – Born This Way

Lowkey feat. Mai Khalil – Dear England

PJ Harvey – The Words That Maketh Murder/Let England Shake album

Ramy Essam – Irhal (Leave)

Ry Cooder – No Banker Left Behind/Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down album

Tom Waits – Talking at the Same Time

Tune-Yards – My Country

 

2012

Ai Weiwei – Grass Mud Horse Style

Bruce Springsteen – We Take Care of Our Own

Kendrick Lamar – Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst

Killer Mike – Reagan

Miguel – Candles in the Sun

Muse – Animals

Plan B – Ill Manors

Pussy Riot – Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away

The Rolling Stones – Doom and Gloom

Ry Cooder – Brother Is Gone/Election Special album

Yeasayer – Reagan’s Skeleton

 

2013

Akala – Malcolm Said It

Elvis Costello & the Roots – Wise Up Ghost (song and album)

Esperanza Spalding – We Are America (especially the video)

Janelle Monáe feat. Erykah Badu – Q.U.E.E.N.

Jay-Z feat. Frank Ocean – Oceans

John Grant – Glacier (especially the video)

Kacey Musgraves – Follow Your Arrow

Kanye West – New Slaves

The Knife – Full of Fire

Lil Wayne – God Bless Amerika (especially the video)

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – Same Love

Manic Street Preachers – 30-Year War

M.I.A. – Bring the Noize

Pet Shop Boys – The Last to Die (Bruce Springsteen cover version)

PJ Harvey – Shaker Aamar

Portishead – Machine Gun (Glastonbury performance)

Primal Scream – 2013

Steve Mason – Fight Them Back

 

2014

Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Alicia Keys – We Gotta Pray

Annie – Russian Kiss

Bruce Springsteen feat. Tom Morello – American Skin (41 Shots)/The Ghost of Tom Joad

Common feat. John Legend – Glory

D’Angelo – The Charade/1000 Deaths

Elbow – The Blanket of Night

Ezra Furman – Ferguson’s Burning

The Game feat. Rick Ross, Diddy, etc. – Don’t Shoot

Ghetts – Rebel

J Cole – Be Free

Kira Isabella – Quarterback

Lauryn Hill – Black Rage (Sketch)

Leonard Cohen – Almost Like the Blues

Lil B – No Black Person is Ugly

Manic Street Preachers – Let’s Go to War

Migos – Struggle

Morrissey – World Peace Is None of Your Business

Paolo Nutini – Iron Sky

The Roots – …and then you shoot your cousin album

Run the Jewels feat. Boots – Early

Tef Poe – War Cry

T.I. feat. Skylar Grey – New National Anthem

Tink – Tell the Children

Tom Morello – Marching on Ferguson

Vince Staples – Hands Up

Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow

 

2015

Anohni – 4 Degrees

Blood Orange – Sandra’s Smile

Father John Misty – Bored in the USA

Janelle Monáe – Hell You Talmabout

Jenny Hval – That Battle Is Over

Kendrick Lamar – Alright/The Blacker the Berry/King Kunta

Muse – Drones

Prince feat. Eryn Allen Kane – Baltimore

Rhiannon Giddens – Cry No More

Steve Earle – Mississippi, It’s Time

U2 – October/Bullet the Blue Sky/Zooropa (Innocence + Experience tour version)

Usher feat. Nas & Bibi Bourelly – Chains

 

2016

Anderson .Paak feat. T.I. – Come Down (Remix)

Anohni – Drone Bomb Me/Hopelessness album

Bastille – The Currents

Beyoncé – Formation (Super Bowl performance)

Beyoncé feat. Kendrick Lamar – Freedom

Blood Orange – With Him/Hands Up/Freetown Sound album

Common feat. Stevie Wonder – Black America Again

Drive-By Truckers – What It Means/Ramon Casiano/American Band album

Ed Harcourt – The World Is on Fire

Fantastic Negrito – Hump Thru the Winter/The Last Days of Oakland album

Father John Misty – Holy Hell

Franz Ferdinand – Demagogue (part of the 30 Days 30 Songs project)

G.L.O.S.S. – Give Violence a Chance

Grace Petrie – There’s No Such Thing as a Protest Singer album

Green Day – Bang Bang (American Music Awards performance)

Jamala – 1944

Jamila Woods – Blk Girl Soldier

Jim James – Same Old Lie

Kate McKinnon – Hallelujah (SNL performance)

Kate Tempest – Europe Is Lost

Kendrick Lamar – untitled 05 09.21.2014

Kevin Morby – I Have Been to the Mountain

Lady Gaga – Come to Mama

Lucy Dacus – I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Jamila Woods – White Privilege II

M.I.A. – Borders

Michael Kiwanuka – Black Man in a White World

Moddi – Punk Prayer (Pussy Riot cover version)

Neil Young – Peace Trail/John Oaks

Novelist – Street Politician

PJ Harvey – The Wheel/The Hope Six Demolition Project album

Prophets of Rage – The Party’s Over

Run the Jewels feat. Boots – 2100

Schoolboy Q feat. Kendrick Lamar – Black Thoughts

Solange – Don’t Touch My Hair/F.U.B.U./A Seat at the Table album

Swet Shop Boys – T5

Swizz Beats feat. Scarface – Sad News

T.I. – Warzone (especially the video)

A Tribe Called Quest – We the People…/The Space Program

Vic Mensa – 16 Shots

Vince Staples – War Ready

YG feat. Nipsey Hussle – FDT/Police Get Away Wit Murder

 

2017

Algiers – The Underside of Power

Arcade Fire feat. Mavis Staples – I Give You Power

Artists for Grenfell – Bridge Over Troubled Water (Stormzy verse only)

Austra – We Were Alive/Future Politics

Benjamin Booker feat. Mavis Staples – Witness

Benjamin Clementine – Phantom of Aleppoville/I Tell a Fly album

Billy Bragg – Why We Build the Wall (from the Hadestown musical)

Broken Social Scene – Protest Song

CocoRosie feat. Anohni – Smoke ‘Em Out

Coldplay – A L I E N S

Dave – Question Time

Depeche Mode – Going Backwards/Where’s the Revolution

Dizzee Rascal – Everything Must Go

Eminem – The Storm

Father John Misty – Total Entertainment Forever

First Aid Kit – You Are the Problem Here

Ghostpoet – Immigrant Boogie

Gorillaz – Hallelujah Money/We Got the Power

Hurray for the Riff Raff – Pa’lante

Ibeyi – No Man Is Big Enough for My Arms

Jay-Z – The Story of OJ

Joey Bada$$ – Land of the Free

Katy Perry – Chained to the Rhythm

Kendrick Lamar – The Heart Pt 4

Kendrick Lamar feat. U2 – XXX

Lana Del Rey – When the World Was at War We Just Kept Dancing

Margo Price – All American Made

Maxïmo Park – Risk to Exist

Mick Jagger feat. Skepta – England Is Lost

MILCK – Quiet

Miguel – Now

Nadine Shah – Holiday Destination (song and album)

The National – Walk It Back

Nick Mulvey – Myela

Open Mike Eagle – Happy Wasteland Day

PJ Harvey & Ramy Essam – The Camp

Priests – Pink White House

Prophets of Rage – Unfuck the World

Ride – All I Want

Sheer Mag – Meet Me in the Street

U2 – The Blackout

Vince Staples – Bagbak

Wale feat. Phil Adé & Zyla Moon – Smile

 

2018

The 1975 – Love It If We Made It

Childish Gambino – This Is America (especially the video)

Courtney Barnett – Nameless, Faceless

David Byrne – Hell You Talmbout (live Janelle Monáe cover version)

The Good, the Bad and the Queen – Merrie Land (song and album)

Idles – Danny Nedelko

Jack White – Corporation

Janelle Monáe – Americans

Jorja Smith – Blue Lights

The Last Poets – Understand What Black Is (song and album)

LCD Soundsystem – (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang (Heaven 17 cover version)

Low – Disarray

Meek Mill – Trauma

MGMT – Hand It Over

Moses Sumney – Rank & File

Mudhoney – Paranoid Core

Nas feat. Kanye West – Cops Shot the Kid

Neneh Cherry – Kong

Parquet Courts – Violence/Almost Had to Start a Fight

Shamir – I Can’t Breathe

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Bike Lane

Stormzy – Blinded By Your Grace Pt 2/Big for Your Boots (BRIT Awards performance)

Superchunk – Cloud of Hate

U.S. Girls – M.A.H.

 

2019

Anderson .Paak – King James

Bastille – Doom Days

The Chemical Brothers – M.A.H.

The Killers – Land of the Free

Pet Shop Boys – Agenda EP

Sharon Van Etten – Black Boys on Mopeds (live Sinead O’Connor cover version)

Sleater-Kinney – Ruins

Stormzy – Vossi Bop (Glastonbury performance)

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1 Comment

  1. If you do update 33 Revolutions, for heavens’ sake please split it into Side 1 and Side 2. That’s a damned heavy book to carry around!


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