For as long as there has been social and political unrest, people have been singing about it. Protest music, or at least politically conscious musical commentary, has provided the soundtrack to historical events from the American Revolution (Yankee Doodle Dandy) to the Civil Rights Movement (A Change is Gonna Come) to the Vietnam War (Gimme Shelter) to the Gay Rights movement (Born This Way). There are songs that describe the general concept of peace (Imagine) and protest the monarchy (God Save the Queen) and then there are songs about the political climate we live in now… In some respects, society has made great leaps forward, but the same issues keep resurfacing: we aren’t free of racism, hate crime, war, terrorism and it seems that socio-politics are a big part of the problem. Here are ten of the best political songs of the last 10 years:
Hijabi by Mona Haydar (2017)
It is genuinely revolutionary that the track is made by a pregnant, Syrian, Muslim woman, accompanied by a variety of different colour, religion and size women. Mona uses the song not only to list the microaggressions women who cover up experience daily but also to break down the social construct that relies on ‘othering’ women who look different to the generally accepted rhetoric. In this case- women who choose to wear headscarves. Best of all, Mona tells her listeners that its not her job (or any woman’s) to educate you on your bias or your ignorance- if you want an education, you need to pay for it.
This Is America by Childish Gambino (2018)
This Is America has got to be one of the most effective and most well known protest songs of the last decade. The lyrics make smart and multi layered references to popular culture, social justice and current events whilst the music itself reflects complex influences from syrupy gospel music to trap beats. The music video, directed by Hiro Murai, went viral with its graphic and succinct depictions of racism in America. It takes the song from impressive and intelligent protest to transcendent and meticulous work of art which really benefits from being experienced as a whole.
The Blacker the Berry by Kendrick Lamar (2015)
Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly, is full of conscious rap and it expands on the socially relevant themes of mental health issues, gang violence and blackness in America that are present on his previous records. The Blacker the Berry in particular speaks to the destruction of young black lives in America and the profiteering America does off of the lives it so easily takes away: Lamar wrote a rough draft of this track after hearing about the murder of Travon Martin on the news. The record makes reference to W.E.B. du Bois’ theory of Double Consciousness in various ways, and its title is in itself an homage to Wallace Thurman’s 1929 novel of the same name.
Land of the Free by Joey Bad A$$ (20th January 2017)
Joey Bad A$$ deliberately released this record to coincide with Barack Obama leaving the White house and Donald Trump’s inauguration. The message behind the track is that whilst Barack Obama was an important and influential president, having a black president isn’t enough: America still needs to engage with the political climate. He says ‘But still there is racism in America. There is still systematic prejudice.’ The video and the artwork for the record further cement the track as a rhythmic reminder for us to keep our eyes open and to interrogate our governments.
The Storm by Eminem (2017)
Okay okay, so this is a verse from a cypher at the 2017 BET Awards rather than a whole track and really it made it on the list because on it, Eminem leaves us in absolutely no doubt as to his political leanings and he makes it crystal clear as to how incompetant, dishonest and dangerous he thinks Donald Trump is as an American president. Listing everything from kamikaze threats to gun reform, Eminiem tells us explicitly that you’re either a fan of his or of Trumps and if you can’t decide then he doesn’t want you. Eminiem’s honesty and clarity is exhilarating and his lyrical takedown of the 45th president is typically rage filled.
Bad Girls by M.I.A. (2010)
M.I.A, queen of politically charged, beat heavy rap music, released Bad Girls back at the start of the decade. The song is about women taking back power for themselves and it’s about liberation. Specifically, the lyrics and the video refer to the Women To Drive movement in Saudi Arabia. With a sticky melody that stays in your head forever after you’ve heard the song and lyrics that are laced with innuendo, Bad Girls is an anthem for girls who don’t play by the rules. Women didn’t start to receive licenses until June 2018.
Now by Miguel (2017)
Here Miguel sings about incarceration in America and how immigration and biased sentencing of non-white people feeds into the high level of imprisonment and how that provides opportunity the American government to capitalise on very cheap labour: basically slavery in America is very much alive and profitable. He mentions Trump’s wall referring, prudently, to Trump as CEO of the free world rather than leader. Miguel also shines a light on a variety of incidents from the last few years that have threatened and taken lives and livelihoods from the communities they’ve affected: hurricanes Katrina, Maria and Harvey, the Flint water crisis and the Dakota pipeline, not to mention Black Lives Matter, all extremely serious and dangerous events and circumstances that have been greatly ignored or not properly reacted to by the government. Miguel’s voice is smooth and melodic: a gentle but clear and assertive message.
The Story of OJ by Jay-Z (2017)
This is another song that really benefits from being experienced along with its accompanying video which makes reference to the Censored Eleven cartoons and depicts racist stereotypes as well as disturbing images of lynchings and the KKK. On the surface, the track, from 4:44, is about money and race in America and the fact that the only way you can hope to have any security or real freedom as a black person is if you can ‘own your own’ in other words. But with a bit of context, the track gains more meaning: the music sample if from Nina Simone’s 4 Women- a song about slavery.
The title obviously references OJ Simpson but also, The Story of O which is a (French) novel about dominance and submission. The song is about how slavery has been abolished but only really in name: until the systemic and social barriers that prevent black people from achieving consistent upward mobilty are eradicated, the African American population as a whole will continue to struggle against forced financial submission.
Quiet by Milck (2017)
On Milck’s second single she describes the societal pressure that women face and she calls for women to speak up and speak out about the pressure and aggressions they face. But what really catapulted the song to anthemic status is that is became the theme for 2017’s Women’s March. Women the world over have since adopted Quiet as their battle cry sharing a sense of hope and solidarity.
Be free by J Cole (2014)
J Cole wrote and released Be Free just days after the tragic murder of Michael Brown, demonstrating hip hop’s ability to respond imediately to society issues in a way that other genres don’t seem to do. J Cole released the track on Soundcloud and although the track was in honour of Michael Brown specifically, J Cole included ‘every young black man murdered in America’ in the description. Be Free is truly heartbreaking and you can hear J Cole’s grief and despair in his voice on the track; it is a moving and heart rending prayer for peaceful freedom and equality.