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13th October 2016

Top 5: Protest songs

Whether it’s to get you out on the street or to sound cultured in front of your new friends, here are five politically-charged protest songs to give a listen

A protest placard is as much a part of the student look as that worn out beanie hat or that Joy Division t-shirt. Let’s face it you’ve probably signed up to God knows how many petitions for God knows what to try and prove that you’re political and in the know and totally don’t get most your news from BuzzFeed and Mock The Week. So whether it’s to get you riled up and out on the street fighting the man or to sound more cultured in front of your new beret-wearing, moustache-stroking, Nietzsche-quoting friends here are five politically charged protest songs (in no particular order) to give a listen.


1. ‘Mississipi Goddamn’ – Nina Simone

The High Priestess of Soul and—I would argue—music in general, Nina Simone wrote Mississippi Goddam in reaction to the murder of Medgar Evers and the Sixteenth Street Church bombing in 1963. The upbeat show tune style of the song jarringly contrasts the morbid lyrics. It immediately caused controversy and was banned in the South and rejected by radios as it quickly became a Civil Rights anthem and a classic protest song.


2. ‘Sonny’s Lettah’ – Linton Kwesi Johnson

Especially relevant today after Brexit and with increased awareness of police brutality, ‘Sonny’s Lettah’ tells the story of an immigrant who is jailed for retaliating to police violence. As a Caribbean who moved to London in the 60s, Johnson summarises the experience of first-generation immigrants in poetic patois over brilliantly arranged Reggae and Dub sounds. His album Forces Of Victory is filled with political songs about race and immigration and had a big influence on early British Hip Hop.


3. ‘God On Our Side’ – Bob Dylan

The entirety of this list could have been made up of Dylan songs as the folk legend was instrumental in charting social injustices in a divided America. Through his music he holds up a mirror to society and his skilled lyricism converts the tales of the downtrodden into truly beautiful songs—despite his harmonica playing sounding like an asthmatic cat screaming as it get shoved into a wood chipper. Channeling the likes of Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez, God on Our Side is a classic anti-war song where Dylan dissects the nature of war and questions society, politics and religion.


4. ‘Reagan’ – Killer Mike

Hip Hop is often used as a form of political protest and Killer Mike (one half of Run The Jewels) certainly gets political in ‘Reagan’. He comments on the dire state of Hip Hop, the war on drugs and goes on to expose the ‘prisons for profit’ scheme in America (and maybe even in Britain). With controversial political lyrics and a beat that will have your head nodding in agreement, this is the perfect example of what a good protest song should be.


5. ‘Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away’ – Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot is a true punk band with more balls than their name suggests—three of their members were arrested by Russian police for performing ‘Virgin Mary Put Putin Away’ in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The song is fuelled with rage and their raw primal vocals would make even bear-wrestling Vladimir Putin squirm. It mixes a blasphemous hymn-style chorus with aggressive punk verses that push the boundaries of free speech whilst being oddly poetic. Pussy riot protest against the Government and the Russian Orthodox Church for women’s and gay rights.

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