When did people begin writing and singing protest songs? Probably about five minutes after the first person in the history of the world felt wronged, cheated, or treated unfairly. While many of us might think of Sixties folk music as the establishing shot of the genre—with Dylan and Pete Seeger the leading lights of the movement—it’s worth noting that Woody Guthrie and his guitar, which famously spelled out “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS”—along with Billie Holiday’s searing rendition of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”—predates both of them by more than two decades; a couple decades before that, activist Joe Hill wrote “There Is Power In A Union” and a battery of other pro-worker’s-rights, pro-strike, pro-union songs.
In the century before all of this, thousands of protest songs—addressing everything from the Civil War to slavery to voting rights and environmentalism—were sung by thousands more. And a century before all of that, Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was written as a plea for peace and to celebrate the unity of all mankind. (It’s since been taken up by everyone from striking Welsh miners to anti-Pinochet demonstrators in Chile; Chinese protesters blasted the song over loudspeakers in Tiananmen Square in 1989—the same year Leonard Bernstein conducted it in Berlin on Christmas Day to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.) It’s likely that, not long after Eve ate the apple in the Garden of Eden, Adam sat down and wrote one hell of a song about it.
Obviously protest music didn’t stop after the Sixties either—if it did, we wouldn’t have Stevie Wonder’s anti-Nixon, anti-Vietnam song “You Haven’t Done Nuthin’”; Helen Reddy’s women’s empowerment anthem “I Am Woman” and indigenous singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier”; Marvin Gaye’s monumental album What’s Going On; and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
View the full playlist on Spotify here.
Having said all that, protest songs aren’t often the sort of thing one studies—they’re songs that speak to the age you’re living in, to the time and place and problems of your particular moment. They’re songs that you feel. I’ve always preferred protest songs that, rather than imagining some beautiful future when everything is gonna be alright, engage with the tension—and occasionally the terror—of the situation at hand. Give me Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”—for my money, the greatest protest song of the 20th century—not a group of concerned parents holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Give me Rage Against The Machine (hilariously, the subject of a recent viral Twitter thread when an outraged fan wrote to explain that he only liked the band “until your political opinions come out,” prompting a million people on social media to ask the fan just what machine he thought the band was raging against). Give me Third Wave feminist Ani DiFranco writing and singing about abortion and reproductive right, sexual assault and homophobia; give me Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth reciting the name of every single model featured in the 1992 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (“Swimsuit Issue,” off Dirty). Give me Beyonce’s “Formation” and “Freedom” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” all since adopted as rallying anthems by many Black Lives Matter activists.
Still, in the recent protests I’ve witnessed and participated in around various parts of Brooklyn, while there’s been a huge variety in terms of things shouted, chanted, and spoken about—and a huge variety of people and times and places and intensities—there’s only one musical artist I heard played at each and every gathering: Bob Marley.
At a late-night gathering of thousands near Grand Army Plaza during the earlier, heavily charged days of protests that often threatened to turn into something else, a small group of black women off to the side of the main group played and sang along with Marley’s song “Burnin’ and Lootin’” (“This morning I woke up in a curfew/ O God, I was a prisoner, too/ Could not recognize the faces standing over me/ They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality”). To be clear: The rendition I heard wasn’t a directive; it was a dirge.
A week or so later, near Barclays Center, a smaller church group on their way to join a much larger group played Marley and the Wailers’ anthem “War” (“Until the philosophy/ Which hold one race superior and another inferior/ Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned/ Everywhere is war/ Me say war”). And a few days after that, as an afternoon march through Red Hook was splintering off into separate smaller groups, a fervent supporter of us all in one of the apartment buildings we passed clapped, smiled, and blasted a live version of Marley’s “Exodus” from her fire escape.
(Nor is this some sort of Brooklyn phenomenon: According to recent reports, Marley’s songs have been streamed globally 27 times more than usual in the past months.)
If you’re a fervent Marley fan, none of this will come as a surprise—but if you only know Marley as the feel-good soundtrack to your freshman year, it’s worth pointing out that his true gift was far less about ease than about struggle. He had an extremely rare gift: He could embed urgent and insurgent messages inside of lilting, honeyed melodies without doing a disservice to either. His very first hit with the Wailers, 1962’s “Simmer Down,” was a protest song telling the violent local Kingston “rude boys” to ease off. 1973’s “Get Up, Stand Up” was an exhortation to everyone listening (originally, Jamaicans; soon, the world) to not count on a reward in the afterlife but instead live as if it meant something; 1974’s “Revolution” warned about politicians willing to say anything to earn your vote before turning to exploitation and authoritarianism once elected.
Marley’s life and example was as instructive, if not more, than his music: Born into intense poverty in Trenchtown, Kingston as the son of a Jamaican mother and a white British father (who abandoned Marley’s mother before their child was even born), Marley was mixed race at a time in Jamaica when being so brought on a kind of shame that extended to his entire family; his own mother, in polite company, often pretended he didn’t exist. Having grown up amidst the kind of neglect and lack of opportunity and street violence that claimed the lives and futures of so many in his neighborhood, he learned early on to fight for his rights.
He also never let up. When he saw a chance to bring his music and his message to the world instead of to just his own corner of Jamaica—in the form of signing with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell—he jumped on it. And when he became increasingly ill and ultimately learned he had a virulent strain of cancer, he continued touring the world—even planning a whole new world tour. Jamaica’s prime minister delivered the eulogy at his state funeral, noting that “his voice was an omnipresent cry in our electronic world.”
After his death, of course, came the accolades: His album Exodus named “Album of the Century” by Time magazine; statues unveiled and streets renamed around the world; his greatest-hits compilation, Legend, becoming only the second album in history to spend 500 weeks on Billboard’s album charts. His work is revered among indigenous and aboriginal people around the world, and by Hopi and Havasupai tribes; the story of the attempt on his life in 1976 forms the plot of Marlon James’ 2014 Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings.
(Yesterday, Marley’s historic London concert Live from the Rainbow was also livestreamed for the first time, with donations supporting Spotify’s COVID-19 Music Relief project.)
If the example of Marley’s life tells us anything, he likely wouldn’t care a white about the accolades. Whenever given the chance with a microphone in front of him, or a reporter with a pen, what he mostly did was talk about struggle and about protest—so the fact that his music and his example, 50 years or so later, is the most apt soundtrack for now isn’t really that surprising.
“Why one want to fight down the other?” he asked in an interview at a sound check in Ottowa, Canada, in 1979, less than a year before his death. “Is no more a dat. The youth of today say, ‘Nah—dat can’t work no more.’”
Want to dive in? We’ve curated a playlist of protest songs—those mentioned in this story and otherwise.
View the full playlist on Apple Music here.
To hear more of our playlists, visit the Vogue channel on Spotify and on Apple Music:
Spotify Vogue channel
Apple Music Vogue channel