Music is a universal language that defies international borders and celebrates diverse cultures. It conjures feelings no other medium can, stirring up physical and emotional reactions that can change our thoughts, beliefs and actions. It helps us express ourselves on deeper levels and taps into a part of the human condition that motivates us to make a difference. Music isn’t just enjoyable — it’s immensely powerful, and that’s a key reason why we use it to send messages and inspire action.
Because of this power, protests and music are often interlinked. In addition to “amplifying the words” in songs that can represent demands for change, Columbia University music professor Mariusz Kozak told The Washington Post, “music is important for expressing political messages because it creates a sense of emotional connection and social coherence, even among strangers.” It’s that social coherence — the working together — that can really change the world. And these powerful protest songs demonstrate exactly how.
“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday (1939)
Written and composed by Jewish school teacher Abel Meeropol and recorded by famed jazz singer Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” protested the horrific lynchings of Black Americans, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Released the same year as Gone With the Wind, “no song in American history has ever been so guaranteed to silence an audience or generate such discomfort.”
Of the song, Holiday said, “The first time I sang it, I thought it was a mistake… there wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly, everyone was clapping.” The haunting ballad soon became an anthem for the ongoing anti-lynching movement in the U.S., and, later, the emerging civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan (1962)
Bob Dylan has crafted a career out of penning poetic and poignant protest ballads. He wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in response to the suffering going on in the world and what he saw as an inescapable evil taking over society following the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Originally written as a poem and based on an old English folk ballad, the song’s lyrics tell of a mother questioning her wayward son about where he’s been, and his answers reveal that he was traveling the world, only finding heartbreak, anguish, and cruel disregard for people and the environment. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was released at the height of the Cold War, and members of the U.S.’s anti-nuclear war movement used the song to convey their opposition to the dangers of nuclear technologies.
“Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone (1964)
Singer and pianist Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” took only one hour to compose. It was written in response to the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that took place in Birmingham, Alabama, ultimately protesting the “agonizingly slow” pace of justice and social change for Black Americans. “It was my first civil rights song,” Simone later recalled, “and it erupted out of me quicker than I could write it down.”
Initially performed in front of a predominantly white audience at Carnegie Hall, the song was quickly banned in some Southern states — and just as quickly became an anthem for the civil rights movement. In 2019, the Library of Congress preserved the protest track in the National Recording Registry for its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.
“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye (1971)
In the early 1970s, protests against the Vietnam War peaked, unemployment rates soared, mass incarceration of people of color proliferated and police brutality ran unchecked across the country. After witnessing a clash between police and protestors, Renaldo “Obie” Benson of The Four Tops was inspired to write “What’s Going On,” a song that spoke not only of the stifling effects of violence on society but that also called for unification and togetherness to combat these problems.
Marvin Gaye recorded the song after deciding to change the themes in his music in response to the unrest he saw around the country, asking himself, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” The juxtaposition of its jazzy melody and pained lyrics captured attention in Detroit, where Gaye had lived for years, and protestors there used the empowering song to spark change. Within a few years following the release of “What’s Going On,” Detroit elected its first Black mayor and formed a civilian-led police commission. The song was “revolutionary,” explains Detroit historian Ken Coleman. “‘What’s Going On’ helped people realize these changes could happen.”
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2 (1983)
In 1972, unarmed people marched in Londonderry, a large city in Northern Ireland, to protest the British internment of suspected Irish nationalists without a fair trial. British soldiers shot 26 of the protestors, killing 14 and wounding others who attempted to assist victims of the massacre.
In recognition and protest of the event, Irish rock band U2 penned “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The song quickly came to symbolize a decades-long period called the Troubles, during which Northern Ireland experienced intense, violent conflict over political and religious tensions. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” almost immediately brought worldwide attention to Northern Ireland’s dangerous social climate. It remains one of the band’s most popular songs to this day — and one of the most powerful protest songs ever penned.
“Fight the Power” by Public Enemy (1989)
At the end of the 1980s, the United States saw significant increases in crack-cocaine addiction throughout major cities, a government that intentionally neglected the populations most impacted by the AIDS crisis, and continued social unrest as groups around the country protested social and racial inequalities. These events and conditions inspired Public Enemy to lay down the lyrics for “Fight the Power” at the request of director Spike Lee for his 1989 film Do the Right Thing.
Using multiple loops and samples of speeches from civil rights leaders, the song became an anthem expressing “revolutionary anger” over “a crucial period in America’s struggle with race.” Its lyrics demand that listeners “fight the powers that be” — a line that today’s social activists still use as a rallying cry to mobilize and fight back.
“This Is America” by Childish Gambino (2018)
Actor Donald Glover, who as a musician goes by the pseudonym Childish Gambino, wrote and produced this contemporary protest track to address the ongoing horror of mass shootings and the epidemic of gun violence in the U.S. The chilling song also highlights other critical social issues affecting American society, in particular by focusing on the grotesque effects of systemic racism.
“This Is America” addresses the pain that arises from living under a system that perpetuates harmful treatment of marginalized groups, explaining how people try to work on that pain by accepting it and getting past it — but they’re never fully able to do so. The song became a call to action during the widespread 2020 protests against police brutality that developed across the country following George Floyd’s murder, and it remains a “surreal, visceral statement” that implores American society to pursue justice.
“Pareh Sang” by Mehdi Yarrahi (2018)
Translating to “Broken Rock,” “Pareh Sang” decries the devastation artist Mehdi Yarrahi saw taking place around his home province in Iran as a result of the Iran-Iraq War that spanned most of the 1980s. After the song’s release, Iranian officials asked Yarrahi to change the song’s controversial lyrics, which tell of the lasting trauma of war and the suffering the Iran-Iraq War perpetuated for decades in Yarrahi’s hometown.
Yarrahi was censured after refusing to change those lyrics, and authorities clamped down on the singer, pushing him to remove the song from his catalog entirely. But Yarrahi continued refusing to change the lyrics, performing them at a live concert before being barred from playing altogether. Still, the song continues to raise awareness and inspire activism among newer generations of Iranians.
“Patria y Vida” by Gente de Zona, Yotuel and Descemer Bueno (2020)
What translates to “Homeland and Life” became a rebuke of Cuba’s official slogan, “Homeland or Death,” in the wake of 2021 protests against Cuba’s communist government, its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic crisis impacting the country’s food and medicine supplies. Singer Yotuel Romero and fellow Cuban musicians Gente de Zona, Descemer Bueno, Maykel Osorbo and el Funky composed the song in an effort to reclaim and revise Cuba’s motto and protest the Cuban government’s continued failure to invest in bettering the lives of its citizens.
The artists received intense backlash from Cuba’s Communist Party following the music video’s release in February of 2021. However, the song went viral, its lyrics resonating with demonstrators protesting the country’s “deteriorating living conditions, electricity outages and shortages of food and medicine” before and during the pandemic. “Patria y Vida” is frequently heard being chanted at protests and marches as a call for freedom and “a new dawn.”