Artists have long used creative works to support civil rights and peace. Music has often driven change and supported the hard work of activists. Here are some musicians and groups who have published music that in some ways was ahead of its time.
As a group and through singles by individual members, The Beatles used their music for change. John Lennon’s “Imagine” talks about a world at peace, and it’s just as apropos today as it was when it was released in 1971. The song is powerful, and it was written at a time when the Vietnam War was raging. Here are a few of the most political songs attributed to the band or members of The Beatles.
- “Come Together”
- “Power to the People”
“Strange Fruit” was released in 1939, long before the civil rights protests of the 1960s, but the song is a haunting reminder of racism that existed in the United States. The song was the first time a Black artist produced lyrics that were so explicit. Some have called the song the beginning of the civil rights movement. Time magazine named it as “Best Song of the Century.” It’s not just a protest song but also art. Many artists have done covers of “Strange Fruit,” but Holiday’s rendition is the classic.
The music from Queen resonates with audiences today, even though Freddie Mercury died almost 20 years ago. “I Want to Break Free” is a great protest song about emancipation and oppression. If you’ve never seen the music video, it adds a new dimension to the song. The band members dressed in drag, which at the time was done in British comedy.
Most schoolchildren learn the lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land,” but what isn’t taught is that the song was written in rebellion to “God Bless America.” It’s a reminder that America was created for the average person. Most children never learn the most radical verses of the song: “By the relief office, I'd seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?”
“What’s Going On” is largely considered one of Gaye’s best songs, even though it steps away from his classic Motown sound. It was released in 1971, inspired by police brutality and violence during an anti-war protest in Berkeley. The song is poignant and heartbreaking. Two lines of lyrics say it all: “You see, war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.”
The title “Born in the U.S.A.” sounds patriotic, but when you listen to the lyrics of the song, you learn that it’s really a protest of how the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War were treated when they came home. Springsteen has long been an ally to the LGBT+ community and supports women’s rights.
Dylan is known for his protest songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Times They Are a Changin,’” but he doesn’t think of himself as a movement leader. He was honored in 2016 with the Nobel Prize in Literature for his groundbreaking work in poetic expressions in song. His lecture concluded with the statement, “Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They're meant to be sung, not read… Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page.”
Use Music as Encouragement To Keep Striving
Some political protest songs are a call to arms to rise up and change the culture. Others are a commentary on the state of things that make people stand up and notice. Listen to these songs of protest as you fight for civil rights and equality.