A rousing song can capture the spirit of a political movement.But can one actually change the world? We posed the question to Britishjournalist Dorian Lynskey, whose new book33Revolutions per Minute traces the history of the protest song, from BillieHoliday's "Strange Fruit" through Green Day's "American Idiot." Obviously, Lynskeynotes, a song alone can't change a law or topple a regime. But it can play an important,if indirect, role in affecting concrete change. In that spirit, we askedLynskey to name the five most effective protest songs of all time. Here's hislist — make sure to stick around until the end for a special, booty-shakingbonus.
"There's something about that song that haunts you," musedMartin Luther King, Jr., the first time he heard "We Shall Overcome," performedby activist folksinger Pete Seeger, in 1957. By the time it was sung by aquarter of million people at the March on Washington six years later, it wasthe most famous protest song in America. It was a hymn that became a union songand then a civil rights anthem, and it grew heavy with history. Mourners sangit at the funeral for three of the four girls killed in the Birmingham, Alabamachurch bombing. President Johnson cited it in his speech urging Congress topass the 1965 Voting Rights Act. When Malcolm X questioned nonviolence, he said"I don't believe we're going to overcome [by] singing." When Watts exploded in1965, Attorney General Ramsay Clark moaned, "The days of 'We Shall Overcome'were over." After the song was overtaken by the battle cries of Black Power, itwas sung as far afield as South Africa and Eastern Europe, Northern Ireland andIndia. And at Obama's inaugural concert, the President paid homage to the songthat had filled the Washington Mall 46 years earlier by promising, "We willovercome what ails us now."
"Every newspaper headline is a potential song," wroteDylan's contemporary Phil Ochs in his 1963 essay "The Need for Topical Music."Both songwriters soon discovered that topical songs could date quickly, butthat every now and then one could transcend its moment and grant a news storythe staying power of myth. Dylan, who chafed at the "voice of a generation"mantle almost as soon as it was thrust on him, had apparently given up protestsongs by 1975 when he became obsessed with the case of Rubin "Hurricane"Carter, a boxer facing a retrial for a triple murder in New Jersey in 1966.Over eight-and-a-half-minutes, he brought all his narrative skills to bear onthe story, packing it with detail and dialogue. A storyteller rather than afactchecker, Dylan made a few errors (he even had to rerecord certain lines toavoid lawsuits) and exaggerated Carter's boxing ability (he was never likely tobe "the champion of the world") but, as with 1964's "The Lonesome Death ofHattie Carroll," the song was intended more as a parable of racial injusticethan a straightforward account. Dylan further promoted Carter's cause byplaying benefit concerts. Although the fighter's conviction was upheld, afurther appeal eventually led to all charges being dropped in 1988. A 1999biopic, The Hurricane , starringDenzel Washington as Carter, used the song, honoring its role in making amiscarriage of justice an enduring cause célèbre.
The Special AKA, "FreeNelson Mandela" (1984)
In 1980, South Africa's ANC party decidedto reenergize its international campaign by embodying the struggle againstapartheid in the form of its incarcerated former leader. Eighteen years afterhis arrest, Mandela was still sufficiently unknown outside his homeland that,he later joked, when Free Mandela posters started appearing in London, "most young people thought my Christianname was Free." Jerry Dammers of the Special AKA (the group Dammers formed fromthe ashes of the U.K. ska band the Specials) learned about him at a 1983festival of African music and translated the information he picked up fromanti-apartheid leaflets into a song so stirring and joyous that it sounded likea premature celebration. Produced by Elvis Costello, "Free Nelson Mandela" didmore than any work of art to make Mandela a global icon of resistance. Dammersreceived letters of congratulation from the UN and ANC, and even though hisSouth African record label begged not to be sent copies for fear ofprosecution, the song spread organically among the black population. Dammers,who founded the UK pressure group Artists Against Apartheid, enjoyed the honorof performing it to the man himself at a concert to celebrate Mandela's releasein 1990. "Ah yes," said the politician when was introduced to the songwriter."Very good."
Effective for the wrong reasons, in that it brought down thecurtain on hip hop's radical years, causing artists and labels alike to runscared. Starting with NWA's "Fuck tha Police" in 1988, hip hop becamepolitically explosive, flustering police, pundits and politicians with themilitant rhetoric of Public Enemy and Ice Cube. It weathered multiplecontroversies until 1992, an election year which also brought with it theuncorked rage of the L.A. riots. While Bill Clinton denounced Public Enemyassociate Sister Souljah, President Bush was one of many figures who joinedpolice organizations in condemning Ice-T's rock band Body Count, whose "CopKiller" triggered an opportunistic moral panic. Under pressure from deaththreats, boycotts and angry shareholders, Ice-T buckled and replaced the songon new pressings of the album with the mordantly titled "Freedom of Speech."Other contentious MCs suddenly found their albums shelved or voluntarily mutedtheir message. "Of course it scared people off," Public Enemy's Chuck D laterreflected. "Rappers want to be successful."
El Général, "Rais leBled," (2011)
Many people write songs calling for an unpopular leader tostep down. Very few get their wish within days. After unemployed Tunisian fruitseller Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in protest against police corruptionlast December, setting off shockwaves of unrest, 22-year-old rapper Hamada BenAmor (stage name: El Général) posted online a video of himself performing afurious address to President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. It was an act ofimpressive courage. In the lo-fi clip, he looks like a guerrilla prosecutor,relentlessly detailing the president's crimes in the full knowledge that thestate would come after him: "I see too much injustice and so I decided to sendthis message even though the people told me that my end is death." Ben Amor waspromptly arrested and held for three days, but shortly after his release, PresidentBen Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, the first victim of the Arab spring. At his firstconcert after Ben Ali's departure, El Général debuted a new song, equallyprophetic: "Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, all must be liberated/Long livefree Tunisia!"
Isn't "La Marseillaise" the most effective protest song ever? I know it's a bit old-fashioned, but I suspect that it had more of an ultimate "effect" and was more widely used by actual revolutionary forces than any song here listed.
Good point. The book starts in the 20th century because it's about protest and pop but you could certainly argue that the truly revolutionary, earth-shaking political songs came earlier, the Marsellaise being a prime example.
Quick clarification/plug - I was asked to choose five "effective" songs, not the five best, so this selection is quite specific. The book covers about 1200 songs in all, including most of the ones people have mentioned so far. There are whole chapters on War, Ohio, Give Peace a Chance, Fixin' to Die, This Land Is Your Land and Masters of War, for example. Clarification/plug over.
It seemed like you really had to twist the definition of "effective," though, to put "Cop Killer' on your list. As far as I know, the song did not lead to any meaningful reform in the L.A. police department. Most of the debate around the song had little to do with the issue of police brutality and everything to do with concerns about the public advocacy of violence.
Well I wanted to look at "effective" from a few different angles - the fact that Cop Killer was a major news story and an election campaign issue, which affected the future of a whole genre (though, as Jason Shankel points out, it wasn't itself hip hop, Ice-T was perceived as a rapper first and foremost and hip hop took the flak), meant it qualified to my mind. A list is really just a way of starting a conversation - someone else might come up with an entirely different five and that would be fine by me.
Fair enough. I suppose we can agree that "Cop Killer" was effective in terms of accomplishing one purpose, getting noticed. Furthermore, it did have an effect on the immediate future of hip-hop, though it does seem that effect was short-lived. Ultimately, I would still say that "having an effect" is different from "being effective." The second phrase must be judged by an intended purpose, whereas the first is not dependent on authorial intent.
I figured Hurricane would be on this list, and I have to admit it belongs here based on its effectiveness. As a Dylan song, though, it's subpar. He takes far too many liberties with the facts of the case, and comparing it to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll in that respect isn't quite fair, IMHO. The "liberties" taken in Hurricane are much worse. (Though, coming as it did on an album that included a song romanticizing Joey Gallo, I shouldn't be surprised).
I think the fact that Dylan has not played Hurricane in concert for almost 35 years is a pretty good indicator of how he feels about having written that song (while other protest songs like Masters of War, Hattie Carroll, etc, are in heavy rotation nearly half a century after he wrote them).
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there are many people out there who believe Carter is actually guilty of the crime. I happen to have been involved in a matter before Judge Sarokin, who was the Judge who ultimately dismissed the charges. That dismissal, however, was based on Prosecutorial Misconduct. The evidence against Carter, unfortunately, seems to point in the direction of his guilt. Just because celebrities adopt a cause does not necessarily mean their cause is just. The Mumia Abu-Jamal case comes to mind.....
First, I'm not sure what you are arguing. A song that get's a guilty man acquitted is even more effective than one that gets an innocent man acquitted. That should be clear on the merits.
Second, I'd prefer that guilty men go free than be convicted by prosecutorial misconduct. Prosecutorial misconduct destroys our justice system and makes it impossible to determine if there is any justice for anyone.
I believe Sammy Hagar had an extremely effective protest song with "I Can't Drive 55." It was released in 1984 and the national speed limit was repealed in 1987. Only El General tops that on your list.
Aas far as danceables go, anyone else love "The General" by Dispatch?
The general said..
"I have seen the others and I have discovered that our fight is not worth fighting.
And I have seen their mothers and I will no other to follow me where I'm going...so...
take a shower shine your shoes
you got no time to lose
you are young men you should be living."
You may leave here for 4 days in space
But when you return, it's the same old place
The poundin' of the drums, the pride and disgrace
You can bury your dead, but don't leave a trace
Hate your next-door neighbor, but don't forget to say grace
And… tell me over and over and over and over again, my friend
You don't believe
We're on the eve