Many journalists and political observers in recent years have been asking the same question: “Where have all the protest songs gone?” It seems so few contemporary musicians have tackled the big issues of our time. Yet political expression in music has a rich history, and many songs have famously highlighted social discontent and injustice. Some of them became powerful anthems, such as Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of We Shall Overcome, while others are simple calls for peace, like John Lennon’s Imagine. Politically motivated songs can stir passion, and provoke anger. Just think how the words of Billie Holiday’s 1939 version of Strange Fruit (a song about lynchings) affected Southern audiences at the time. All of them have a message, a purpose, and the power to move us through words and music.
Many musicians have thrived on protest songs over the decades, too numerous to include on this list, so we’ve picked 12 of them, representing various genres, including country, rap, pop, rock, folk, and reggae.
12. Joan Baez
The queen of 1960s folk music, Joan Baez is famous for her political activism and long list of protest songs, most of them covers. Joe Hill, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and We Shall Overcome are among her best-known recordings.
11. Ice T
Ice T, often cited as the founder of gangsta rap, is best known for his controversial 1992 song, Cop Killer, which he did with his heavy metal group, Body Count. The song, a commentary on police brutality and racism, was widely condemned for inciting violence against the police, and he decided to pull it from the album. Ironically, Ice T now plays the role of a police officer in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He also has his own reality TV show, with second wife, Coco.
Irish rock band U2 is well known for political activism, having covered everything from the troubles in Ireland and poverty in Africa, to human rights and U.S. foreign policy. Their most famous and memorable political songs are Sunday, Bloody Sunday, and Pride.
9. Steve Earle
A longtime advocate against the death penalty, Steve Earle makes our list for his musical repertoire addressing war, religion, and immigration. His first political song was Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough). One of his most memorable hits is Copperhead Road.
8. Public Enemy
The most controversial and influential rap group of the late 1980s and early 90s, Public Enemy is famous for their political stance and hard-hitting lyrics. The explosive single Fight the Power blatantly condemns racism and inequality, and was featured in Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing. Their most successful album, Fear of a Black Planet, was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress in 2005.
7. Bruce Springsteen
The Boss has been a longtime and outspoken advocate of liberal causes, and much of his music has focused on working-class issues. His often-misinterpreted hit single Born in the USA is his most famous political song.
6. Johnny Cash
The Man in Black is one of the most influential country singers of all time, and he frequently tackled contentious political issues in his music. Ragged Old Flag, What Is Truth?, Folsom Prison Blues, Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues, The Ballad of Ira Hayes and All of God’s Children Ain’t Free, are among his many socially conscious and politically aware songs.
5. John Lennon
A radical who openly supported left-wing causes, John Lennon used his music to promote his opposition to the Vietnam War, tackle injustice and spread a message of peace. His criticism of the Vietnam War almost got him deported. Give Peace a Chance became the anthem for the anti-war movement. Other politically themed Lennon hits include Imagine, Happy Christmas (War Is Over) and Working Class Hero.
4. Bob Marley
Reggae legend Bob Marley is well known for his politically motivated songs calling for an end to slavery, extreme poverty, inequality, and exploitation. Get Up, Stand Up is considered by many to be one of the greatest and most popular protest songs of all time.
3. Bob Dylan
Hailed as the “Voice of a Generation,” Bob Dylan is said to have renewed the protest genre, bringing meaningful tunes to a wider audience, and so he makes No. 3 on our list. Spurred by the social and political unrest of the 1960s, Dylan wrote Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, Talkin’ World War III Blues and The Times They are a-Changin’, all in under two years during the early 1960s.
2. Pete Seeger
American folk music legend Pete Seeger, who once sang with Woody Guthrie, has dedicated his life and career to social justice. He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and called before the House Un-American Committee. But that didn’t stop him from writing and performing some of history’s best protest songs. One of his most memorable is Where Have All the Flowers Gone, a beautiful and simple song about the cycle of war, that is still well loved today. Seeger is therefore well deserving of our No. 2 spot.
1. Woody Guthrie
Folk hero and musician Woody Guthrie should be on every list of top protest singers, and earns our No. 1 spot for his enduring legacy and extensive collection of poignant songs about American life and events during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era. This Land is Your Land is a tribute to the working class and may be the greatest political song ever; simple, yet it cuts to the core.
(Editor’s note: In compiling this list, it quickly became apparent that all 12 musicians are progressive or liberal in their political outlook. While there are many conservative musicians, such as Bob Seger, Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper and Brooks & Dunn, and some are quite outspoken in their political views, we could not think of one who is well known for writing protest songs.)