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.