One of the strongest tools of social justice has always been music. These 27 songs were sung at protests for human rights throughout history and all over the world.
1. Strange Fruit — Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is arguably best remembered as the song that, in one sense, kicked off the American Civil Rights movement. Written by Abel Meeropol in 1937, Holiday first performed the song two years later. The song depicts the brutal reality of lynchings. These were common at the time, leading to great controversy when Holiday released her chilling condemnation.
2. If I Had a Hammer (Hammer Song) — Pete Seeger
This short Civil Rights classic was sung up and down the United States, most famously by Pete Seeger. Written in 1949 to support the Progressive movement, the song was first recorded by Seeger’s folk quartet, The Weavers. It was first dramatically performed at a testimonial dinner for Communist Party USA leaders who were then on trial on charges of advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government.
3. A Change is Gonna Come — Sam Cooke
This famous social justice song was inspired by occurrences in Sam Cooke’s life, especially his experience of being turned away from a whites-only hotel in Louisiana. The song refers not only to his personal oppression and struggle but that to all Black Americans.
4. Black Rage — Lauryn Hill
“Black Rage” is chilling and fascinating, in no small part because of its tune. Set to “My Favorite Things,” this hip hop and acoustic guitar combo is nothing less than ominous. It talks about U.S. history and the oppressive systems that live on to this day.
5. Guajira Guantanamera — Joseito Fernández
Spanish for “the woman from Guantánamo,” this is probably Cuba’s best-known piece of music. The song was first popularized on the radio in 1929 by Joseito Fernández and was popularly covered in the U.S. by The Weavers. Pete Seeger of the band played this at the 1963 Carnegie Hall Reunion concert, which led the song to international popularity.
6. Which Side Are You On? — Florence Reece
Florence Reece first wrote this song in 1931. Married to United Mine Workers organizer Sam Reece, she saw firsthand the great struggles between miners and their bosses in the Harlan County War. She wrote the song on her kitchen calendar after her home was illegally entered by local police.
7. Keep Your Hand on the Plow — Mahalia Jackson
Originally an African American spiritual, this song refers to God’s promise to Noah in the Jewish Scriptures that He would never again flood the earth with water. The song was famously referenced by writer James Baldwin in his famous essay on American racism and white supremacy.
8. Step by Step — Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger put the words of this short union poem from a 19th-century miner’s union book to a new tune. While this song is one of the shortest on the list, it was one of the most historically impactful.
9. We Shall Not Be Moved — The Seekers
Originally an African American spiritual known as “I Shall Not Be Moved,” this song achieved great notoriety during the Civil Rights movement. It was often sung as both a protest and a union song at picket lines and rallies.
10. Bread and Roses — Judy Collins
This classic strike song originated in a phrase uttered by women’s suffragist Helen Todd. The lyrics demand not only living wages but dignified living conditions with enough of the good things in life. It was famously covered by Judy Collins in 1976.
11. The Preacher and the Slave — Utah Phillips
Written by organizer Joe Hill, “The Preacher And The Slave” originated from a dispute with The Salvation Army. They would often sing to drown out early IWW organizers. Hill characterized them as “The Starvation Army” and turned their own play against them, penning a hit.
12. L’Internationale — Eugène Pottier
“L’Internationale” has long been an anthem of social justice and equality around the world. It was written by anarchist Eugène Pottier and set to music by Marxist Pierre De Geyter. The song went on to be one of the most translated in history.
13. We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years — Utah Phillips
Though the author is unknown to this day, this song became a labor movement staple in 1908. It refers to the heavy exploitation of the working class’s labor and the stark reality of “class warfare.”
14. Blowin’ in the Wind — Bob Dylan
One of Bob Dylan’s timeless classics poses powerful rhetorical questions about war, peace, and freedom. The song was immediately hailed as a protest anthem and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
15. Where Have All the Flowers Gone? — Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger again made a Civil Rights impact with his 1955 song inspired by an old Irish melody and the Cossack folk song “Koloda-Duda.”
“Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” was eventually framed in the ubi sunt tradition, meaning it asks rhetorical questions to stir up authentic answers about life and mortality. This has been covered by innumerable artists including Peter, Paul and Mary and Green Day—and even in a 1987 album by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
16. Imagine — John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band (With The Flux Fiddlers)
Many people are unaware that John Lennon’s famous song was written with social justice in mind. Released as part of an album of the same name, the song tries to stir up images of a peaceful world without borders, consumerism, and even religion.
17. Redemption Song — Bob Marley & the Wailers
Bob Marley’s hit “Redemption Song” was the last track on his final album before his death. It is usually held to be one of his best songs. He asks his listeners to emancipate themselves from “mental slavery,” declaring that “none but ourselves can free our minds.”
18. Fight the Power — Public Enemy
This song was released as a Motown Records summer single in 1989. It brings together many references to the Civil Rights movement and Black American culture. This was composed at the request of director Spike Lee for his upcoming film, “Do The Right Thing.” Public Enemy re-released the song a year later in their album, “Fear Of A Black Planet.”
19. Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) — Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” is full of references to the economic turmoil in the lives of everyday Americans who question their government’s actions. He sings against the profit-based motives for warfare and attacks “trigger happy policing” in response to desperate working people trying to survive.
20. To Be Young, Gifted and Black — Nina Simone
Nina Simone’s gospel-inspired funk song incorporates ideas of a better world without tears, worries, or lying smiles. It was written by Al Bell, who was reflecting upon his younger brother’s death by shooting—his third sibling was lost to gun violence.
21. From Little Things Big Things Grow — Paul Kelly
This song was co-written by Paul Kelly to tell about the “Wave Hill walk-off” or Gurindji strike, as well as the Australian indigenous people’s fight for justice. Indigenous Australians have long had to fight for land rights and reconciliation with the modern government.
22. Alright — Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar’s incredible rap song about hope in the midst of struggle was released in 2015. It has since made a name for itself as one of the best social justice compositions in modern history. It quickly became synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement.
23. We Shall Overcome — Pete Seeger
While he didn’t write the original, Pete Seeger’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome” is indisputably one of the most popular songs from the Civil Rights era. It was so popular that President Johnson added the phrase to his speech to Congress after violent attacks on Civil Rights leaders.
24. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised — Gil Scott-Heron
This is a spoken-word performance set to music originally performed in response to “When The Revolution Comes.” The latter refers to people watching “the revolution” on television. Gil Scott-Heron turns the phrase on its head by arguing that nobody will be able to stay home or idly watch events take place.
25. Mississippi Goddam — Nina Simone
Nina Simone composed this piece in a time of furious determination after learning that four young Black girls were murdered in a 1964 Birmingham, Alabama bombing. The same year, a number of racist murders occurred in Jackson, Mississippi, including of the important activist Medgar Evers. Many call this Simone’s first Civil Rights song.
26. Banks of Marble — Pete Seeger
While made famous by Pete Seeger, “Banks Of Marble” was composed by New York farmer Les Rice. It centers on the great and unnatural injustices, inequalities, and oppressions that Rice saw in the United States.
27. Solidarity Forever — Utah Phillips
Written as a trade union anthem in 1915, Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever” took the labor movement by storm. It envisions a world made up of united workers who put their own interests at the foundation of the industry.
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