Music has been an active form of protest for centuries. Since the beginning of American history, songs have signaled times of revolution and political change. The classic children’s song “Yankee Doodle” itself was originally a protest song British soldiers used to sing to make fun of Americans during the Revolutionary War until Americans reclaimed it as their own and started singing it with pride. In the 1960s and ’70s, many songs were written by popular artists to decry Cold War policies, the American draft of soldiers into the Vietnam War and to support the civil rights movement. Today, among marches calling out police brutality and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, music still plays a significant role in furthering political movements, marking the history of protests and being used as anthems during marches. Here is a list of some impactful political songs from American history.
“I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R.
Released on Juneteenth 2020, singer-songwriter H.E.R. released a song entitled “I Can’t Breathe” in response to the recent killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a police officer who knelt on his neck for eight minutes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The phrase “I can’t breathe” was infamously repeated by Floyd and Eric Garner, a Black man who was killed by a police officer in Staten Island when he was put into an illegal chokehold, as they died. Since then, “I can’t breathe” became a chant during protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The music video for “I Can’t Breathe” consisted of footage of protests against police brutality and systemic racism around the world that ends with a wall of the names of those who have been killed in instances of police brutality, including George Floyd, Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor.
“Make America Great Again” by Pussy Riot
Pussy Riot is a Russian punk-pop group that started off their career singing songs about feminism and LGBTQ+ rights in opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who they consider to be a dictator. After a notorious performance and protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in 2012, members of Pussy Riot were arrested and charged with hooliganism. Since then, Pussy Riot grew in popularity and reached more European and Western audiences with their music. Two weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Pussy Riot released the song “Make America Great Again”, using President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. The song criticized Trump’s proposed policies, such as the border wall between Mexico and the United States and his demeanor against women.
“Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen
This popular Bruce Springsteen song is about a veteran from the Vietnam War somberly returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing and participating in the war. The lyrics describe a soldier who returns to very few options for a career in America after they “sent me off to a foreign land / to go and kill the yellow man”. The lyrics to “Born in The U.S.A.” often go over listeners’ heads, who think the song is patriotic. President Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign attempted to use the song at his rallies. Springsteen said no and suggested that Reagan listen to the lyrics.
“For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield
“For What It’s Worth” is a classic protest song created by the Los Angeles-based rock band Buffalo Springfield, created in 1966. The song was originally about the Sunset Strip curfew riots, which were a set of riots between the police and young members of the counterculture movement after West Hollywood implemented a 10:00 p.m. curfew to deter congestion and noise pollution along the Sunset Strip. The song became popular again a few years later after the Kent State shootings of 1970, where members of the National Guard opened fire against students protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Four students were killed. At the 2020 Democratic National Convention actor and singer Billy Porter performed “For What It’s Worth” backed by Stephen Stills, a member of Buffalo Springfield, on guitar in support of the summer protests for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Hot Topic” by Le Tigre
The all-female American punk group Le Tigre released “Hot Topic” in 1999. The song consists of a list of activists, musicians and feminist thinkers who have inspired the band, which mainly sings about feminism, the LGBTQ+ community and sociopolitical issues in America. For example, Le Tigre’s song “My My Metrocard” was a critique of then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s policies against sex workers, as well as his policies on “quality-of-life” crimes which have led to zoning rules negatively impacting sex shops throughout New York. Some activists Le Trigre sings about in “Hot Topic” include tennis player and LGBTQ+ activist Billie Jean King, feminist thinker Gayatri Spivak, communist journalist and transgender activist Leslie Feinberg and filmmaker Marlon Riggs.
For a more expansive list, check out this playlist.