Top 5 Most Effective Protest Songs (and the Top 5 Most Danceable)

Slate's Culture Blog
April 6 2011 11:56 AM

Top 5 Most Effective Protest Songs (and the Top 5 Most Danceable)

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 book 33Revolutions 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.

Pete Seeger andothers, " We Shall Overcome "(1963)

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"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."

Bob Dylan, " Hurricane "(1975)

"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."

Body Count, " Cop Killer " (1992)

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!"

Bonus List! The Top 5Most Danceable Protest Songs

  1. Carl Bean - " I Was Born This Way "(1977)
  2. Frankie Goes to Hollywood - " Two Tribes " (1984)
  3. Fela Kuti & Afrika 70 - " Zombie " (1976)
  4. Curtis Mayfield - " Move on Up " (1970)
  5. Public Enemy - " Fight the Power " (1989)
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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.