ACD Justice Journal: Stories & Ideas for Liberation

10 Songs to Listen to on Your Way to Protest

Protest in Pop Culture, Part 1: Streaming the Revolution

By Makayla Gathers

September 11, 2023

“Freedom songs serve to give unity to a movement.” 

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

The month of September has been a recurring battleground for protest and Black resistance in St. Louis. In September 2014, hundreds marched to demand the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief, Tom Jackson, in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder. In September 2017, thousands protested the Stockley verdict, many of whom were arrested, and we defended their First Amendment rights. At ArchCity Defenders, we know that protesting is a critical tool in the struggle for liberation. We also know that protest can take many forms. 

ACD believes that media advocacy is a powerful way to protest, counter unjust narratives, and spark change. In today’s digital age, the content we create and consume shapes the world we live in and thus has the power to change it. As such, Protest in Pop Culture considers how music and TV  can contribute to the fight for racial justice. For part one of this series, put your earbuds in and listen along as we journey through ten of the greatest protest songs in the last century.

1. Childish Gambino – This is America (2018)

In 2018, this Grammy Award-winning single broke the internet overnight with its agitative lyrics and music video, which illustrate the “violent contradictions that come with being Black in America,” as Time Magazine describes. Chaotic yet intentional choreography evokes commentary on gun violence, police brutality, and systemic racism, all of which is punctuated by the matter-of-fact chorus line that says it all: “This is America.”

2. Trey Songz – 2020 Riots: How Many Times (2020)

Two years after Gambino’s hit song, America was once again forced to reckon with the state of our country after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others. In “2020 Riots,” Trey Songz pays tribute to victims of fatal state violence, the mothers who continue to cry, and repeats “How many more,” emphasizing the toll fatal state violence has had on the Black community for so long.

3. Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit (1939)

“Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

To get a sense of how long such oppression has endured, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” takes us back in time to 1939. The song protested the many lynchings happening at the time, and its lyrics paint a horrifying picture, likening lynched Black bodies to strange fruit hanging from the trees.

4. Nina Simone – Mississippi Goddam (1964)

Nina Simone composed “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and other acts of racist violence. The track draws striking parallels with the current day. Take for example the recent events in Mississippi, where police officers killed Keith Murriel, shot 11-year-old Aderrien Murry, and physically and sexually abused Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker, in the span of just three months. “Mississippi Goddam” charged up the civil rights movement in 1964, and it’s just as rage-inducing today.

5. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)

You know that feeling when it seems like our country is just falling apart? Marvin Gaye captures that feeling perfectly in “What’s Going On.” Originally about the Vietnam War and poverty, the track was re-released in 2019 for its 50th anniversary through a music video featuring footage of mass shootings, the Michigan Flint water crisis, and police brutality. Gaye’s message to a country torn apart by violence remains timeless, right down to the line, “Picket lines and picket signs, don’t punish me with brutality..”

6. Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1971)

Halfway through the playlist, we start to switch gears. Performed almost as a spoken word poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” encourages people to take a stand. Scott-Heron reminds the listener that the revolution will not be something you can take part in by sitting around, and change will never happen if you remain on standby: “You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.”

7. Rage Against the Machine – Zapata’s Blood (1998)

Rage Against the Machine releases music that aligns with their beliefs of anti-authoritarianism and revolutionary principles. In “Zapata’s Blood,” the group references the Zapatista movement in 1994, an uprising by the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico, who declared war against their government and demanded “work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice, and peace.” 

The song marks a tonal departure from the R&B and Soul on the playlist, but don’t you agree that the urgency and energy of rock makes for good protest music?

“Rumble,” an instrumental rock song, stands as the only instrumental single ever banned from the radio in the United States because some feared it promoted street violence and delinquency. 

The song is considered a protest song, as it completely went against the industry norms of the era. Devoid of lyrics, full of distorted and aggressive guitar, and relying heavily on power chords, “Rumble” transformed the genre of rock and roll. If this song were a person, it’d be someone unafraid to make rumbles in the face of injustice.  

9. Tupac Shakur – Changes (1992) [Explicit]

Tupac Shakur’s “Changes” was inspired by the American rock group Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s song “The Way It Is.” Like “Rumble” and its rock and roll sound, rap has historically been feared for “encouraging unruly behavior” and discounted as a genre with potential for nuance and cultural commentary. If any artist can disprove this, it’s Tupac Shakur. You can’t deny the poeticism and vulnerability of his words as he describes his emotions and insights being a Black man in America. 

“Changes” touches on an array of issues affecting the Black community such as police brutality, racism, war, and the lack of government support. It reminds us that if you’re overwhelmed with the world, you’re not alone. The last line, “Some things will never change,” gives me goosebumps, as the issues he discusses 30 years prior still affect us today.

10. Kendrick Lamar – Alright (2015) [Explicit]

To conclude the listening experience, we end on a positive note. Kendrick Lamar, a rapper also inspired by Tupac, released “Alright,” with his 2015 album “To Pimp A Butterfly.” It’s no surprise that the album, which was inspired by visiting sites like Nelson Mandela’s jail cell, contained this song, which quickly became regarded as one of the best protest songs of the 21st century. 

The simple repetition of “We gon’ be alright,” is comforting and evokes celebration. The song shows the duality of protest: It is tiresome and testing, but it shows the strength, joy, and the fact that our communities are alive and nevertheless persevering. 

Stream the entire playlist above.

Makayla Gathers, a Summer 2023 ACD Comms Intern, proposed, compiled, and wrote this blogpost, with editing support from Johnny Gabbert and Angelo Vidal. In parts two and three of this series, we further dissect protest as it manifests in TV and in real life. For more content, follow us on social media at @archcitydefenders.