It’s been a month since Vladimir Putin’s pet narcissist took over the White House and it would be an understatement to say that America has gone full dumpster fire. People are in the streets, calling their congressional representatives more than they call their parents and wondering why Sean Spicer looks like he’s reenacting a hostage video every time he’s in front of the camera. And yet, as easy as it may seem to just scream into your pillow, there is a little bit of good news. No, really.
This presidency has set off a new wave of protest music that is reshaping the industry track by track. And it is this legacy of sonic resistance that has defined—and undermined—presidencies throughout our history. The protest song has become as American as apple pie.
And so before we prepare for the onslaught of protest songs that the next four years will bring, we wanted to look back on the best anthems of the last fifty years. From Tupac to Prince to recent offerings from ANOHNI and Lupe Fiasco, here are our favorites.
“Land of the Free” by Joey Bada$ (2017)
If Donald Trump’s campaign was based on a racism-tinted nostalgia for how great America used to be, this song is the nostalgia-dipped f*ck you to the administration. Set against a sunny, old-school beat that would’ve felt at home on a Tupac track, Bada$$ expounds on the fears of what Trump’s “AmeriKKKa” will mean for him as a black man in an era where police brutality has become as central to America’s identity as the Kardashians.
Yet, for all the desolate talk about the prison industrial complex and murder, he retains an unrelenting hopefulness with a hook that begins with the statement that we “can’t change the world unless we change ourselves.”
Most Woke Lyric: “Leave us dead in the street then be your organ donors. They disorganized my people, made us all loners. Still got the last names of our slave owners.”
“Letter to the President” by Tupac & Outlawz (1999)
Speaking of Tupac, three years after his untimely murder, the rapper’s own searing critique of then-president Bill Clinton was posthumously released on Still I Rise. It’s no secret that although Clinton was dubbed “America’s First Black President” by Toni Morrison (seriously), not everyone was ready to heap praise on him.
Alongside Tupac’s repeated plea to tell him what to do about the people acting up in his hood, members of his rap group Outlawz spit fiery lyrics about the reality of life in their neighborhoods. Rampant drug use, the effects of Clinton’s signature crime bill targeting “super predators” and widespread violence are constant themes throughout and culminate in a statement as relevant now as it was then: “Police beatin’ me in the streets… fuck peace!”
Most Visceral Lyric: “Can’t lie I’m a thug, drownin’ in my own blood lookin for the reason that my momma’s strung out on drugs.”
“Not Ready to Make Nice” by The Dixie Chicks (2006)
There were a lot of rebellious statements from the music industry during the Bush administration–see: a polo-clad Kanye West shocking Mike Myers and America during a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina victims. It was this song, though, that doubled as the political anthem of the era and a go-to song to angrily sing at your exes in the shower at 2AM.
The pop-country trio have been making music since 1989, but it wasn’t until 2003, at the height of the Iraq War, that politics literally took center stage. “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas,” lead singer Natalie Maines declared. The condemnation for the statement was swift and long-lasting but three years later, it lead to this Grammy-winning song and the sonic middle-finger we were all feeling as we counted down the weeks until Bush was out of office.
Most Rebellious Lyric: “It’s too late to make it right. I probably wouldn’t if I could cause I’m mad as hell, can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should.”
“Reagan” by Killer Mike (2012)
Some people are naturally the masters of a particular craft. For instance, Paula Deen is an expert on butter and racism, and Kellyanne Conway is an expert on alternative facts. Killer Mike, meanwhile, is the undisputed champion of protest rap thanks to politically-charged tracks like “Pressure,” “Burn” and, our personal favorite, “Reagan.”
While his other tracks namedrop a president or two, this song obliterates George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama before ending with the proclamation that he’s glad Reagan is dead. Come for the takedown of four U.S. presidents, stay for the killer lyrics about the 13th Amendment, Reaganomics, and Qaddafi. Let’s just say it’s no surprise that Bernie Sanders teamed up with rap’s king of woke lyricism during his campaign.
Most Relevant Lyric: “They declared the war on drugs like a war on terror but what it really did was let the police terrorize whoever. But mostly black boys, but they would call us “n*ggers” and lay us on our belly, while they fingers on they triggers.”
“When the President Talks to God” by Bright Eyes (2005)
This folksy open letter to President Bush sounds like a campfire song sung exclusively while trapped in a forest fire at the most depressing campground of all time. Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst, in full sneering, sarcastic glory, strums violently away on his guitar as he shreds through the president’s policies on everything from inner city unemployment to the Iraq war.
Despite the visceral lyrics, the song broke out as a mainstream hit that landed him Song of the Year at the PLUG Independent Music Awards and put him on stage at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. There’s nothing quite like singing in full Bob Dylan warble about picking what country to invade and what Muslim souls to save for millions of people on late night TV to reinforce how much Americans despised George W. Bush.
Most Savage Lyric: “Does he ask to rape our women’s rights and send poor farm kids off to die? Does God suggest an oil hike when the President talks to God?”
“Locker Room Talk” by Cold War Kids (2016)
You’d think with their band name, Reagan would be the prime target of the Cold War Kids, yet their newest track takes direct aim at Dorito Donald instead. Specifically, the rockers take the disgusting boast about sexually assaulting women he made on an Access Hollywood bus and use it to dive deep into the president’s entire campaign released just weeks after the video surfaced.
“So many lies, ya think that it’s true,” they sing over guitar riffs. “Try walking on water with a brick in your shoes.” Sung with a vocal growl that’s almost sensual, the band lay their feelings bare with lyrics about border walls and hateful hearts.
Most Perceptive Lyric: Your head is hollow, man. You ain’t fit to lead. Let’s stand up and be counted.”
“Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” by Ramones (1985)
If you thought that Trump purposefully excluding reference to the Jewish people in his statement on National Holocaust Remembrance Day was a garbage fire, the story behind this song is a hellacious inferno. In 1985, President Reagan spent the 40th anniversary of the end of WWII at Bitburg, a cemetery where 49 members of the SS were buried alongside victims of the Holocaust. To which Reagan famously responded by saying they were “victims of Nazism.”
“If there’s one thing that makes me sick, it’s when someone tries to hide behind politics,” Jewish lead singer Joey Ramone sneered through a lyric that has become a timeless critique of the political establishment. Oh, and the titular Bonzo? It’s a reference to the chimpanzee that costarred with Reagan during his short-lived movie career. Sad!
Most Critical Lyric: “Better call, call the law, when are you going to turn yourself in? Yeah, you’re a politician, don’t become one of Hitler’s children.”
“Words I Never Said” by Lupe Fiasco (2011)
Unlike a certain lunchroom full of twenty-year-olds playing high school students, Lupe Fiasco has never been one to stick to the status quo. The Muslim rapper was a vocal critic of Obama throughout his presidency and even claimed that the biggest terrorist was Obama himself and the United States of America.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Fiasco’s track tears No Drama Obama’s legacy to shreds while clapping back at Islamophobia. But what may be most surprising about the song isn’t the brain cell-killing diet soda line or Glenn Beck’s overt racism, it’s that Fiasco never voted in the elections, which is as punk as it is infuriating.
Most Relevant Lyric: “Jihad is not holy war, where’s that in the worship? Murdering is not Islam, and you are not observant—and you are not a Muslim.”
“Ronnie, Talk to Russia” by Prince (1981)
Sometimes, it takes an artist with more name changes than your Instagram profile to shake things up with an electric guitar and a suit unbuttoned to his crotch. At the height of the Cold War, Prince created what may be the the only protest song that could double as an ensemble performance in a musical.
From the choir pleading that “Ronnie talk to Russia before it’s too late before they blow up the world” to the sound of gunshots mixing with guitars, it packs a punch without losing the funk.
Most Blunt Lyric: “Ronnie if you’re dead, before I get to meet you don’t say I didn’t warn you. Ronnie talk to Russia, before it’s too late.”
“Obama” by ANOHNI (2016)
To say that ANOHNI’s tour de force album HOPELESSNESS was the scorched earth protest album of the year would be a massive understatement. Tucked between haunting lyrics about drone bombs and global warming, the singer takes aim at Obama in a piercing narrative set in the perspective of one of his ardent supporters.
“When you were elected, the world cried for joy. We thought we had empowered the truth-telling envoy,” she begins. It’s from that point that she launches into a critique of his use of drone warfare, the NSA, and the prosecution of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning. As rosy as his presidency may have seemed, it’s this song that throws water in the face of his legacy and reminds us that no president is perfect.
Most Sobering Lyric: “All the hope drained from your face. Like children, we believed.”
Feeling fired up? Take your righteous anger at the government and put it towards organizations like the ACLU. They need your help more than ever.
For more of our music features, take a look at our investigation of the viral rise of Migos right here.
- Text: Chris Thomas