Historically, music has played a vital role in American war and resistance movements.
During the Revolutionary War, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and other popular dance songs were sung by both the British soldiers and the American rebels to keep spirits afloat in trying times. This continued throughout history, with songs like the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “God Bless America” motivating troops and civilians during the Civil War and World War I.
But war is never straightforward, and when American involvement in Vietnam escalated, patriotic songs like “The Battle of the Green Berets” were soon outnumbered by protest and anti-war music like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “I Should Be Proud.”
Nearly in tandem, the civil rights movement had protest and resistance music of its own. Generations of artists and performers, inspired by marches, demonstrations, and tragedies during the fight for civil rights, created some of the country’s most enduring musical contributions — songs like James Brown’s “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken-word piece “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
But protest and resistance music didn’t end in the 1960s. Now more than ever, we need songs to keep us moving forward.
We need songs that make people want to stand up, speak out, and fight back.
We’re facing an unprecedented American political landscape, and there are inexperienced, unpredictable people in charge. It’s important to pay attention and speak up against bigotry, ignorance, and policies that affect the most vulnerable.
This is the soundtrack to the resistance. Turn it up. Share it. Let them hear us coming.
1. Andra Day, “Rise Up”
Warm up with this beautiful, haunting ballad by songstress Andra Day. It may not get your heart racing, but it will get your mind prepared to face a new and uncertain challenge.
Lyric for your protest sign: “All we need, all we need is hope/And for that we have each other”
2. Pharrell Williams, “Runnin'”
If you haven’t seen “Hidden Figures,” stop what you’re doing and go. I’ll wait.
OH MY GOODNESS WASN’T IT SO GOOD?! This true story was brought to life on screen with powerhouse performances and a soundtrack of contemporary soul music. This particular song from Pharrell Williams would be at home on black radio in 1963 or 2017, which is a sobering reminder that even though we made it to space, there’s still a long way to go.
Lyric for your protest sign: “I don’t want no free ride/I’m just sick and tired of runnin'”
3. Isley Brothers, “Fight the Power, Pts. 1 & 2”
A pretty much perfect song about standing up against the powers that be. Ever wonder what you would’ve done during the civil rights movement? Turn on these songs, go outside, and find out.
Lyric for your protest sign: “When I rolled with the punches/I got knocked on the ground/With all this bullshit going down”
4. K’naan feat. Snow tha Product, Riz MC, and Residente, “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)”
There are a lot of songs on the “Hamilton” original Broadway cast recording and the subsequent “Hamilton Mixtape” remix and compilation album, but few possess the energy and passion of “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done).”
As President Trump looks to restrict the number of refugees entering America, it’s important to remind people of troubling and dangerous circumstances many immigrants and refugees flee in the first place and the difficult journeys they face once they’re in America, whether or not they’re documented.
Lyric for your protest sign: “It’s America’s ghost writers, the credit’s only borrowed.”
5. Dixie Chicks, “Not Ready to Make Nice”
This song was about the Dixie Chicks’ political saga with country radio and outraged fans. (Doesn’t that feel downright quaint these days?) It holds up as a pop-country song about refusing to find common ground with ignorance and bigotry. I think of this song every time someone suggests I “give President Trump a chance.” Candidate Trump said some awful things about people like the people I love and the people who make this country a great place to live. President Trump seems to be following through on his potentially devastating campaign promises. Forgive and forget? Not when lives and livelihoods are at stake.
Lyric for your protest sign: “I’m still mad as hell and I don’t have time to go ’round and ’round and ’round.”
6. Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
You could hear this song break out at Black Lives Matter demonstrations and marches across the country. This powerful anthem struck a chord at just the right time, a three-and-a-half minute tonic against fear, anguish, and systemic oppression. As Desire Thompson wrote in Vibe, “While listening to it on repeat, I was reminded of the lesson that pain isn’t permanent and getting through the tough times are what make us all stronger.”
Lyric for your protest sign: “We gon’ be alright”
7. Solange, “F.U.B.U.”
We don’t deserve two talented, powerful Knowles sisters. But it’s younger sister Solange’s new album that’s been in heavy rotation during this winter of discontent. It’s empowering and ethereal, with lyrics covering so many issues on the minds of black women. “F.U.B.U.” is an acronym for “for us by us,” and this song is just that. Sorry not sorry white folks, this one isn’t for you.
Lyric for your protest sign: “All my niggas let the whole world know/Play this song and sing it on your terms/For us, this shit is for us/Don’t try to come for us”
8. Marvin Gaye, “Mercy, Mercy, Me (the Ecology)”
Like “Inner City Blues” and “What’s Going On?” “Mercy, Mercy Me” is a grim reminder of how little has changed in the last 45 years. That’s not a cue to get despondent. That’s a cue to get bold. It’s a cue to keep pushing, keep tapping into fresh ideas and new approaches, especially when it comes to the environment. As the saying goes, “There is no Planet B.” Let’s do this.
Lyric for your protest sign: “What about this overcrowded land/How much more abuse from man can she stand?”
9. The “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” theme
It’s a 30-second theme song for a show about a woman starting her life over after 15 years in an underground bunker. What’s more resistance-ready than that?
Lyric for your protest sign: “‘Cause females are strong as hell!”
10. The Pointer Sisters, “Yes We Can Can”
Long before Obama used it to galvanize millions of believers, Allen Tousissant’s song of a similar name galvanized people on the dance floor and in the streets. Performed by the Pointer Sisters, the socially conscious funk song reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100, but the timeless classic remains relevant nearly 44 years later.
Lyric for your protest sign: “We got to make this land a better land than the world in which we live/And we got to help each man be a better man with the kindness that we give”
11. Elton John, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”
I was going to pick “Philadelphia Freedom” for its soaring horns and unintentional bicentennial spirit, but this song felt better for Nazi-punching. Now, I’m not condoning violence, but what you and your fists do to fight fascists is your business.
Lyric for your protest sign: “Saturday night’s alright for fighting, get a little action in.”
This playlist is just the beginning.
There are countless songs, new and old, that belong on this list. When it comes to music that inspires you to do good and get involved, there are no wrong answers. Pick it out, turn it up, and let’s get moving.