Tunesday: Modern Day Protest Songs

Protest songs seem to be a thing of the past, one tied up mainly in the Vietnam War and The Civil Rights Movement. However, with the chaos that constantly infiltrates the world, they remain just as prevalent, though they now come in a different form. High-profile musicians replace guitars and open-air performances with politically dissident lyrics woven into their studio-produced albums. With the bombings of Gaza, the rise of school shootings and civilian planes falling from the sky, it seems that Human Rights are being violated more everyday, and it is now the ideal time to revisit the idea of a protest song.

Bakermat—“One Day”

In “One Day,” a title translated from the original “Vandaag,” Bakermat features Ben Rodenburg on saxophone, overlain with a sample of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech of 1963. As a leader of The Civil Rights Movement, King calls for the end of racism in the US one hundred years after the approval of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although, unfortunately, prejudice has yet to entirely evaporate in the fifty years since King’s address, America has undoubtedly made progress. If the institution of slavery can be replaced with mere social prejudice in that time, the next fifty years will hopefully see the dissipation of this prejudice.


Kings of Leon—“Crawl”

Kings of Leon portray an America that has been beaten down, one that is now “the red and the white and abused.” In an interview with The Telegraph in 2008, frontman Caleb Followill mentions that “it honestly feels as if America has to learn how to crawl again before it can walk tall.” This statement came after the series of natural disasters and foreign interventions, both of which Followill viewed as having diminished citizens’ pride in their nation. The chorus begins with “you better learn to crawl/ Before I walk away,” signaling that the country needed to change or would lose their supporters. However, the next time through the chorus, the lyrics change to “they want to see us crawl/ Before they walk away,” switching to a desire for debilitated citizens and leaders able to abandon their people. The band composed this track during the Bush administration, a time when things weren’t exactly looking up. Although America’s route has improved considerably since, American pride in the name of intervention is still a bit unstable.


Lupe Fiasco—“Words I Never Said” (feat. Skylar Grey)

Atlantic Records originally intended the track to be about relationships, but instead Lupe Fiasco created a piece that comments on political issues while maintaining a pop style that allowed it to climb music charts in spite of its controversial matter. Although the beat veils the message a bit, the lyrics remain poignant regardless. He references the September 11 attacks and the conspiracy theories surrounding them, stating “I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit.” He continues in his rant, claiming “Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist/ Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit.” Today, bombs drop on Gaza, and again, we find ourselves hesitant to make moves to prevent further international intervention. He begins his last verse with, “I think that all the silence is worse than all the violence,” a testimony to what he wishes to motivate with this track: people defending the rights of people around the world rather than being spoon fed opinions by the media and led into silence.


By including a portion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx speech “We should all be feminists” in the middle of the track, Beyoncé puts the included intro of “Bow Down (Bitches)” into a different light. It becomes something more of self-empowerment rather than an intention of smothering other women, especially when followed by “Butdon’t think I’m just his little wife.” Adichie’s discourse complements Beyoncé’s cry for feminism. The Nigerian writer recognizes that:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you will threaten the man.’ Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage…We raise girls to see each other as competitors – not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men.”

In the repeating chorus, Beyoncé adds her agreement with the speech in blatant irony as she only highlights “her rock” and the fact that she woke up flawless. She breaks up the repetition with why she does in fact feel flawless (aside from her rock and looks): “Momma taught me good home training/ My Daddy taught me how to love my haters/ My sister told me I should speak my mind.”


John Legend—“If You’re Out There”

John Legend uses his smooth vocals to produce a song that calls people to action rather than pointedly criticizes political issues. Although it is a bit clichéd with its lines of “No more broken promises/ No more call to war/ Unless it’s love and peace that/ We’re really fighting for,” his message to search for a leader within yourself is an appreciated break from the usual pessimism. He urges his listeners to change from the passive mindset that accompanies being seemingly powerless with “if you ready we can save the world…We don’t have to wait for destiny.” Further, he alludes to Gandhi’s quote “be the change you want to see in the world” with “We should be the change that we want to see.”


Brother Ali—“Uncle Sam Goddamn”

With harshly critical lyrics, Brother Ali comments on the American consumerist society while characterizing it as a nation rooted in slavery and corruption. The hook refers to America as “the United Snakes/ Land of the thief home of the slave…where the dollar is sacred and power is God.” The track actually got him kicked off a tour sponsored by Verizon in 2007, if that says anything about how subtle he is.


Bright Eyes—“I Must Belong Somewhere”

This piece is full of contradictions. The head of the band, Conor Oberst, lists a series of things that exist in the wrong place yet continually assures himself that “everything it must belong somewhere.” He ironically tells his listeners to leave the whimpering dog in his cold kennel, the worried look on your lover’s face and the “widower in his private hell.” These escalate into more political cries of leaving “the homeless man in that cardboard cell,” “the poor black child in his crumbling school” and “the true genius in the padded room.” This political tone also appears in their song “Road To Joy,” in which he chimes “What history gave modern man/ A telephone to talk to strangers/ Machine guns and a camera lens/ So when you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing/ It’s best to join the side that’s gonna win.”


The Postal Service—“We Will Become  Silhouettes”

After some sort of nuclear apocalypse, the uncomfortably chipper Postal Service-imagined family holes themselves up in their house, refusing to come out “until this is all over.” On behalf of the father, Ben Gibbard sings, “I wanted to walk through the empty street…But all the news reports recommended that/ I stay indoors.” If they choose to ignore the warnings of the news, they will simply explode. This therefore becomes a commentary both on passivity and on the woes of absorbing all that the media has to offer. The family does in fact continue living even when outside. The Shins recorded an acoustic version of the track, which removes its ironically cheerful tune.