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25 of the greatest civil rights protest songs

25 of the best civil rights and protest songs
(Image credit: Jac. de Nijs—Anefo/National Archives of the Netherlands)

The killing of George Floyd last month, for which policeman Derek Chauvin has since been charged with second-degree murder, has sparked protests in the US and worldwide – both in support of African Americans and to highlight the centuries-long and continuing discrimination against black people across the globe.

For those of us privileged enough not to have been discriminated against solely due to the colour of our skin, music has long been as important as any film or literature as a means of learning about these issues. (For the avoidance of doubt: admitting that privilege is not to admit you have had an easy life, similar to the way saying Black Lives Matter is not the same as saying others don’t.)

And in lieu of sufficient formal education about racism and its toll on history, the collection of songs below has helped direct our own personal learning over the years.

Going back as far as the turn of the 20th century – with a poem often referred to as the black national anthem – and covering songs of the Civil Rights Movement right up to those currently guiding the Black Lives Matter campaign, a list as short as this can only ever be an overview. Not all are strictly ‘protest’ songs, either, but each represents an important piece of social commentary on a life those of us not directly affected will never be able to properly understand. Not that it gives us any excuse not to try.

Listen to our civil rights and protest songs playlist on Spotify or Tidal.

A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke

This civil rights anthem – released in 1964 and inspired by a trip during which Sam Cooke and his family were turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana – proved its enduring ability to provide unlikely hope when it was sung recently by Dray Tate at George Floyd’s funeral in Houston, Texas.

What's Going On by Marvin Gaye

The title track from Marvin Gaye’s album telling the story of an American soldier who returns home from the Vietnam War, only to be confronted by a country filled with hatred, suffering and injustice; it is sadly every bit as relatable almost half a century later.

People Get Ready by The Impressions

“It doesn’t matter what colour or faith you have,” Curtis Mayfield said of his gospel-inspired song of community and coming together, which resonated deeply with African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. “I’m pleased the lyrics can be of value to anybody.”

When The Revolution Comes by The Last Poets

Released in June 1970, The Last Poets’ self-titled debut album was not only an important voice in the Civil Rights Movement, but its spoken-word approach helped inspire a genre, in hip-hop, that has since afforded a platform to so many more black voices.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron’s debut record A New Black Poet ­­– Small Talk at 125th and Lenox was released in the same year as The Last Poets, opening with this iconic spoken-word track named after a popular Black Power slogan and later appearing as the B-side to single Home Is Where The Hatred Is.

How I Got Over by Mahalia Jackson

Known to many as the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson was a prominent civil rights activist who sang this gospel classic at a number of rallies, including before Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech that capped the March On Washington in 1963. In fact, it is thought Jackson’s calls for King to “tell them about the dream” were what prompted his most famous, unscripted lines.

Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday

This macabre metaphor protests the lynching of black Americans, which, despite the passing of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1922, was still prevalent when this song was released in 1939. The murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, lynched for offending a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, would later be a major catalyst in the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement.

I Wonder If Heaven Got A Ghetto by 2Pac

Many of the lyrics from this track – originally a B-side but released posthumously as a single in 1997 – were reused for Changes, which meant an even greater audience were able to hear 2Pac’s famous lines on poverty, racism and police brutality.

F*** Tha Police by N.W.A.

“A lot of people would be happy that they song gets streamed, but it’s unfortunate,” said MC Ren about the 300 per cent increase in people listening to the song he co-wrote protesting police brutality and racial profiling. “Because look how it came about: George Floyd – that was some bullshit. Enough is enough.”

Alright by Kendrick Lamar

Despite the social commentary of its verses, it’s the uplifting chorus of this Kendrick Lamar single that was sung during Black Lives Matter protests – as was the case with many songs that brought communities together during the Civil Rights Movement –and organically became one of its early soundtracks.

Say It Loud – I'm Black And I'm Proud by James Brown

A call to arms for black empowerment, James Brown’s two-part single was released in 1968, the year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Alabama Blues by J.B. Lenoir

While its global success meant blues music in general had left behind many of its political motivations by the 1960s, that was not the case for J.B. Lenoir whose songs were full of protest against racism and war. Alabama Blues is a story of the downtrodden, whose families are murdered and left behind bars while the perpetrators are set free.

Oh Freedom by Odetta

Odetta Holmes, often referred to as "The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement", sang this post-Civil War freedom song as part of her Spiritual Trilogy, most famously performing it in 1963 at the March on Washington rally.

Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone

Referred to by Nina Simone as her first civil rights protest song, Mississippi Goddam is her response to the murder of activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black children.

Fight The Power by Public Enemy

“I wanted to have sort of like the same theme as the original Fight The Power by The Isley Brothers and fill it in with some kind of modernist views of what our surroundings were at the particular time,” says Chuck D of Public Enemy’s most famous track. It was written for the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing in 1989 and later included on the band’s Fear Of A Black Planet LP.

FDT by YG ft. Nipsey Hustle

Opening with the voices of black protesters who were ejected from a Trump rally in Georgia, before a refrain that has left the mouths of many since 2016, YG’s FDT was written and released while there was still hope America wouldn’t elect a television personality as its President – and at a time before the full extent of his disdain towards immigrants and minority groups was made dangerously clear.

Cops Shot The Kid by Nas ft. Kanye West

Another track exploring police killings of black citizens, Nas’s Cops Shot The Kid covers curfews and intimidation through to the recurring self-defense arguments with which many law enforcement officers have explained and excused their actions.

Freedom Highway by The Staple Singers

Freedom Highway is Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples’s civil rights protest song, released by his family group in 1965, which was reprised by Mavis Staples on 4 November 2008, the day Barack Obama became America’s first black President.

Bourgeois Blues by Lead Belly

Recorded in 1938 for the Library of Congress, and again the following year for commercial release, Bourgeois Blues was Lead Belly’s protest against the Jim Crow segregation laws, having faced racism and discrimination on a trip to record in Washington in June 1937.

The Motor City Is Burning by John Lee Hooker

“You could see the fire burnin’,” said John Lee Hooker of his view of the 1967 Detroit riot. “You could see the bombs, the smoke, buildings goin’ up. Stuff was layin’ in the streets, man.” The Motor City Is Burning was his experience put to music the same year.

LAND OF THE FREE by Joey Bada$$

Three Ks, two As in AmeriKKKa,” Joey Bada$$ professes in LAND OF THE FREE. The track was released on an unhappy birthday for the Brooklyn songwriter, as he turned 22 the same day Donald Trump was inaugurated as President.

Black by Dave

While mainly this article focuses on songs written by African American artists, certainly it is not the case that racism is exclusively an American issue. The reaction to Dave’s stunning performance of Black at the 2019 Brit Awards shone a light on a particularly ugly and ignorant section of society ­– made worse by their skewed belief that their skewed beliefs are not in fact racist – that in turn proved the song’s vital message.

Living For The City by Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder’s has been a vital voice in combatting systemic racism in the United States, in no small part due to his music’s mass appeal. Living For The City is a track about a man who leaves Mississippi to find work, only to find the discrimination he faced there amplified when he is framed for a crime in New York and sentenced to ten years in prison. It reached number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and won Grammy Awards in 1974 and 1975.

Is It Because I'm Black by Syl Johnson

Reaching number 11 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1969, Syl Johnson’s Is It Because I’m Black spoke to millions of African Americans who had been held back due to the colour of their skin, then unified in its call to work together for change – so much so, the empowering refrain has since taken on a life of its own.

Lift Every Voice And Sing by James & John Johnson

Beginning life as a poem written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson, a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Lift Every Voice And Sing was set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson five years later. In 1919, the NAACP adopted it as a black national anthem.

Listen to our civil rights and protest songs playlist on Spotify or Tidal.