SONGS OF CHANGE
Political injustice has long inspired songwriters to create 'movement music'; songs that provoke social change.
Here are 12 songs that anger, unsettle, and inspire.
BILLIE HOLIDAY (1939)
'Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.'
Most famously performed by Billie Holiday in 1939, 'Strange Fruit' was a poem written by teacher Abel Meeropol protesting at the lynching of black Americans in the Southern states. Billie's record label refused to record it, and she was released from her contract especially to make a recording of the song. Whereas the ongoing racism had been suggested at in songs previously, this was the first time the commercial record-buying public had heard the issues so explicitly.
WE SHALL OVERCOME
Joan Baez (1963)
'Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.'
Descended from the gospel song 'I'll Overcome Some Day' published in 1900, 'We Shall Overcome' quickly became an anthem of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Joan Baez became one of the song's most famous advocates, first performing it at a march in Washington DC in August 1963. The phrase 'we shall overcome' became frequently used in speeches concerning the civil rights movement, including those from Martin Luther King Jr and President Lyndon Johnson.
In 2010 President Barack Obama held a concert at the White House celebrating music's pivotal role in the civil rights movement, with Joan once again performing the song.
A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall
BOB DYLAN (1963)
'And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it'
"Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song," Dylan said at that time. "But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn't have enough time alive to write all those songs, so I put all I could into this one." With lyrics alluding to injustice, suffering, pollution and warfare, the songs release coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the threat of nuclear war loomed over the world.
the revolution will NOT be televised
gil scott-heron (1970)
'The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.'
First recorded in 1970, Gil Scott-Heron's poem was re-recorded with a full band in 1971. The title was originally a popular slogan among the 1960s Black Power movements in the United States, with the lyrics attacking the apathy of a nation as the Civil Rights Movement struggled to gain momentum.
JOHN LENNON (1971)
'Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do'
One of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed songs of Lennon's career, the BBC's Gary Mulholland describes it as "either the 20th century’s greatest hymn to human transcendence, or a sickening ode to millionaire hypocrisy and complacency." Either way, it is hard not to deny its popularity and stature as one of the most enduring political songs of the 20th century.
I AM WOMAN
HELEN REDDY (1972)
'And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
'cause you've deepened the conviction in my soul'
Released at the peak of 'second wave feminism', Helen's motivation to write the song came from a lack of existing music celebrating positive images of women:
"I couldn't find any songs that said what I thought being woman was about. I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that."
'I Am Woman' quickly became an anthem for the women's liberation movement in the 70s, acting as a counterweight to dominant images in popular culture.
GLAD TO BE GAY
TOM ROBINSON BAND (1978)
'Molesters of children, corruptors of youth
It's there in the paper, it must be the truth'
Originally written by Tom Robinson for a London gay pride parade in 1976, the song criticised British society's attitudes towards gay culture in the 1970s, a frequent target for violence and abuse. The BBC refused to play it on the Top 40 countdown, but has become considered Britain's national gay anthem since its release.
PETER GABRIEL (1980)
'The outside world is black and white
With only one colour dead'
Steve Biko was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, who was arrested for speaking out against the South African government. A 22-hour interrogation included torture and beatings, with Steve later dying from his injuries while in police custody in 1977. Journalist Donald Woods exposed the truth about his death and brought the injustice to the world’s attention. His story was made into the film Cry Freedom in 1987.
SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY
'Broken bottles under children's feet
Bodies strewn across the dead end street'
Focusing on the Bloody Sunday incident in Derry, Northern Ireland where British troops opened fire on unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders, killing 14. Bono states the song was a "slap in the face to the snap, crackle and pop", invoking John Lennon's criticism of what he called wallpaper music - "Very pretty. Very well designed. Music to eat your breakfast to."
Bono declared that "Music can be more. Its possibilities are great. Music has changed me. It has the ability to change a generation. Look at what happened with Vietnam. Music changed a whole generation's attitude towards war."
FIGHT THE POWER
PUBLIC ENEMY (1989)
'Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check'
Written for Spike Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing, 'Fight the Power' was released at a crucial period in America’s struggle with race. Its lyrics praise freedom of speech and people uniting whilst assassinating the iconic status of figures including Elvis Presley and John Wayne.
KILLING IN THE NAME
RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE (1991)
'Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge, they're the chosen whites'
The beating of black motorist Rodney King by four LAPD officers in March 1991 was captured on CCTV footage and serially broadcast across every news channel. The subsequent acquittal of the officers involved sparked the Los Angeles riots. The lyrics descibe what the band saw as institutional racism within US security agencies, alleging members of US police forces to also be members of the Ku Klux Klan, whose symbol is the burning cross.
i give you poweR
arcade fire & MAVIS STAPLES (2017)
'I give you power, but now I say
I give you power, I can take it away'
Released on the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration as the 45th President of the United States, the band released this song with a tweet saying: “It’s never been more important that we stick together & take care of each other”.
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