1. Lupe Fiasco – “Words I Never Said”
Lupe was born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, and while a lot of his songs don’t have much to do with “the man,” this hit is a great track. The opening bars feature the lines, “I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit, just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets.” The incredibly talented Skylar Grey also sings on the track, which stresses the importance of speaking out against injustice. “It’s so loud inside my head with words that I never said/As I drown in my regret, I can’t take back the words I never said,” goes the chorus.
2. Killer Mike – “Reagan”
Killer Mike’s music has always had an underlying tone of social commentary. During the 2016 election he campaigned with Bernie Sanders, and his group “Run the Jewels” has been enjoying a good deal of popularity recently. “Reagan,” which was released in 2012, features clips of the late president speaking. Reagan’s “War on Drugs” was a particularly painful endeavor that didn’t actually serve to curb drug use in the United States. As Killer Mike spits, “They declared the war on drugs like a war on terror/But all it really did was let the police terrorize whoever.”
3. Macklemore – “Drug Dealer”
Macklemore isn’t a typical rapper by anyone’s standards. The Seattle musician has made two songs addressing white privilege, and in a number of his hits, he discusses his struggles with opioid addiction. In “Drug Dealer,” he offers a more polished take. With stunning vocals by Ariana Deboo, this is the kind of tune you might want to sit down for.
4. Jedi Mind Tricks – “Uncommon Valor”
Jedi Mind Tricks dishes out the type of hip-hop that makes Jeff Sessions run and hide. They’re bold, in-your-face, and they have no qualms about speaking their minds. Perhaps their most admirable quality is the fact that that they never sold out. The Philadelphia-based musicians never put out an album with a major record label, and that left them free to rap about things they’re passionate about. In “Uncommon Valor,” the group addresses the Vietnam War with lines like “I don’t know why I’m over here, this job is evil/They sent me here to Vietnam to kill innocent people.”
5. Anti-Flag – “Die for Your Government”
Anti-Flag is one of the best punk bands of the last few decades. While many groups have lost their edge and gone mainstream, Anti-Flag has consistently cranked out hard-hitting punk for over twenty years. “Die for Your Government” is from 1996, and the chorus is the kind of kick-ass, gritty punk that will have you looking for a moshpit. Just try not to scream along with the lines. “They’ve done it before and don’t you know they’ll do it again/A secret test, government built virus ‘subject test group: Gulf battlefield troops.’”
6. Rage Against the Machine – “Bombtrack”
No list of protest songs would be complete without a Rage track. The group has enjoyed so much success that even Republican poster boy Ted Cruz lists them among his favorite bands (the group has termed Cruz part of the “machine” they’re raging against). “Bombtrack” features the lines, “Landlords and power whores/On my people they took turns/Dispute the suits I ignite and then watch ’em burn.” It’s a middle finger to the system and has had stadiums bouncing on their toes for decades.
7. Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”
Kendrick Lamar might just be the face of hip-hop; any serious fans of hip-hop are fans of Kendrick. “Alright” is a song off his wildly successful record To Pimp a Butterfly. It was so big even the New York Times did a profile of the rapper. The music video is incredibly powerful and features lines like “Painkillers only put me in the twilight.” Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera called a performance of the song “disgusting,” and if Fox News doesn’t like you, then you’re probably doing something right.
8. Immortal Technique – “Cause of Death”
Immortal Technique is another underground hip-hop artist that punches you in the gut with his songs. “Cause of Death” features killer lines including “That’s why conservative racists are all runnin’ shit/and your phone is tapped by the Federal Government.” He’s still performing today, and his albums have all been released by independent record labels.
9. Aimee Mann – “Can’t You Tell”
Aimee Mann is the oddball on this list in that she’s the only folk artist. Mann was featured on the “30 Days, 30 Songs” playlist. “Can’t You Tell” is a song that quite clearly targets Trump. While the rest of this list consists of hard-hitting tunes, “Can’t You Tell” will just have you humming along with lines like “I don’t want this job/can’t you tell/I’m unwell.”
With any luck, protest songs will once again become a large part of the musical spectrum. It’s both exciting and important that artists like Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco are making music that addresses the issues faced by our societies. The “Black Lives Matter” movement has already had a noticeable influence on hip-hop music.
Unfortunately, punk has seemed to drift away from the roots of a borderline anarchistic distaste for power-hungry suits. While it would be wonderful to see that fire return in the form of face-melting guitar riffs, the moment may well have passed.