Protest Songs

One thing that helps me deal with the political climate today is music, and protest music has always played a prominent role among my playlists. Before I introduce the 9 protest songs that have been on rotation in my house this summer, (and the collaborative Spotify playlist!) let’s consider two ways in which I use music as a #healthed teacher.

1. State Management: Just as music can be used to motivate an athlete, it can be used to motivate students. Upbeat music makes a workout more enjoyable, and allowing students to choose the music played also energizes them to stay focused during the lesson. In his great book The Kinesthetic Classroom”, Mike Kuczala talks about a teachers need to manage a student’s learning state to stop their minds from wandering. Movement in the classroom, chewing gum and taking notes increase focus but so too can the use of music. I’ll play a mellow acoustic Pandora station in the background when students are working on extended group projects, just to take a break from the sound of my voice or (even worse) the sound of silence.

2. Introduction of a Topic: At the start of my Identity unit I play Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” as students enter the classroom. I don’t make any reference to it until the middle of the lesson where I ask what students think Lady Gaga means when she says “Rejoice & love yourself today, ’cause baby you were born this way“. This leads into a deeper discussion about gender identity. Andy Horne has a great lesson about love during which he has been known to play Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It” or Haddaway’s “What Is Love?”

So back to my list of 9 protest songs, here they are in no particular order.

Fight the Power – Public Enemy (Motown, 1989)

What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless
You say what is this?
My beloved lets get down to business
Mental self defensive fitness

Music transforms me back to a time and a place and listening to this track from 1990’s ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ takes me back to a small movie theatre in the Midlands of England. I’m at college watching my favorite Spike Lee movie of all time ‘Do The Right Thing’, blown away by the portrayal of racial tension and tragedy in Brooklyn. As an aside, the movie’s title is my personal mantra. Whenever I have to make a tough decision I always remind myself to do the ‘right thing’.

Redemption Song – Bob Marley (Island/Tuff Gong, 1980)

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
‘Cause none of them can stop the time

Quoting from a Marcus Garvey speech, this song might not be my favorite Bob Marley track (Could You Be Loved), but as a political song it’s a killer. Bono carried it to every meeting that he had with a political leader, and it makes many ‘Top Political Song’ lists. Like others on this list, Marley left us far too early.

A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke (RCA Victor, 1964)

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

One of the best songs ever recorded (check out the Otis Redding version too), in 2007, the song was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, with the National Recording Registry deeming the song “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” It’s a terrible indictment on American society that a song that is over 50 years old still stands as a message to those today still doing the work, and we have to believe that a change is gonna come. I’ve quoted President Obama in blog posts before when he urged young people to “reject pessimism and cynicism” and “know that progress is possible and problems can be solved”. We have to let our students know that change is possible and that change is probably going to come from their generation.

Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud – James Brown (King – 1968)

Some people say we’ve got a lot of malice
Some say it’s a lot of nerve
But I say we won’t quit moving until we get what we deserve

This might be the first track that I heard where I realized that the lyrics were a call to action, and that songs might mean different things to different people. And like many songs from the past, I discovered it because it was sampled by Public Enemy (and Cypress Hill, and Pete Rock, and Slum Village….apparently it’s been sampled at least 217 times!). Thank goodness for the golden age of hip hop and its plundering of old vinyl. Oh, and this was the first James Brown track to feature Fred Wesley (FRED WESLEY!!).

What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (Tamla – 1971)

We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

Taken from the (awesome) album of the same name this is NOT a protest song. Written as a result of witnessing police brutality (sound familiar?) this song was inspired by Obie Benson of the Four Tops who said “My partners told me it was a protest song, I said ‘no man, it’s a love song, about love and understanding. I’m not protesting, I want to know what’s going on.” In 2004 and 2010, “What’s Going On” was ranked #4 on the Rolling Stone list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time“, making it the highest Marvin Gaye song on the list.

Blk Girl Soldier – Jamila Woods (Closed Sessions – 2016)

They want us in kitchen
Kill our sons with lynchings
We get loud about it
Oh now we’re the bitches

A Chicago native, Jamila Woods is a song writer, poet and singer who I discovered as a result of a tweet from the awesome people at Blavity. This song gives a shout out to Harriet Tubman, Ella Baker, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Sojourner Truth, Assata Shakur and #OscarsSoWhite. Her 2016 album entitled HEAVN is (insert fire emoji) and I love what she had to say about this song:

I love how music and chants were used in the Civil Rights movement to help people keep marching. How songs were both a balm and a call to action. I’m interested in figuring out what freedom songs would sound like in 2016. My hope is that ‘blk girl soldier’ is a freedom song for black women today who are fighting the macro and microagressions of daily life in our city/country/world.

I also LOVE that she is headlining a gig for the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Youth later this month!

1 in 10 – UB40 (DEP – 1981)

I’m a starving third world mother 
A refugee without a home 
I’m a house wife hooked on Valium 
I’m a Pensioner alone 

Taking me back to my youth in London, growing up during a time of economic gloom and racial tension in the capital city, this might be my earliest memory of a song with a political message. The song title refers to the number 9.6, being the percentage of the local workforce claiming unemployment benefit in the West Midlands in the summer of 1981 when the song was released. I’ve seen this band live in concert twice and look forward to seeing them again when they visit Chicago later this summer! I’ve been diving into their back catalog these past few weeks.

Black America Again – Common (ARTium – Def Jam – 2016)

I know that Black Lives Matter, and they matter to us
These are the things we gotta discuss
The new plantation, mass incarceration
Instead of educate, they’d rather convict the kids
As dirty as the water in Flint, the system is

Chicago’s finest rapper Common released a damn fine album last year and this is the track that I feel was the most powerful. I think the best version was the one that he performed live on Jimmy Fallon (which seems to have been removed from the internet). If America today was depicted in aural form, this would be the result. WATCH THIS, as Common explains the meaning behind the lyrics. #TrayvonMartin #SayHisName #BlackLivesMatter

Like Jamila Woods, Common gives much love to many stellar members of the movement including Viola Davis, Ava DuVernay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Cory Booker.

Emergency on Planet Earth – Jamiroquai (Acid Jazz – 1993)

Think we’re standing for injustice,
White gets two and black gets five years,
Took me quite a while to suss this,
But now I know my head is cleared

I’m not sure anyone would have guessed that Jamiroquai would have made my list, but he is another artist with whom I’ve grown up. I saw JK live in college and this title track from his first (and my favorite Jamiroquai) album touches upon environmental awareness and social injustice. I don’t think JK has bettered his early music, although I will say that his latest album sees him return to his funkier, acid jazz days.

I won’t be posting any #slowchat questions this week but I urge you to share the title of any protest songs that you are listening to, or think that others should check out. Tweet those titles with the hashtag #slowchathealth or drop them in the comments box below.

Here is the collaborative Spotify playlist to accompany this post. It includes all of the protest songs listed above plus many, many more. YOU, can add to this if you wish! Listen, and enjoy.


14 thoughts on “Protest Songs

  1. Patricia Zemke

    Add to your play list, Ingrid Michealson’s “Blood Brothers” when talking about acceptance. The video is great to watch also.


  2. Gail Heussler

    Check out Michael Feranti’s music. His whole catalog is about acceptance and coexistence. Hello, Hello (repeated in many languages) would be a great song to add to your list.


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