are these the 10 best protest songs of all time?

As the fallout from Brexit continues, we’re talkin' bout a revolution.

by Matthew Whitehouse
29 June 2016, 2:26pm

As we followed news of this weekend's chaotic and lengthy exit process, we were left with just one question in our minds: where are all the protest songs? That's right: as rows of mud-splattered cars filled out of a Glastonbury festival at which Brexit was the last minute headliner, it became clear that, as the surrounding country fell apart, we had no soundtrack against which to voice our anger and concerns. No single artist that could issue a rallying cry to the disenfranchised. Has our collective taste become too fragmented, our politics too divided for a one-song-fits-all solution? Possibly. But as you listen to the ten protest songs below, it isn't hard to imagine a time when a song could change the world. You say you want a revolution? Press play below.

Billie Holiday - "Strange Fruit" (1939)
Described by jazz writer Leonard Feather as music's "first unmuted cry against racism," Holiday's "Strange Fruit" is a pivotal depiction of this most American of tragedies: stark, haunting, and resonant to the very end of our list.

Lesley Gore - "You Don't Own Me" (1963)
Before Kathleen Hanna, before Madonna, there was "You Don't Own Me," one of pop's very earliest feminist anthems, a slice of proto-Riot Grrrl defiance by the then 17-year old Gore.

Marvin Gaye - "What's Going On" (1971)
Rocked by the death of singing partner Tammi Terrell, Gaye threw himself into a period of social commentary beginning with this piece of police brutality lamenting conscious soul; the title track of an album that traded the singer's trademark love songs for world weary depictions of the Vietnam war.

U2 - "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (1983)`
One of the band's most overtly political songs, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was inspired by the horror of the Bloody Sunday incident in Derry in which British troops shot and killed unarmed civil rights protesters (the band's later neutrality in discussing the Troubles reportedly causing Gerry Adams to tear down a poster of the band from his Sinn Fein office).

The Smiths - "Meat Is Murder" (1985)
Questionable cover of Twinkle's "Golden Lights" aside, Meat Is Murder is undoubtedly The Smith's most difficult listen. Frontman Morrissey's grisly lyrics were responsible for more conversions to vegetarianism than Tesco's horsemeat burgers.

Public Enemy - "Fight the Power" (1989)
First issued on the soundtrack to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing in 1989, "Fight the Power" is Public Enemy at its revolutionary best: defiant, angry, unapologetic. An anthem for a community left behind.

Gossip - "Standing In The Way Of Control" (2007)
A colossal "fuck you" to the Federal Marriage Amendment which aimed to constitutionally outlaw same-sex marriage in the United States, "Standing in the Way of Control" would became an indie disco hit on this side of the Atlantic, reaching No. 7 in the UK Singles Chart in 2007.

PJ Harvey - "The Words That Maketh Murder" (2011)
Twenty years into her career, Polly Jean Harvey takes a look around, realizes no one else is saying anything about the Afghan war, and decides to do it herself: a career highpoint and a more than worthy addition to the lengthy canon of war poetry.

Kendrick Lamar - "Alright" (2015)
Less a protest song and more a song that found its place within the protest movement, a message of hope that took on new meaning during last year's Black Lives Matter movement.

Beyonce - "Formation" (2016)
And finally, seventy-seven years after "Strange Fruit," comes Formation, a rallying celebration of female blackness and the most political song of Beyoncé's career. She came to slay... Maybe the protest song is alive and well after all? 


Text Matthew Whitehouse
Photography Rosie Harriet Ellis

Protest Songs