Everything old is new again, as songs about fascism, dictators, Nazis, government-sanctioned oppression and racially-motivated violence are frustratingly relevant. This administration, among countless other missteps and failures, has repeatedly found it difficult to condemn Nazis and the KKK by name (on the first attempt) with any shred of conviction (on the second attempt) or to the full extent of any heinous actions and ideologies spread (if we can even call that one a third attempt). As violent Nazis, unhooded klansmen, flag-waving neo-Confederates, anti-Semitic white nationalists and armed militias openly walked the streets of Charlottesville, Va., during the recent “Unite the Right” rally, it’s more important than ever to find inspiration, education and motivation in the calls to action of songs that champion anti-fascist ideals and values.
To help the president and his administration find the right words and actions for the next (inevitable) opportunity to call out (and do something about) fascism in its various incarnations (including those found within their own ranks), here are 15 anti-fascist anthems from some of our most important and influential musicians.
With the very first line of his very first single (“Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo” from 1977’s “Less Than Zero”), Elvis Costello let everyone know he was comfortable trafficking in outspoken anti-fascist themes. It’s been a theme he’s often returned to throughout his songwriting catalog—in both literal and metaphorical employment—but the closing track to his sophomore album This Year’s Model feels the most immediately relevant in light of the recent “Unite the Right”white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Scenes of angry white supremacists holding Tiki torches and shouting racist epithets under cover of night on the University of Virginia campus seems to bring Costello’s “Night Rally” directly into the present day again. Originally bringing to mind the secret meetings of the KKK, Nazis, and other fascist hate groups, “Night Rally” has become scarily relevant again as we don’t have to look very far to see evidence of those “singing with their hand on their heart about deeds done in the darkest hours.” Costello’s song also serves as a warning to those who may too quickly dismiss the threat and find themselves unwittingly falling in with the wrong crowd: “You think they’re so dumb / You think they’re so funny. / Wait until they’ve got you running to the night rally.”
When Martin Ware and Craig Marsh left The Human League to form Heaven 17 in 1980, they chose a fascinating song as their debut single. “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” is an erratic electro-funk dance track that directly addresses fascism and racism and calls out Hitler and then newly-elected U.S. president Ronald Reagan (referring to him as a “Fascist god in motion”). Fearing legal action, the BBC actually banned “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang,” causing it to stall on the U.K. singles chart after barely crossing the Top 50. Although the song’s lyrics oscillate wildly between serious themes (“Have you heard it on the news about this fascist groove thang? / Evil men with racist views spreading all across the land.”) and feel-good dance rhetoric (“Don’t just sit there on your ass / unlock that funky chain dance”), it’s overall anti-fascist denunciation helped the song’s legacy land as more commentary than camp.
Iconic noise rockers Sonic Youth were never ones to shy away from controversial topics or political views throughout their storied career. Looking to take a swing at a variety of issues at once, their song “Youth Against Fascism” from 1992’s Dirty addresses the KKK, Nazis, sexism, racism, a war-thirsty presidential administration and more. They even took the bold move of releasing the song as the album’s second single and they filmed a music video for it, as well. There are echoes of Woody Guthrie’s “Tear the Fascists Down” (albeit via their own translation filter) in the lyric, “We’re banging pots and pans to make you understand / we’re gonna bury you man” and fellow anti-fascist musician Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi) added some additional guitar work to the track.
Inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 and released during Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, “Big Brother” is one of the most interesting tracks, both lyrically and instrumentally, on Stevie Wonder’s celebrated 1972 LP Talking Book. From a musical perspective, Wonder played every single instrument on the adventurous funk-folk tune, but it’s the lyrics on “Big Brother” that speak the loudest. Throughout the track, Wonder addresses governmental disillusionment (“You say that you’re tired of me protesting”) and political hypocrisy (“I live in the ghetto / you just come to visit me around election time”), but it the song’s final lines that reverberate the loudest into today’s atmosphere of dangerous presidential ineptitude: “I don’t even have to do nothing to you / You’ll cause your own country to fall.”
Finding an anti-fascist song within Rage Against The Machine’s explosive catalog is like looking for hay in a haystack, but “Take the Power Back” from their 1992 self-titled debut crystallizes everything that RATM is most known for—hurling frenzied hip-hop and punk instrumentation, aggressively political lyrics, inimitably unconventional guitar work into a grooves-and-governance bombastic sonic screed. In particular, the second half of the song highlights the false narrative continually invoked by top-down white nationalist power structures: “Holes in our spirit causing tears and fears. / One-sided stories for years and years and years. / I’m inferior? Who’s inferior? / Yeah, we need to check the interior / of the system that cares about only one culture.” The phrase was recommissioned last year when three-fourths of RATM joined with Cypress Hill’s B-Real and Public Enemy’s Chuck D. and DJ Lord to announce the supergroup Prophets of Rage with “Take the Power Back” serving as their slogan.
Written for the documentary 13th and appearing as the closer on his 2016 album Black America Again, Common’s “Letter to the Free” addresses the effects of slavery, institutionalized racism, the prison industrial complex and the litany of ongoing racial disparities in the United States from its government-sponsored underpinnings on down. Using clever wordplay to call out presidents past and present (“Shot me with your ray gun and now you want to trump me”), Common directly connects our country’s violently oppressive past with its current present-day echoes by stripping the false “glory days” rhetoric down to its fascist foundations: “Prison is a business, America’s the company. / Investing in injustice, fear and long suffering. / We staring in the face of hate again / the same hate they say will make America great again.”
Like many early U.K. punk bands, The Clash were certainly no strangers to writing their fair share of anti-fascist anthems. The songs on their iconic 1979 album London Calling were rife with revolution and “Clampdown” serves as the universal middle finger wag for all disenchanted listeners to apply their own individual fights against the death of idealism. When Joe Strummer sings of his refusal to work for the “clampdown,” he does so in terms just vague enough for impassioned youths everywhere to find their own fight against their own “clampdown” in whatever form it manifests.
One of the most intriguing elements of fascism is the ability of politicians to make promises and earn the support of individuals they have no interest in actually helping once they are in office. Bob Dylan’s “Only A Pawn In Their Game” from his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin’ uses the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers to effectively underscore this idea by outlining how systematic oppression and government-sanctioned racial inequality narratives are both abuses of power that victimize and harm. While Dylan doesn’t exactly exonerate those that commit racist hate crimes, he does cast the bulk of his condemnation on the larger power structures working to divide and distract: “He’s taught in his school from the start by the rule / that the laws are with him to protect his white skin. / To keep up his hate so he never thinks straight / about the shape that he’s in. / But it ain’t him to blame / he’s only a pawn in their game.”
English spoken word poet Kate Tempest released “Europe Is Lost” as a single in late 2015, but the utterly arresting track has been continually swelling with relevancy with each escalation of corrosive world events. One of the things Tempest establishes so well in this captivating invective is the constant struggle to stay engaged and aware within a culture that is so easily distracted and numbed. As Tempest sings about “top-down violence, a structural viciousness” and those that “kill what you find if it threatens you,” she reminds the listener how the combination of systematic power and apathetic inaction are requirements for fascism to thrive: “Riots are tiny though, systems are huge. / Traffic keeps moving, proving there’s nothing to do.”
Never ones for subtlety, The Sex Pistols decided that their volatile attack on the British monarchy, their scathing 1977 single “God Save the Queen,” shouldn’t be relegated to lyrics and artwork alone (the vinyl picture sleeve featured a defaced portrait of Queen Elizabeth II). Nay. On June 7, 1977, less than two weeks after the single’s release, the band “celebrated” the Queen’s Silver Jubilee by renting a boat (coincidentally named the Queen Elizabeth) and playing the song live on it’s deck as it floated down the River Thames near the Houses of Parliament. The BBC banned the controversial song, yet it still technically made it to No. 2 on the U.K. Singles chart (although rumor has it that mysterious forces kept it out of the No. 1 slot). Additionally, the song’s oft-repeated refrain of “No future” became a sort of unofficial slogan for the entire U.K. punk movement.
Before the official advent of hip-hop, politically charged poet Gil Scott-Heron delivered spoken word proto-rap over an instrumental fusion of jazz, blues, soul and more. Scott-Heron released over a dozen albums of unconventionally smooth streetwise social critique throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, but his most well-known composition, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” was the first track on his first album, 1970’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. Using an onslaught of pop cultural references and slogans to make an ironic commentary on the romanticized concept of revolution, Scott-Heron strives to individualize and localize the catalysts to true change, closing with the sobering reminder “The revolution will be live.”
When Nora Guthrie discovered a box of her father’s lyrics that had never been recorded, she couldn’t have found a more kindred spirit to finish them out and record them than political punk-folk troubadour Billy Bragg. He then contacted the a relatively unknown Wilco to help him with the project and the devoted Guthrie-ites ended up releasing three albums under the Mermaid Avenue moniker between 1998 and 2012. “All You Fascists” is a rollicking rave-up from 2000’s Mermaid Avenue Vol. II that serves as a unifying anti-fascist rally cry. The lyrics seem to become more relevant by the day: “I’m going to tell all you fascists, you may be surprised. / People all over this world are getting organized. / You’re bound to lose. / You fascists are bound to lose.”
After the release of their debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables in 1980, Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra noticed that much of his lyrical satire was being taken literally as an influx of neo-Nazis started infiltrating their shows. Incredibly incensed by this unanticipated and unwelcome turn of events, his direct response was to write the song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” release it as the lead single for their follow-up album In God We Trust, Inc., and include a free armband in the 7” single that featured a crossed-out swastika (a symbol which was also used on the vinyl’s label sticker). While many of the verse’s lyrics are specific to the anti-Nazi movement within the early punk subculture, the song’s simple chorus (“Nazi punks, Nazi punks, Nazi punks, FUCK OFF!”) is a cathartic refrain whose evergreen employment never falls out of use.
While Public Enemy was unapologetically political straight out of the gate with their stunning 1987 debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show, it was their 1989 anthem “Fight the Power” from the Do The Right Thing soundtrack that truly brought their unique brand of in-your-face hip-hop to the forefront of mainstream pop culture. Using racial tensions and systematic oppressions as the focal point, “Fight the Power” speaks to a variety of revolutionary themes that apply to all forms of fascist power structures. With the reignited debate surrounding Civil War era statues and monuments dedicated to the Confederacy, Chuck D.’s reminders that “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” and “Sample a look back, you look and find nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check,” speak anew into the need to accurately address and reframe the racial narrative of the United States.
It should come as no surprise that the man who famously emblazoned a few of his guitars with the slogan “This machine kills fascists” wrote quite a few songs calling fascism out by name. “Tear the Fascists Down” was just one of many songs Woody Guthrie wrote to speak out against the multiple forms of government-sponsored dictatorial nationalism he witnessed throughout the world during the tumultuous early-to-mid twentieth century. The verse lyrics to “Tear the Fascists Down” take on a global perspective, but the song’s repeating refrain reminds the listener that everyone has a place in the fight and helps bring the revolution to the individual level: “Good people, what are we waiting on?”