Protest music has been the heartbeat of social and political movements throughout the world. In the darkest and most bewildering hours of our country’s history, it’s given the forgotten a voice, and reminded the powers that be to pay attention to constituents. Now, as our country wades in uncertainty, subversive anthems are more important—and more beautiful—than ever.
When most people think of protest music in the United States they think of the 1960s—a decade often punctuated by hippies and white dudes with guitars. Not to detract from the great folk artists like Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan who defined that era—but with persistent, ever-increasing racism and xenophobia, it’s important to elevate the voices of those too-often silenced. Now, more than ever, their stories are the ones we should be singing along with and sharing, so here are seven modern protest songs by people of color you need to hear.
The title speaks for itself here. Enraged by the nomination of Donald Trump, YG and Nipsey Hussle released this song with an accompanying video in April 2016. The West Hollywood video shoot—which features an anti-Trump rally of predominantly black and Latino protestors lead by YG and Nipsey Hussle—was shut down by police with “tasers, then pistols, then SHOTGUNS,” according to Nipsey Hussle’s collaborator, Mosaicc.
The video begins with these words, “Our opinion is that in the age of a technologically empowered an nuclear armed planet…separation is the enemy,” a comment both on the pervasive racism throughout the history of the United States, as well as Donald Trump’s divisive, xenophobic rhetoric. They attack his proposed plan to build a wall along the Mexican border specifically with clips from a Trump speech. The verse that hits hardest is this one, “Hold up, Nip, tell the world how you fuck with Mexicans / It wouldn’t be the USA without Mexicans / And if it’s time to team up, shit, let’s begin / Black love, brown pride in the sets again / White people feel the same as my next of kin.”
In the wake of the scandal of the Dakota Access Pipeline—a government-funded oil pipeline being routed through sacred Sioux land—many protest songs have surfaced. This one in particular stands out, a heartfelt song by Native Americana artist Raye Zaragoza, who said in an interview with this writer, “I wrote ‘In The River: A Protest Song’ one morning when I couldn’t stop crying. I was reading more and more about what is happening to my brothers and sisters up at Standing Rock, and had a complete emotional breakdown. It has shaken me to my core knowing that people think it’s okay to destroy sacred burial grounds for a pipeline, and that they are treating the water protectors so horribly.”
The Sioux tribe in North Dakota is adjacent to the route of the pipeline, which will carry crude oil through four states. While proponents argue for the economic benefits, the pipeline also comes with the risk of water contamination and other major problems for the Sioux people. Additionally, water protectors and protesters have faced discrimination and violence from police. As Raye sings, “We’re fighting for our right / To keep the future bright / And protect the ones we love / In the river is our sisters and our brothers.”
As the U.S. border with Mexico becomes an increasingly tense area and Mexican immigrants become targets of hate and discrimination, Cuban-American musician/producer Emilio Estefan organized some of the most powerful Latinos in music to record this song and video. “We Are All Mexican” is a celebration of all the wonderful Mexican-Americans and their heaping contributions to American culture. The song itself is in Spanish, and features blaring mariachi trumpeting of traditional Mexican musical traditions, as well as intricate Spanish-style classical guitar playing, showing the sorts of (often-appropriated) musical contributions Latinos have brought to the U.S. Additionally it celebrates Latin American stars like Pitbull, Wyclef, Gloria Estefan, Eva Longoria, Carlos Santana, Perez Hilton alongside allies like Whoopi Goldberg and Kathy Griffin, all of whom proclaim, “We Are All Mexican.”
Released three days after the election, A Tribe Called Quest’s new album, “We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service” makes statement after artful statement about racism in the United States. Additionally, the members of the group are Muslim and bring the fight against growing Islamophobia into their rhymes.
Aside from being a statement on the injustices committed against people of color, Tribe’s “We The People” offers a solution. The lyrics call out the propensity to turn a blind eye to evil, saying, “VH1 has a show that you can waste your time with / Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality.” The hook takes that criticism home. As it goes, “All you Black folks, you must go/ All you Mexicans, you must go/ And all you poor folks, you must go/ Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways/ So all you bad folks, you must go.” It’s a tricky hook, it represents the perspective of the oppressor and the oppressed. “You must go” seems to refer to the perspective of xenophobes, and also serves as aa directive for the oppressed: stand up against those preserving the illusion of a rich-white-stright-Christian-male supremacy.
One of the hit singles off of Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly, “Alright” has become an anthem to the Black Lives Matter movement. It is often chanted as BLM protests to capture pride in the face of incredible, unrelenting adversity. The song itself narrates the experience of a black American male—much like Lamar—on the streets of Compton, where he grew up. This song, as well as the rest of TPAB is rife with references of gangs, prison, institutional racism and unwarranted police violence. “Alright” also finds ways to pull out silver linings and prime diverse communities to fight. As Lamar sings on “Alright”, “When you know, we been hurt, been down before, nigga/ When our pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, ‘Where do we go, nigga?’/And we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga / I’m at the preacher’s door / My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow, but we gon’ be alright.”
Inuit throat-singer and folk musician Tanya Tagaq’s haunting cover of Nirvana’s “Rape Me” is an unexpected inclusion. But by covering this song as an Inuit woman, Tagaq turns this 90s grunge song into a modern feminist anthem. Tagaq’s interpretation hits hard, with tribal drumming underpinning her unwavering a cappella vocals. You can feel the hurt of every woman who’s ever been sexually assaulted, and especially, Tagaq’s anger at the staggeringly high rate of rape in Native American culture. When she sings, “I’m not the only one,” you realize how many sexual assault victims there are (and continue to be). When she hits that line again, suddenly it all makes sense—women must rise up in solidarity and fight the rampant misogyny that plagues Native communities and the society as a whole.
Les Tigres del Norte, a norteño band from San Jose, Calif, are hugely important to Mexican-American culture. This song especially, “Somos Mas Americanos,” has been a symbol of the fight for Mexican-American justice since 2001. Though more than a decade old, it’s a song that’s never lost popularity. In 2012, after the Tucson School Board voted to eliminate Mexican-American studies from its curriculum, the song was used as an anthem in the protests against the policy. The fight against the ban continued until 2015 when Mexican-American Studies teachers and advocates won their appeal. In 2016, the song’s all over the airwaves again, as a statement against the racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric from president-elect Donald Trump. Some of the translated verses of the song, state, “They have shouted at me a thousand times I should go back to my country / Because there’s no room for me here / I want to remind the gringos: I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me.”