Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Public Enemy, Billy Bragg & More

When I was grow­ing up, protest music meant Pub­lic Ene­my, Rage Against the Machine, and—for some few Amer­i­cans and very many Brits—Billy Bragg: an artist “at home with both social­ist pol­i­tics and heart­break,” writes All­mu­sic, “styled on the solo attack of ear­ly Dylan and the pas­sion of the Clash.” Known for his pro-labor, anti-Thatch­er, anti-war, pro “Sex­u­al­i­ty” stances, Bragg has been a stal­wart cam­paign­er for peace and jus­tice since the 1980s.

A vet­er­an activist who made appear­ances at Occu­py Wall Street and the recent Women’s March in Lon­don, Bragg late­ly lament­ed the state of protest music. “Look at what’s hap­pen­ing in the world,” he told The Guardian in 2011, “When I was first ply­ing my trade, peo­ple were will­ing to talk about these issues. Now they’d rather write about get­ting blast­ed than chang­ing the world.”

Much has changed since 2011, I don’t need to tell you. And the protest song has returned, from Anohni’s beau­ti­ful, haunt­ing 2016 album Hope­less (see “Drone Bomb Me” above) to Pussy Riot’s fright­en­ing­ly pre­scient “Make Amer­i­ca Great Again,” released just before the elec­tion. We’ve heard it said that “protest songs are point­less,” but they’ve car­ried many a move­ment through many a seem­ing­ly hope­less moment. Bragg him­self, still ply­ing his trade, rewrote the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s clas­sic “The Times They Are A‑Changing” as “The Times They Are A‑Changing Back” (at the top), just thir­ty min­utes after the inau­gur­al speech, and “with apolo­gies” to Dylan.

Bragg clear­ly has deep roots in the genre, but are Anohni and Pussy Riot’s melod­ic provo­ca­tions protest music? What about the empow­er­ing anthems of Bey­on­cé or the poet­ic rumi­na­tions of Solange? Just what makes a protest song? Every gen­er­a­tion will have their own cri­te­ria, and their own pan­theon of polit­i­cal artists. Whether you look back to the wry folk songs of Woody Guthrie, to the Gold­en Age of Dylan, Odet­ta, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger; to the Bea­t­les or Neil Young; or to punk rock, hip-hop, reg­gae, or the funk soul of Mar­vin Gaye, you will find a few favorites on the Spo­ti­fy playlist above. It fea­tures 58 tracks and runs about 4 hours and 15 min­utes. If you want a direct link to the playlist, click here. If you need Spo­ti­fy’s soft­ware, please down­load it here.

To pro­duce the playlist, we culled through best-of lists from Radio X, Rolling Stone, Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions, and the blog Music to Die For, who in 2007 cre­at­ed some strict def­i­n­i­tions of a protest song:

– A piece of music that is a great song in its own right. Good words and fine sen­ti­ments are not enough. The music must move us.

– A song that has a pur­pose. A song that doesn’t con­fine itself to com­ment­ing on or bemoan­ing the ills of the world, but seeks in some small way to change things. It may do this by call­ing direct­ly for some­thing to hap­pen – “free Nel­son Man­dela”, by inform­ing us, by appeal­ing to our hearts and our emo­tions, or by chal­leng­ing com­mon­ly held ideas.

– It fol­lows from this that a true protest song should address a spe­cif­ic issue or issues that are cur­rent. Songs about wars and rev­o­lu­tions in days long gone are not includ­ed here.

– Final­ly the song should pro­voke the lis­ten­er : shock us, unset­tle us, amaze us, inspire us, make us angry, make us sad or make us opti­mistic. If it doesn’t do any of these things, it hard­ly deserves to be called a protest song. So be warned : there’s a lot of anger and a lot of emo­tion in these songs.

I’ll admit, I take issue with some of these criteria—I’d argue, for exam­ple, that Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” is a time­less protest song that doesn’t ref­er­ence any spe­cif­ic event or offer a solu­tion (except “judg­ment day”). But you are free to dis­agree. Some of the songs on our playlist came from read­er sug­ges­tions. We’d love to hear some oth­ers. What would you add to the list? And how do you define a “protest song”? Feel free to add your thoughts and sug­ges­tions in the com­ments sec­tion below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Theodor Adorno’s Rad­i­cal Cri­tique of Joan Baez and the Music of the Viet­nam War Protest Move­ment

Bob Dylan Plays First Live Per­for­mance of “Hur­ri­cane,” His Song Defend­ing Rubin “Hur­ri­cane” Carter (RIP) in 1975

Bed Peace Revis­its John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Famous Anti-Viet­nam Protests

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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