Not​ ​Your​ ​Typical​ ​Independence​ ​Day​ ​Playlist


Happy Independence Day! As you’re enjoying brats, hot dogs, beer, and fireworks, why not include a few songs in your playlist to inspire advocacy? Because of the strength of protests songs in America, this post cannot detail all songs that have changed America’s trajectory and have relevance in today’s political climate, so I have chosen to focus on a few of note.

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”

Slaves sang spirituals and folk songs, including “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” as a way to escape or express the dire brutalities of slavery. These songs are often considered early examples of protest songs. The lyrics were wrought with emotions, symbolic messages, and a sense of community. The importance of protest songs in addressing racial disparities did not dissipate with the end of slavery because Jim Crow laws and modern mass incarceration merely repackaged society’s declaration of the otherness of black bodies. One of the most powerful songs in this lineage is Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” that starkly illustrates the horrors of lynched black bodies. The artful and poetic song is heartbreaking, not only for portraying death but also for having to protest an issue that should never have started. No one should ever have died because of the color of his or her skin, yet blacks have been beaten, scarred, shot, and hung. This song is a protest song because it asks society to change the status quo of killing and devaluing black and minority bodies.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Although we cannot ignore Lennon's enlarged ego and admitted domestic violence, we can still discuss Lennon and Ono's signifigance as advocates and social justice musicians. In an interview with Playboy, Lennon stated that the song "Getting Better" was, in a sense, autobiographical:  "I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically -- any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn't express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see..." Lennon tried to discuss the duality that he felt inside himself, the good and the bad. He was conflicted in many ways, and his fans gave him numerous second chances, even if they weren't all deserved. He tried to be better, but that never excuses domestic abuse. Nevertheless, the words he crafted showed a desire to make the world a more loving place, despite the demons within himself. Plus he was a thorn in Nixon's side.  Separate from the Beatles and with strong influence from his partner Yoko Ono, who should be commended for her own advocacy and artistic exploration, Lennon’s political activism flourished into not only political anthems like “Give Peace a Chance” and “Power to the People,” but also performance art, including the two week Bed-In for Peace and various rallies.  He protested wars, class divides, aggressive sentencing for drugs, nationalism, and greed. Let’s not forget other songs like “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “Working Class Hero,” “Gimme Some Truth,” and “Instant Karma.” He wanted life to be lived in pursuit of art and peace, and he asked us to imagine such a utopian world, even if he hadn't always lived that way himself. He wasn’t the only dreamer, but his music and the quintessential song “Imagine” (co-written with Yoko Ono) changed the world and continue to inspire activists of all ages.   

Green Day’s American Idiot

Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot stuck in the gut of many youth, giving a generation words to express their angst while coming-to-age in a post-9/11 world, where talking heads praised invasions and asked the masses to give up privacy in the name of safety. Common sense and skepticism were replaced with overbearing patriotism, and the album notes that it was easy to become disengaged as a result of feeling powerless. American Idiot helped curate space for dissent, which had nearly collapsed following the uproar and boycott of the Dixie Chicks in 2003. This protest album has taken on another life in the musical version of American Idiot. The musical version added dramatic staging to the already pointed lyrics and instrumentation that takes on the United States’ unchecked capitalism and military industrial complex. In addition to these complex topics, Green Day tackles the disenchantment that many young people feel upon entering an adult world where one’s life is still controlled by the whims of their elected leaders. Thus, the album is likely to be relevant for as long as adulthood arrives with a crushing reality of responsibility, debt, depression, and unaccomplished dreams. Millennials who grew up with this album and disagreed with George W. Bush’s actions are again feeling angst, stress, and a desire to fight under the Trump administration. The album is still relevant because it begs listeners to question flawed politicians’ poor decisions and to resent a complacent populace. Or maybe it still resonates because, as one avid listener noted, “Green Day is just awesome.”

Dropkick Murphy’s “Take ‘Em Down”

In 2011, Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker and state legislature Republicans stripped state employees of their collective bargaining rights with Act 10, which sparked mass protests and significantly curbed the influence of unions in the state. The bill also affected employee’s health insurance, retirement, and pay. This did not sit well with Boston’s pro-union band Dropkick Murphy’s who dedicated their song “Take ‘Em Down” to the protesters in Wisconsin. It didn’t help that, in 2015, Walker walked out to DKM’s most famous song “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” which elicited a fiery response from the band: “We literally hate you!” Protest music has a long history in the labor movement, and DKM is just one of the latest examples.

 Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”

When Lady Gaga performed the halftime show for Super Bowl LI, she was praised for not being political, which as Teen Vogue pointed out, meant a lot of people missed the entire point of her peformance. Her song “Born This Way,” which was featured during her performance, is a blatant call that equality should be extended to the LGBTQ+ community. In one sense, it’s ideal that being gay, non-binary, or transgender would no longer be seen as a political issues because discrimination has been eliminated. However, the reality is that members of the LGBTQ+ community are made to feel less than by being prevented from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity, fired from their jobs, bullied, assaulted, and even killed. “Born This Way” also mentions race, gender, and disabilities, giving it an intersectional perspective. Simply existing is seen as offensive to groups that refuse to see the beauty in diversity, so until the world is inclusive, social justice songs, like “Born This Way” will inspire those downtrodden by the world’s hatred.


These are just a few examples, but current events will inspire even more. As one music teacher told me, “just imagine all the music that will come out of this dark time in American history.” Art will help us resist and persist, so break out your favorite protests songs to help fuel your activism. Start your social justice playlist with these songs, plus the ones mentioned above: