Posted Aug 23rd, 2015 (1:50 pm) by Addison Herron-Wheeler
protesters singing
protesters singing

As recent headlines show, protest music is still alive and well, as is the role of musicians as social commentators.

Ever since popular music first became a big part of culture and a way to define who you are and where you stand, there have been protest songs. Woody Guthrie was one of the first to do it, writing songs like “This Land is Your Land” to challenge perceptions about country, government, and the status quo. What followed is the stuff of legend: great protest works by the likes of Bob Dylan; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; and later, punks like the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Real rock n’ roll is not about embracing social norms – it is about challenging perceptions and speaking out for what is right.

The protest song has followed us through the Reagan era of the 1980s, the troubled Bush years of the 1990s and early 2000s, to the new civil rights movement of the 2010s. Today, a whole new set of problems plagues the Western world, from religious opposition to gay marriage to police brutality against African Americans. Here are five protest songs, and protest actions by musicians, making waves today, and spreading a message about current issues.

1. Foo Fighters Play "Never Gonna Give You Up" at Westboro Baptist Church
Taking a page out of the big book of internet memes, the Foo Fighters recently showed up at a protest staged by the hateful Westboro Baptist Church on a truck blaring "Never Gonna Give You Up" by Rick Astley. While "Never Gonna Give You Up" certainly isn't what anyone would consider a protest song, the message behind it was a clear objection to the church. Like other rationally-minded individuals, the Foo Fighters don't stand for homophobic shaming or hate speech against queer folk. And best of all, they showed their disdain without stooping to the level of the Westboro Baptist Church.

2. Yasiin Bey – "Basquiat Ghostwriter"
This odd and disjointed tribute to the famous outlaw artist, Basquiat, by Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) is the perfect protest album for 2015. The song features abstract, William Burroughs-esque lyrics, ethereal beats, and clips from recent news events designed to encourage discussion. It also makes reference to violence against African Americans, but is in no way straightforward. Instead, it takes a page out of Basquiat’s book and uses visual art to stage protest. I'd love to see more fresh protest songs in the vein of "Basquiat Ghostwriter" that make a strong points but avoids rehashing the same tired "protest music" clichés.

3. Elton John is still speaking out in favor of LGBTQ rights.
John became a famous LGBTQ advocate when he first came out, and even as his career enters its golden years, the pop musician still speaks out for the gay community on a regular basis. He recently went off on Luigi Brugnaro, the mayor of Venice in Italy, for trying to ban all books depicting same-sex couples from his city. This just goes to show that no matter how seasoned a rock star becomes, it is never too late to speak out against inequality.

4. Chvrches Vocalist Slams Misogyny
Another great example of how musical protest is a whole new beast in the digital age, Chvrches vocalist, Lauran Mayberry, fought back against a group of dudes on 4Chan who decided her new video was "slutty". She responded gracefully over Twitter with a link to the thread where she was being discussed and some commentary about the misogyny faced by women every day. Go Mayberry! Way to shut down the haters and explore new ways to promote celebrity activism in one fell swoop.

5. Coheed and Cambria Sing Justice Antonin Scalia's Dissenting Opinions
Prog rockers Coheed and Cambria recently penned a song composed entirely of snippets from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent from the same-sex marriage and Affordable Care Act decisions. This hilarious track cleverly allowed the band to simultaneously call out Scalia and show their support for the legalization of gay marriage. I think we'd all agree that our world would benefit from a bit more laughter, especially when it comes to such significant social issues.

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