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A playlist of protest songs

  • Musicians have always protested against injustice through their work
  • As student protests spread across India here are six of the best ones

Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ is a potent protest song.
Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ is a potent protest song.

Dylan!" she and I said almost simultaneously. It was the day after hundreds of policemen had entered the campus of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia with batons and tear gas against students protesting India’s new Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The protests soon spread across India’s capital and then to other cities, with students amassing in thousands on the roads to express their solidarity. I was FaceTiming with a friend, a kindred spirit when it comes to music, thousands of miles away, when the conversation veered to the best protest songs we had heard, and Bob Dylan’s name sprang up in both our minds.

That’s no surprise. Dylan has never been overtly political but several of his songs have been used by protesters across the world for many decades. And if you are looking for a “protest song" in Dylan’s discography, you could be spoilt for choice. Here are some: The Times They Are A Changin’ deals with folk protest and the civil rights movements of the 1960s; the iconic A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall; Oxford Town about the 1962 riots in Mississippi after an African-American student was admitted to a university; Masters Of War, a protest against the amassing of weapons during the Cold War; and, of course, Blowin’ In The Wind, which has become a ubiquitous anthem for protesters around the world.

Still, possibly one of the most touching protest songs of all time is not one that is written by Dylan. It dates back to 1939 and it’s the African-American jazz singer Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. The highly regarded song is a protest against racism and the abhorrent practice of lynching of African-Americans, which continued during the 1930s in some of the US’ southern states. Written by Abel Meeropol (and performed notably by Holiday and Nina Simone), the lyrics are dark, comparing the victims of lynching to strange fruit hanging from trees: Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

In what was probably a coincidence, on the Sunday that the police entered the Jamia campus, one of rock’s greatest superstars, U2, opened their set at their first India gig, in Mumbai, with Sunday Bloody Sunday. Unapologetically political, the song is about the Bloody Sunday incident in Ireland in 1972, when the British army fired on Irish protesters. Often interpreted as a partisan song that appeared to support the Irish Republican Army (IRA), U2 have made it a setlist staple at their live performances and frontman Bono and guitarist The Edge have repeatedly assured audiences that it does not support any political views but is, instead, about people. But Sunday Bloody Sunday remains one of the best protest songs ever.

In 1970, when Gil Scott-Heron wrote The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, he was 21, but already a poet, author and spoken-word performer. The lyrics of the song, which is about the assertion of rights by African-Americans, can be interpreted as how the revolution that people were creating would not be on commercially sponsored television of the 1970s, which was more focused on white audiences. It was a time when the Black Panther movement was at its peak and African-Americans were rebelling against discrimination. The lyrics (You will not be able to stay home, brother/ You will not be able to plug in, turn on and drop out/You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip/ Skip out for beer during commercials/ Because the revolution will not be televised/ The revolution will not be televised) and Scott-Heron’s distinctive and deep vocals have made the song everlasting, with many others covering it, including rappers who have sampled parts of it.

Few protest songs have had the impact that Nigerian Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti’s 1976 album Zombie, with its eponymous opening track, had when it was released. A devastating and satirical attack against an oppressive Nigerian regime, the song led to violent clashes and an attack by government forces on Kuti’s commune, where his family and band members lived. The regime felt that Zombie’s lyrics—Go and kill! (Joro, jaro, joro)/ Go and die! (Joro, jaro, joro)/ Go and quench! (Joro, jaro, joro)/ Put am for reverse! (Joro, jaro, joro)—incited rebellion and cracked down on Kuti, his fans and supporters. Since then, and long after Kuti died in 1997, Zombie has remained one of the most powerful protests songs in history.

WhatsApp delivered a video of a young woman, a student, passionately exhorting a crowd of slogan-chanting protesters at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, and it immediately set me thinking of Bob Marley’s universally known protest song: Get Up Stand Up. Reggae superstar Marley, along with his bandmate Peter Tosh, wrote the hook-laden song after a Haiti tour and its poverty-stricken population but the song became a favourite among civil rights activists. Even today, it resonates with protesters across the world.

In 1977, when British punk rockers The Clash burst upon the scene, their first single was White Riot. When White Riot came out, it was considered to be encouraging race conflicts. But Joe Strummer, The Clash’s co-founder, clarified that it was more about the fact that poor whites and poor blacks are in the same boat. Many bands and musicians have covered the intense but brief song, including Rage Against The Machine, the US band that has its own reputation as outspoken protesters and rebels.

An exhaustive list of the best protests songs could be never-ending. There has a;ways been social or political injustice and musicians have always responded or reacted to those. Making an exhaustive list of the best protest songs can be a daunting exercise. Yet, the donation-funded digital project, The Ongoing History of Protest Music (, tries to do just that. It has a “Daily Dose of Protest", an annual “The Year in Protest" feature, reviews, music, and lists. A good destination in these troubled times.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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