Music has been a platform for protest ever since Woody Guthrie wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar. Over the past several decades, musicians — specifically in the subversive genres of punk and hip-hop — have spoken out about all sorts of political issues. 2017 has been a year marked by protest, with Donald Trump taking office and causing controversy nearly every day. But before we claim that we’ve entered a “new chapter” of politics, it’s important that we reflect on the entire 21st century to understand the current state of our union.
Protest songs help us know the whole story. In this editorial, I take a look at a politically-charged track released in each year since 2000, explaining its impact at the time and why it’s still relevant now. From the anthemic punk rock of Rise Against to the commanding rap of Killer Mike, there’s a lot to think about. Despite your outrage at recent political events, though, the songs are proof it’s nothing new. The toxic sociopolitical climate may culminate your frustration, but everything you’re mad about has been a long time coming.
2000: Propagandhi – “F*ck the Border” | The Plight of Immigrants
The century started out with a bang, with hardcore punk outfit Propagandhi dropping a short and to-the-point pro-immigrant anthem simply titled “F*ck the Border”. The band may be Canadian, but their depiction of a Mexican woman dealing with negative sentiments upon moving to America reflects the reality for many foreigners. Singer Chris Hannah belts out, “You’ve got a problem with her living here / But what did you do to help her before she f*cking came?” His rally cry to support the woman suggests putting the world before country, a powerful argument that the heavy focus on borders (especially recently) prevents us from helping those in need.
2001: System of a Down – “Prison Song” | Mass Incarceration
System of a Down is no stranger to speaking up about political issues. The members have spent much of their career raising awareness of the early 1900s genocide that took the lives of many of their Armenian ancestors. To this day, the United States still doesn’t recognize the genocide, and their ignorance of suffering is also brought to the surface in Toxicity’s opener, “Prison Song”. Many of us became informed about the country’s unreasonably high incarceration rates (specifically of black citizens) 15 years later in the documentary The 13th, but it doesn’t make Serj Tankian’s endorsement of drug treatment in 2001 any less just.
2002: Pedro the Lion – “Penetration” | Corporate Greed
It would’ve been easy for Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan to react to the 1999 WTO protests in his city with disgust at the protestors’ actions. But instead, he used the violent anti-globalization riots from anarchists to talk about greed throughout Control. The most blatant criticism of corporate culture comes in “Penetration”, where the musician concocts a brilliant depiction of the American Dream as lust. “If it isn’t penetration / Then it isn’t worth the kiss,” he says, pointing out the rising capitalistic attitude of getting more and going deeper. The tensions in Seattle came and went, but the commercial greed Bazan points out is characteristically American.
2003: Anti-Flag – “Power to the Peaceful” | War and Violence
George W. Bush’s approval rating was high following 9/11, but once the U.S. launched the Iraq War, all of that began to change. Anti-Flag was one of the first musical groups to point that out, releasing an anti-war anthem to stress their feelings on the president and his decision to enter a conflict they didn’t want. “This is not a war of economic independence / It’s a war of conquest,” singer Justin Sane said, a statement that holds up now that the suggested existence of weapons of mass destruction was a lie. The group has always preached pacifism, and it holds weight with every American deployment — simply take a look at the Middle East then and now.
2004: Green Day – “American Idiot” | Media Brainwashing
Criticism of Bush continued to rise, to the point that pop-punk icons wrote an entire concept album about the state of America under his administration in 2004. The political themes don’t come up in every song, but Billie Joe Armstrong sings loud and clear on the title track about a culture of fear he doesn’t like. The instillment of paranoia comes from both the media and the government, and it’s turned Americans into mindless “idiots” — the song depicts such a scene before delving into its storyline. But the song isn’t simply an angry reaction; rather, it’s a call for individuality, with Armstrong stating in the chorus, “We’re not the ones who’re meant to follow.”
2005: Bright Eyes – “When the President Talks to God” | Political Deterioration
Putting on his best Bob Dylan impression, Omaha native Conor Oberst tore apart Bush as he began his second term with a satirical folk narrative about the leader’s religious morals (or lack thereof). Released in 2005 as a b-side to Bright Eyes’ single “First Day of My Life”, the song finds the singer-songwriter delivering spoken word about the president’s policies he finds wrong. From invading foreign countries to stripping women’s rights, Oberst questions Bush’s decision making, even going as far to suggest that he uses God as an excuse for his “bullsh*t.” The blunt themes in the song point out the need for smart, grounded, and inclusive leadership.
2006: Strike Anywhere – “How to Pray” | Religious Fundamentalism
There’s a massive disconnect between the teachings of Jesus and the actions and agenda of Trump, but it didn’t stop him from getting a large majority of the evangelical vote. The issues of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism have stoked the flames of hate for many years, though, and Strike Anywhere talks about it in “How to Pray”. From the hypocrisy of pro-lifers letting molestation run rampant to wars fought in God’s name (the Iraq War at the time, as well as the long-running symbolic battles to “save” Christmas and “combat” Islam), the punk rockers speak out against the fear-based political and social values plaguing American religion.
2007: Linkin Park – “Hands Held High” | War and Violence
On their third full-length, Linkin Park ditched the nu metal style that got them big, opting for a more grandiose alternative rock offering. No song on the album is more representative of the shift in sound than “Hands Held High”, where the group strips things down but still make quite the loud statement. At the helm, rapper Mike Shinoda denounces the Iraq War through narrative, taking on the perspectives of American and Iraqi citizens to show how regular citizens are bothered by the conflict. The musician gives the most poignant performance of his career, repeatedly highlighting the unchanging fact that war benefits the rich and hurts the poor.
2008: Rise Against – “Collapse (Post-Amerika)” | Climate Change
Bush refused to acknowledge the human affect on the environment, something his 2000 Democratic opponent has now made two documentaries about. But as An Inconvenient Truth 2 came out, yet another Republican president is disregarding one of the biggest threats to the future of humanity: climate change. In 2008, Rise Against provided a wake-up-call of their own leading off Appeal to Reason. In “Collapse (Post-Amerika)”, they talk the famine, pollution, and disease we may see without full focus on the issue. The truth, as frontman Tim McIlrath points out, is that balancing environmental and economic concerns is a sign of neutrality, meaning “you don’t really care.”
2009: Strike Anywhere – “I’m Your Opposite Number” | Hostility and Division
Strike Anywhere returned in 2009 for their fourth full-length, Iron Front, titled after the anti-fascism movement in 1940s Europe. The faction’s ideals have always been central to the band, with its logo inspiring imagery for the fivepiece as well. In the pouncing “I’m Your Opposite Number”, they focus on a system of division and hatred that continues to grow despite the evolving generations. Eight years later, it’s only gotten worse, but the group reminds us that it’s our self-serving agendas that naturally make us “opposite numbers.” Like breaking free from fascism, their idea of freedom from this hostility is to “lower the flags and “raise up the Earth.”
2010: Gogol Bordello – “Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher)” | The Plight of Immigrants
Gogol Bordello singer Eugene Hutz aimed to bring East-European music into the western world, similar to how his group’s namesake Nikolai Gogol did with his writing. But the Ukrainian-born singer also carries with him his heritage as an immigrant in Manhattan, and he used his platform to describe the trials and tribulations of foreigners around the world in “Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher)”. The song intends to be an anthem of immigrant empowerment, with repetition of the phrase “we’re comin’ rougher every time.” By focusing on their stories, Lutz also hopes for understanding in a world that often mischaracterizes foreigners as a threat.
2011: Rise Against – “Make It Stop (September’s Children)” | LGBTQ+ Persecution
Much progress has been made this decade in terms of LGBTQ+ rights, but the rate of depression and suicide among LGBTQ+ youth is still alarming. In 2010, the deaths of several gay teenagers in the U.S. became known as the “September Suicides,” and in “Make It Stop”, Rise Against reflected on the causes, including cyberbullying, bible thumping, and general homophobia. McIlrath noticed a lack of attention this subject was receiving in the music scene, and the It Gets Better campaign roots the message on Endgame’s third song. Name-dropping Tyler Clementi and others, the singer examines the pain of bullying and radiates hope — that it does get better.
2012: Killer Mike – “Reagan” | Racial Inequality/Mass Incarceration
Hip-hop star Killer Mike is known for his political involvement, specifically for meeting with Vermont Senator and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Still, despite endorsing Sanders, he’s publicly stated his disapproval of political parties in the past — and on his 2012 solo track “Reagan”, he unleashes this sentiment in a piano-backed rap firestorm. He begins by criticizing Ronald Reagan for the “War on Drugs” that harmed many of his relatives, then goes on to state that succeeding presidents aren’t innocent either. He details the symptoms of systemic oppression of blacks, reminding us that it’s still rampant with each administration.
2013: Kanye West – “New Slaves” | Racial Inequality/Cultural Bondage
In 2013, Kanye West showed the world he’s downright insane with Yeezus (if that wasn’t obvious already), letting it define his musical genius. It’s the lyrical themes that glue the album together, however, where he shines the most, as he discusses slavery on a deeper level. It’s easy to look at a song like “New Slaves” and think simply about cotton fields and the trickling inequity of African-American communities. While that’s part of the issue, Kanye focuses on a much bigger picture: the social and cultural norms themselves. We’re shackling ourselves with materialism, religion, and idolatry (perhaps even to him), he suggests, and it’s up to us to break free.
2014: Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” | Gender Conformity
In 2012, Against Me! vocalist Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender, becoming the biggest name in punk to ever do so. Her band’s next album details the entire experience, and the title track, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” brings to mind the feeling a trans person has when identifying as a certain gender but being perceived as another by society. “You want them to notice / The ragged ends of your summer dress,” she says, unleashing a true rebellion against the sociocultural norms that once held her back. In that way, the song also speaks to everyone who refuses to conform — something that brings with it a sense of dissonance as well as pride.
2015: letlive. – “Good Mourning, America” | Racial Inequality/Police Brutality
“Good Mourning, America” reflects social unrest in communities like Ferguson, MO circa 2014. But more specifically, letlive. singer Jason Aalon Butler reminisced on a racially-charged experience he had with a police officer when writing the song. The confrontation left him skeptical of the power structures that govern minority communities — specifically, a police force that rarely gets convicted (or even tried) for overly aggressive displays of force. Because of his story and the stories of many others, specifically minorities, he senses a duty to question authority in the track. “People are no longer breathing and six feet under because of the issues I’m talking about,” Butler said.
2016: Jeff Rosenstock – “To Be a Ghost…” | Police Brutality/Technological Ruin
Punk musician Jeff Rosenstock used his platform to speak up about current events in his 2016 record, Worry. In “To Be a Ghost…”, he talks about the hashtags resulting from the shootings of unarmed black men. He connects the inhumanity of the killings with the inhumanity of the reactions, showcasing the culture of narcissism and trendiness technology facilitates. “They forced us to grow into a world without a soul,” he says about smartphones — they intend to keep you connected, but they often accomplish the opposite. As paints a dark picture, Rosenstock makes a valid point; if we abuse it, technology may makes us lonely and barren like ghosts.
2017: Propaganda, Featuring Aaron Marsh and Sho Baraka – “Cynical” | Political Deterioration
Trump took office in January 2017, but he didn’t begin an uneasy age in politics. If the previous 17 years of protest music prove anything, it’s that 1) today’s political issues are deep-rooted and 2) the entire political culture needs to change. The new president may be a mean-spirited, narcissistic individual, but he’s a symptom of the larger problem: hyper-competitive partisanship, leading to a lack of empathy toward the realities of many Americans. Christian rapper Propaganda talks all about it in “Cynical”. Bathroom bills are prioritized over assisting refugees, and gun rights are put before black lives — even black gun owners.
While it’s easy to blame Trump for the problems we see today, he’s one man put into power by voters. The real issue is what Propaganda discusses in “Cynical”, that the political system is broken because our society is more focused on self interest than helping people. All of the problems artists before him have talked about — war, police brutality, corporate greed, minority rights, media bias, etc. — are at least in part linked to this societal failure. The rapper hints at a solution: listening to and caring for the worst-off.