The 50 Best Protest Songs of 2016
The year began with a prominent lefty website bemoaning the death of protest music; we disagreed, and boy, do we need that stuff now more than ever. Nothing is going to get better if Donald Trump is, as expected, sworn in on January 20. Not art, not the life it imitates, and that goes especially for those who were oppressed even during the only eight years a black man ever ran this country.
So we’ll look again and again to these songs, chosen by our music contributors, which this year addressed already-existing horrors sure to worsen in the coming (hopefully only four) years. They confront, with humor or anger or beauty, nearly every issue that came up in 2016, from the seemingly minute to the unspeakably horrific. May the catharsis of this art, and the art borne out of whatever comes next, prop up our sanity. May it grant us the strength to keep going in a tunnel whose opening light has yet to appear. And may a song called “I Just Killed a Cop Now I’m Horny” give us an absurd laugh between tears.
ANOHNI, "Drone Bomb Me"
Sung from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl in Afghanistan who’s so drained of hope after the drone murder of her family that she begs to join them, this track confronts the sinister core of drone warfare: under its ruthless terms, even children cannot be truly innocent. — Matthew Ismael Ruiz
ANOHNI, “Four Degrees”
Rather than address the politicians who (with the help of their wealthy donors) are destroying our planet, ANOHNI commandeers their nonchalance and makes it violent: “I want to burn the sky, I want to burn the breeze, I want to see the animals die in the trees,” she croons sweetly. Thundering drums and triumphant horns herald the arrival of a now-guaranteed cataclysm. We’re fucked, but at least this song is great. — Zoë Beery
Bas, “Too High to Riot”
Queens rapper Bas pulled no punches on this crude, hilarious title track from his sophomore album that memorably notes, “They used to make it a crime to fuck white women / But damn, better give me a lot of time.” He also (less provocatively) calls out the TSA, NSA, and lying leaders who “treat us like prisoners.” It was released in March. It’s hard to believe he’ll sit out the next riot. — Dan Weiss
Becky G, “We Are Mexico”
In just eighty seconds, Becky G vividly portrays the struggle of Mexican immigrants, illustrating strong family ties, menial labor, and the struggle to keep out of law enforcement’s way. It may be titled “We are Mexico,” but the sentiment applies to anyone who has to work twice to hard to achieve half as much. — Andrew Casillas
Blood Orange, “Hands Up”
The most instantly catchy song on pop chameleon Dev Hynes’ richly acclaimed sophomore opus is also its most explicitly critical, deflecting the soft-focus Quiet Storm synths with truthful nihilism like, “Keep your hood off when you’re walking” and “Sure enough they’re gonna take your body.” It ends with a sample of someone pleading “Don’t shoot,” and it isn’t a cliffhanger. — D.W.
CupcakKe, “Picking Cotton”
Don’t be surprised that a 19-year-old sex-comic genius who made gold out of “blowing bubbles with sperm” is just as vivid and concrete about police brutality. Elizabeth Harris observes sharply that “We’re still slaves, just not picking cotton,” and channels her brothers and sisters unlawfully slain by supposed lawmen by simply reporting “I’m dead even if I surrender.” — D.W.
Lucy Dacus, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”
Tim Kaine’s favorite new singer-songwriter got her big break with a single that cannily skewers the one-word stereotypes we attach to women in the public eye: Funny. Cute. Artsy. Gossipy. Sure, it’s no antifascist diatribe or global warming polemic, but it’s certainly proven effective at inoculating Dacus’ estimable talent against trivialization. — Judy Berman
Drive-By Truckers, “Ramon Casiano”
The Truckers have rarely been as concise as they are in this unpacking of the story of Harlon Carter, who killed fifteen-year-old Casiano at point-blank range in 1931 after hearing a complaint about Latinos loitering Carter’s white neighborhood. He went on to become a border patrolman, but he’s best known for his work in the 1970s: he’s the man who turned the NRA from a gun-safety organization into the horror we know now. — D.W.
Emilio Estefan, “We're All Mexican" (Todos Somos Mexicanos)”
The rare big-budget topical protest song, “We’re All Mexican” recruits a host of musicians and celebrities affirming support for Hispanic and Latino communities across the country. Emilio Estefan, the song’s architect, later claimed that the song is not a rebuke to Donald Trump. Sure—just like “Grindin’” isn’t about drug dealing. — A.C.
Fea, “No Hablo Espanol”
Thundering punk thrives in the menacing hands of Fea, a Chicana riot grrrl outfit who give zero fucks whether they speak Spanish or not. “No Hablo Español” boasts fuming power chords, angry choruses, and excitingly cacophonic drumming; the message is all about shattering barriers—language or otherwise. — Isabela Raygoza
G.L.O.S.S., “Give Violence a Chance”
Peaceful protest is an admirable goal – until you realize that “keeping the peace” means working within racist, sexist, and transphobic structures. On potent single “Give Violence a Chance,” trans-feminist hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. (an acronym for Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit) reject pacification in favor snarling subversion, with prejudiced police as a central target. — Lindsey Rhoades
Larkin Grimm, “I Don’t Believe”
Shortly after coming forward with rape allegations against her former collaborator Michael Gira, of Swans, Larkin Grimm released this gentle harp ballad dedicated to abuse survivors. It’s not a straightforward narrative, but it lurches forward with what many will recognize as an account of physical betrayal. — D.W.
Helado Negro, “It’s My Brown Skin”
This pacifist’s protest to the vilification of brownness is a proclamation of self love. Brown folks have been conditioned to believe, at first, that the refrain of “it’ll keep you safe” feels naive. But listen long enough, and we remember all the ways that it’s true. — M.I.R.
Homeboy Sandman, “Talking (Bleep)”
Direct your attention to the verse here about HuffPo, wherein the rapper-turned-occasional-columnist blasts his sometime-employers for refusing to publish an article he wrote about “the link between mass media and private prisons” followed by them having “the gumption/To hit me up to try and talk about some dumb shit.” — D.W.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Rican Beach”
Alynda Segarra’s jam-encrusted “Rican Beach” attests to her brilliant restlessness as she charmingly continues to champion the voice of America’s unsung heroes. Through her ragged, soulful mix of country blues and folk rock, the roots-conscious bluegrass doyenne unveils a heart of gold while her penetratingly poetic lyrics challenge the dark side of gentrification. — I.R.
JPEGMAFIA, “I Just Killed a Cop Now I’m Horny”
Over an icy backdrop somewhere between witch house and NIN ballad, culture-jamming Baltimore rapper and self-styled “black Ben Carson” Barrington Hendricks brags about being “Bad with the brains / Punks understand me.” This contribution to 2016 agitprop is casts him as a postmodern Ice-T; play loud while it’s legal. — D.W.
John Legend, “I Know Better”
Legend is both hopeful and grief-ridden on this track that warns against destructive hubris. “I know the truth from lies,” he sings, about the inevitable collapse of a kingdom build by deception and hatred. In an adamant and church organ-infused refusal to sink into a culture of blame, Legend chooses awareness and ultimately, love. — Rajul Punjabi
The Julie Ruin, “Mr. So and So”
You know the dudes who monopolize the front row of feminist punk shows because they secretly get off on angry chicks? The ones who are totally down to confront their privilege, but only if you make them a reading list? Well, Kathleen Hanna has spent 25 years dealing with them, and she’s fucking sick of it. — J.B.
Kesha, “It Ain’t Me Babe”
Kesha’s appearance at the Billboard Music Awards — her first televised performance since suing producer Dr. Luke for sexual abuse — was almost canceled at the request of her powerful alleged abuser. That makes her aching Dylan cover a #FreeKesha victory. If you’re looking for guilty pleasure party trash, a walking dollar sign who wakes up feeling like P. Diddy, or, particularly, a silent victim — well, it ain’t her. — Carey Dunne
Kendrick Lamar, “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.”
The third track from Kendrick Lamar’s collection of unreleased tracks from his album sessions is a riff on one of hip-hop’s most tried and true homonyms: peace/piece. It’s less protest and more cautionary tale, asking his fellow black artists if the short-term gains are worth their cost: “What if I compromise? He said it don't even matter/You make a million or more, you living better than average/You losing your core following, gaining it all.” — M.I.R.
Lotic, “Formation (ELECTION ANXIETY/AMERICA IS OVER EDIT)”
What more apt way to experience Beyoncé’s defining anthem for 2016 than with the intensity ramped up by about 34% in this remix by a queer black Texan who loaded it up with sirens and marching band snares in the wake of the worst election in the history of the U.S. presidency? If anything, it’s not anxious enough. — D.W.
While M.I.A. intones through Auto-Tune, “Borders, what’s up with that? Politics, what’s up with that?” the images from her self-directed video (immigrants conquering fences and making boats out of their bodies) fill in the blank. When she gets to “Your privilege, what’s up with that?” it’s clear that finding the answer isn’t her job, but ours. — D.W.
MC Carol & Karol Conka, “100% Feminista”
This hard hitting anthem for Brazilian women by MC Carol & Karol Conka chronicles growing up witnessing violence against women and then vowing to change it. It’s a timely and necessary track as femicide rates in Brazil soared—a women there is killed every two hours. — Nia Hampton
Vic Mensa, “16 Shots”
No song better captured the rage at the heart of protests against Laquan McDonald’s 2014 killing by ex-police officer Jason Van Dyke, and Chicago officials’ seeming cover-up. Named for the number of times Van Dyke shot McDonald, the song’s jagged instrumental perfectly underscores Mensa’s excoriation of a city failing its impoverished communities of color. — Sameer Rao
Mistah F.A.B., “6 Shots (#BlackLivesMatter)”
Hyphy’s trademark humor still pokes through in lines like “They castratin’ black men ‘cause our dicks bigger,” but here F.A.B. mostly drops earnest nuggets: “What got me hot is ain’t no black cops ain’t speaking out,” “All you white folks that still say we’re all equal / I bet you wouldn’t trade reputations with my people.” And yes, “A gorilla get killed and white folks sad.” — D.W.
Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
2016's breakout indie star was quick to deny that this guitar anthem was her way of using white indie boys’ tools to dismantle their house. It’s a love song, she insisted. Fair enough, because what else could make you feel the simultaneous pain and pride of diverging from a bullshit ideal so acutely? — J.B.
Dawn Oberg, “It’s 12:01”
Oberg’s country-tinged rock is an unlikely genre for condemning police brutality, but her tribute to Alex Nieto, Mario Woods, and other victims of San Francisco’s police force is both searing and affecting. Its arrival this year hit even harder since, in March, a jury cleared Nieto’s killers of wrongdoing in a civil suit brought by Nieto’s parents. — Z.B.
Open Mike Eagle + Paul White, “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)”
“Nobody smiles at me ‘cause I’m a black man” is Open Mike Eagle’s setup, and the punchline is “...until the show starts.” Over Paul White’s haunting, bluesy backdrop, Eagle speaks calmly and incredulously, in a voice like he’s just been pulled over: “I don’t want you, your purse or your pocketbook / Them dumb yoga pants, boots, or fur with the octopus.” He’s also got a tip for the guys in the “flip-flop squad” making “patronizing hip-hop nods: “Just be a person.” — D.W.
This year on the second Monday in October (which some people call Columbus Day), Prayers released the anti-colonization anthem “Mexica,” a tribute to the Aztecs. It is at once a celebration of the civilization’s rich history and accomplishments, and a middle finger to the concept of imperial borders and ignorant calls for Mexicans to “go back where you came from.” — M.I.R.
Pussy Riot, “Make America Great Again”
Chants of “Lock Her Up!” during Trump’s campaign likely triggered this song helmed by Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who was imprisoned in 2012 by the Russian after a performance of “Punk Prayer.” Though the smooth bossanova underpinning parody single “Make America Great Again” is less abrasive, its message has become chilling as Trump praises Putin and threatens both journalists and artists. — L.R.
Dawn Richard, “Valhalla (Outro)”
At first listen, this doesn’t seem like a protest song, but a paean to dreams denied and deferred. In Richard’s mind, the Norse legend becomes a paradise “where rebels are the majority/and [her] color isn’t minority” exists only in “open dreams”. But the conceit proves just as potent a revolutionary rallying cry: we need not perish to build Valhallas of our own — we just need to stick together. — Zoe Camp
Run the Jewels, “2100”
Recognizing our need to process, Run the Jewels thankfully offered the world “2100” soon after the election. This is the spiritual successor to the 2014’s haunting “Early” (which also featured BOOTS on a world-weary hook), swapping the duo’s usual battering-ram bravado for a smoldering, heavy-hearted plea for relief from oppression. — S.R.
Sad13, “Get a Yes”
Though bodily autonomy is somehow still up for debate amongst judges, politicians, and college administrators, advocates for enthusiastic, affirmative consent now have an anthem in Sad13’s “Get A Yes.” Playful, pop-forward, and sex positive, the single offers would-be partners a revolutionary guide for open communication about limits and desires alike. — L.R.
ScHoolboy Q feat. Kendrick Lamar, “Black THougHts” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiRGvl7H7Y8
This is an unusually introspective take on gangs and one person's responsibility to stop the violence. “Let's put the rags down and raise our kids,” ScHoolboy Q raps over a soulful track. “All lives matter,” Q says—to Bloods and Crips, that is—“both sides.”? It’s time to put the guns and bullshit down and look upwards to what's really fueling the drug war (hint: not "black-on-black crime"). — Sowmya Krishnamurthy
After the election, the exceptional-voiced Vegas-to-Philly wunderkind summed the healing power of his falsetto for this bewitching, acoustic call-to-arms. He paired it with a personal Facebook post imploring straight white people: “This is your fight.” His label-mate Adele should cover it. — D.W.
Sheer Mag, “Can’t Stop Fighting”
There’s a fine line between raising awareness about global atrocities and appropriating them, but empathy rules this powerhouse single that connects the murders of female factory workers in Juarez with the daily street harassment most women face. There’s poetic justice, too, in the swaggering riffs Sheer Mag use to inveigh against a uniquely chilling form of dick-swinging. — J.B.
Solange, “Don’t Touch My Hair”
This may be the most militant song on A Seat at the Table: accompanied by a continuous kick drum, key board, and horns, Solange softly provides a simple request that white folks just can't seem to wrap their heads around—that her hair and her culture be respected and left unhampered. Featuring Sampha, the song is quiet riot. — N.H.
Pop culture as we know it wouldn’t exist without Black America’s creative excellence, even though white supremacy always tries to erase that fact. “F.U.B.U.” is a call for Black people to embody the greatness and excellence that is their right, even (and especially) when it’s under siege. — S.R.
Esperanza Spalding, “Ebony and Ivy”
Likely the most resourceful Best New Artist Grammy recipient ever, Spalding redefines “dirty white rules” and calls out “plantated crimes” in our nation’s sad history on this grooving track. The chorus: “It’s been hard to grow outside / Growing good and act happy / And pretend that the ivy vines / Didn’t weigh our branch down.” — D.W.
Swet Shop Boys, “T5”
Heems and Riz Ahmed’s irreverent lament on the omnipresent horror of being Brown at airport security sends up the world’s deplorable handling of the Syrian refugee crisis with a brilliant comparison to the “Iliad’s” Aeneas: “Fled Turkey and he just founded Rome, what if he had drowned in a boat?” — S.R.
Systema Solar, “Tumbamurallas”
On their champeta-infused “Tumbamurallas,” the Colombian psychedelic band deliver a winning combination of tropical madness and EDM brilliance. While they vivaciously demand social change—specifically, issues regarding the Venezuela-Colombia migrant crisis—their heady choruses and wild percussions call for the ultimate Caribbean-style dance party. It’s liberating, urgent, and funky as hell. — I.R.
T.I. feat. Killer Mike & B. Rossi, “40 Acres”
Conscious rap is not any one thing, and here, it's venomous and boastful. T.I. is the 1%—“Load up my clip off a Zimmerman/Filling my pocket with Benjamins”— while Killer Mike is erudition, with the fire of a preacher. Flipping the false promise to freed South Carolina slaves they'd get "forty acres and a mule" during Reconstruction, the rappers instead claim “forty acres and a Muller—I spent my reparations at the jeweler." — S.K.
A Tribe Called Quest, “We the People…”
In this jolting indictment of American passivity, Q-Tip pieces Tribe’s tried-and-true sound with a call to humanity: When we’re hungry, we eat; when we’re thirsty we drink. It is an outcry that we are all just people. It’s a song that is as reflective of the current times we’re living in, as the racist and bigoted America we thought we had progressed from. — Tara Mahadevan
Saul Williams, “Down for Some Ignorance”
If ignorance is the fuel of prejudice, America has the market cornered like OPEC in the 70s. The beauty of Saul Williams’ poem set to bells is that it exposes our willful embrace of that ignorance, bathing in its blissful safety but ultimately warning us of a cycle doomed to repeat itself. — M.I.R.
Anna Wise, “BitchSlut”
Rarely has the experience of existing as a 24/7 harassment target been rendered so searingly: “You think I wanna fuck ‘cause I comb my hair / ‘Cause I’m at the bar next to an open chair.” Wise’s solo bow is a snap-shut anti-sexist jingle as compact and incisive as a Reductress headline. — D.W.
Jamila Woods, “Blk Grl Soldier”
Centering the black girl as the hero, Woods crafts a thoughtful song that honors the women in the continuous struggle of being black in America. The guitar-laden, uptempo track could easily be the theme song of the longed-for presidential campaign of Michelle Obama. — N.H.
Jamila Woods, “Vry Blk”
Playing on the children’s nursery rhyme “Miss Mary Mack,” the Chicago singer-songwriter pairs with rapper NoName Gypsy to break down down anti-black police violence and carceral policies with whimsy and rhyme. Play this song for young freedom fighters-to-be. — N.H.
Xenia Rubinos, “Mexican Chef”
Atop a blistering rhythm section drenched in funk, the catchy hook on “Mexican Chef” reminds us that White America’s service economy is built on brown backs: “Brown walks your baby/Brown walks your dog/Brown raised America in place of it’s mom/Brown cleans your house/Brown takes the trash/Brown even wipes your granddaddy’s ass.” — M.I.R.
YG & Nipsey Hussle, “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)”
An unsubtle target needs an unsubtle takedown, so YG and Nipsey Hussle reach across the aisle—Bloods and Crips—for this scathing evisceration. YG isn’t much for subtlety, simply chanting what we're all thinking—“Fuck Donald Trump/Fuck Donald Trump.” Nipsey pulls up with gems: “ Reagan sold coke, Obama sold hope, Donald Trump spent his trust fund money on the vote.” As they say: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. — S.K.
Raye Zaragoza, “In the River”
In this heartfelt ode to those “standing up for the water” at Standing Rock, Zaragoza’s melodies are so gorgeous they belie the fraught subject matter. But she makes it quite clear that #NoDAPL movement isn’t merely about natural resources—it’s about preventing another entry in the long list of atrocities against Native Americans. — A. C.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.