Celebrating the year that protest music popped
Marvin Gaye’s 1971 conceptual masterwork What’s Going On? is as cohesive a statement of political and social dissatisfaction as has ever been recorded. Hearing Gaye at the height of his power decrying war (“What’s Happening Brother”), poverty (“Inner City Blues”), and the environmental crisis (“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”) will hopefully never lose its considerable healing power. As we near the end of 2014, however, we should note the many musicians who saw fit to record their own statements against the current state of affairs. Only decades of repeated listening will tell whether any of these songs can hang with Gaye’s finest, but here, in no specific order, are a few of the songs we’re listening to these days, as we try to figure out just what the hell’s going on.
Run the Jewels — “Early”
RTJ’s Killer Mike made a compelling statement, sans music, against institutionalized racism, and he did it onstage in St. Louis on the very day the grand jury declined to indict officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, no less. However, the vivid first-person account of police overkill during a routine traffic stop that Mike delivers in “Early” makes an equally compelling argument that’s much harder to dismiss as spur-of-the-moment passion.
EMA — “Satellites”
Amidst all the other big news stories of 2014, have you forgotten that the NSA and other organizations may be monitoring and recording your every move using the same high-tech gadgetry so many of us find indispensable to our modern existence? Erika Anderson certainly hasn’t, and throughout the duration of her excellent The Future’s Void, she trains her sharpshooting songwriting on little else than reminding us that Orwell’s hell has not only already arrived; it’s been upgraded to 2.0.
Against Me! — “True Trans Soul Rebel”
We may well have chosen any track from Against Me!’s transcendent Transgender Dysphoria Blues but this one sounds the most like a rallying cry. Laura Jane Grace, who publicly transitioned from frontman to frontwoman of the already-charting band in 2012, is understandably more concerned with the personal than the political. Considering how much of the intolerance toward transgender people seems to stem from a lack of empathy, this powerful, messy, angry, sexy, funny, tragic song may have far more impact than any grandstanding or sloganeering.
John Legend, featuring Common — “Glory”
Now this is a protest song proper, recorded by John Legend for the soundtrack to upcoming MLK biopic Selma. The purifying fire in Legend’s voice is fitting tribute to King’s eternal flame, but Common, who’s always looked best in indignant anger, brings the heat into the present day, weaving references to Ferguson and its ensuing protests into the story of the Selma bus boycotts without once changing threads. This is what an Oscar song should sound like.
Final Conflict — “Abolish Police”
“Our rights are being stripped away by the police and our government’s spies … we must continue to fight for our freedom,” screams Ron Martinez of Long Beach punk legends Final Conflict. The ever-prescient 27-year-old song from the recently reissued classic Ashes to Ashes only makes the cut on a technicality, but we can’t help but feel nostalgic for the level of literate, righteous hatred the best Reagan-era punk bands brought to the recording studio.
Tune-Yards — “Manchild”
Nothing even remotely resembling a “blurred line” to be found here. “Not gonna say yes when what I really mean is no,” Merrill Garbus tells the titular abusive, premature-ejaculating jerk, and he seems to need to hear it repeatedly and bluntly. Considering the recent backlash against movements like #yesallwomen, this catchy bit of post-Afrobeat would be best heard blasting in dance clubs across the country.
Savages — “Fuckers”
Perhaps it’s not the most eloquent sentiment, but we can’t think of a better all-purpose mantra for 2014’s disenfranchised than Jenny Beth’s “Don’t let the fuckers get you down.” Coupled with an undeniable backbeat, its 10-plus-minute runtime always runs out all too soon.
Yisrayl Yahwah ft. YG Yahwah and V3 — “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”
We easily could’ve compiled a list consisting entirely of similarly titled hip-hop songs released in response to Michael Brown’s untimely death, and most we’ve heard are worth repeated listening. But with apologies to higher-profile releases by artists such as Vince Staples (“Hands Up”) and the Game, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, et al (“Don’t Shoot”), we’d like to direct more web traffic to 17-year-old St. Louis native Yisrayl Yahwah who currently seems to be focusing most of his creative energy in responding to this particular grievous injustice.