Music News

Do Protest Songs Have The Power To Make A Difference?

Photograph of the blog post author, Mary Woodcock

Mary Woodcock


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The recent campaign by women in Saudi Arabia to be allowed to drive and society’s divided reaction has led a group of Saudi satirists to resort to a famous Bob Marley song to explain the situation.

No Woman, No Drive

The resulting YouTube video has gone viral with over one million views in less than 24 hours and has been featured on international media outlets such as EuroNews and CNN.

With a unique twist on the popular reggae song “No Woman No Cry,” by the legend that is Bob Marley,  comedian and social activist Hisham Fageeh. Along with Saudi YouTube sensation Fahad Albutairi and Iranian, Riyadh born-bred musician Alaa Wardi. Sang a cheeky acapella version titled “No Woman No Drive.”

In the four-minute video, Fageeh is seen clapping, whistling and singing his way through the altered lyrics. They state, “Ova-ovaries all safe and well”- instead of “Oba, ob-serving the hypocrites”. Making fun of a recent statement by a Saudi cleric who claimed that driving affects women’s ovaries.

The video was released on Saturday in line with the “October 26 driving” campaign. Which urged Saudis to put its logo on their cars and called upon women with international driving licenses to get behind the wheel in the kingdom on that day.

This is the most recent in a long line of protest songs which go from Bob Dylan to Rage against the Machine. My favourites are the 5 below.

Our Picks Of The Most Influential Protest Songs

Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A Changin’ (1964)

In 1985, Dylan told Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone, “This was definitely a song with a purpose…I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way” 

This song, along with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” cemented Dylan as a lead counter-culture figure.

Bob Marley – Get Up Stand Up (1973)

Get up Stand Up is an overtly political song. 

Unlike CSNY, Bob Marley is best known for being the most prominent Reggae musician of all time. Smoking copious amounts of marijuana, and for his political protest songs. (Alright, CSNY probably smoked lots of weed).

And this track owns the best lines in political protest music history: “You can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. So now we see the light! We gonna stand up for our rights!”

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA (1984)

This song was mistaken as a positive American anthem for years, and still is today by many. 

Ronald Reagan even used this song in his 1984 re-election campaign and tried to claim Bruce as a supporter! Lyrically the song takes a realistic approach to the effects of the Vietnam war on those that were forced to go fight in Southeast Asia. But if you manage to only listen to the chorus, it can be seen as a patriotic anthem. 

The song’s lyrics are about a shell-shocked vet with ‘no place to run, nowhere to go.’ Bruce once said it’s about “a working-class man…It’s like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He’s isolated from the government. Isolated from his family…to the point where nothing makes sense.” 

It’s not an overt political protest song, but it’s way closer to that then a national anthem.

Rage Against The Machine – Killing in the Name (1992)

Rage was one of the most politically active groups at a time when political protest songs weren’t very common. 

“Killing in the Name” is the quintessential Rage Against the Machine song, with it’s confronting vocals that link police to racism with the line, “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses,” and with the ending refrain “F*ck You, I won’t do what you told me.” 

Zach de la Rocha & Tom Morello almost inspired a riot at the Democratic National Convention in 2000. Then de la Rocha abruptly left the group, but Tom Morello has continued his political activity.

It was also used as a protest song about Simon Cowell and the X Factor juggernaut by taking Christmas number one in 2010!

Public Enemy – Fight The Power! (1989)

“Fight the Power” was brilliantly used as Radio Raheem’s jam of choice and musical motif to the classic Spike Lee film Do The Right Thing. 

It was Public Enemy’s breakthrough song, and it incorporates references to many parts of African-American culture, including civil rights samples, black church services sounds, and the music of James Brown. 

And laying the smack down on Elvis Presley & John Wayne for their on-the-record white supremacist views certainly is the cherry on top of this political protest firestorm of a sundae.

Throughout history, protest songs have galvanized the oppressed into resisting their oppressors. Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘freedom songs serve to give unity to a movement.’ 

The revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East have been inspired by rap music, which the authorities tried to ban, pointing again to the potential of political music to effect social change. 

However, the inevitable question that comes up when considering protest music is whether it really matters – does it make a difference? Or do the commoditization of music and the banality of TV talent shows devalue its political potential?

When government, media, and education is largely in the hands of the oppressor, whether that be overtly in authoritarian regimes or more covertly in a democracy, the protest song becomes one of the only ways to foster resistance as it speaks to the head as well as the heart.

The powerful are fully aware of the power of protest songs, even though they rarely acknowledge it.  Soviets and Chinese clamped down heavily on any music that seemed to oppose the party. 

Our Conclusion

As we face the many challenges of the 21st century with environmental destruction, rising population, diminishing resources, ongoing regional wars, and the rising gap between the ‘haves and have nots’. Or as George Bush put it the ‘have-mores and the have nots’, I trust that an uprising of popular resistance will find solutions. 

What’s your favourite protest song? Have I missed any seminal protest songs out? Do you think music has the power to make a difference in the world? Tell us what you think in the comments below!

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