Protest Songs of 2016

Politics and music are no strange bedfellows. Artists have fed off political discourse for years, from Public Enemy to Bruce Springsteen., Pussy Riot to NWA, from Aerosmith and Pearl Jam speaking out for gun control in the early 90s to Lady Gaga and Madonna’s gay rights anthems. All you really need to do is go back a year to when Kendrick Lamar released the album of the year, the politically charged To Pimp a Butterfly for the most timely example. But more artists have spoken out in 2016 than in previous years, whether on the presidential election or the Black Lives Matter movement or women’s rights. In these rocky times, musicians have used the climate for good, turning moments of crisis into moments of artistic beauty. Whether explicitly political such as YG’s “Police Get Away Wit Murder” or Empress Of’s “Woman Is a Word” to the sneakily political – such as Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” – there has certainly been a soundtrack to whatever political or social frustration felt in a year filled with frustrating, anxiety-inducing moments. There are too many political songs from 2016 to post them all here – for more, take a look at Dave Eggers’ anti-Trump 30 Songs, 30 Days campaign – but these are some of the year’s most prominent politically charged songs. In case you needed one last reminder, please go out and vote this coming Tuesday. It’s our chance to show the world what we stand for.

Formation – Beyoncé

Any discussion of 2016 political songs must begin with Beyoncé’s fire burner of a reintroduction, “Formation.” The song itself is a call for unity among women, but it’s her explicit embrace of her blackness that is most striking. After admonishing beauty standards on “Pretty Hurts,” she’s in full embrace of her “Jackson 5 nostrils,” her hair, her own self worth. Beyoncé has made a living out of empowerment anthems, but instead of a bland, one-size fits all ode to loving oneself, Beyoncé is at her most singular and specific on “Formation.” She effectively draws a line in the sand; you’re either with her or not.

Drone Bomb Me – Anohni

Guns – Nice As Fuck

Indian Givers – Neil Young

Same Old Lie – Jim James

Some songs, including several from Anohni’s early 2016 album Helplessness, take on politicized issues including global warming, government surveillance and most effectively America’s military drone program, told from the POV of someone witnessing the carnage. Anohni wasn’t the only artist to tackle hot-button political issues, as the Jenny Lewis-fronted supergroup Nice As Fuck addressed gun control on the folksy, give peace a chance vibe-ing “Guns.” Neil Young has made stands against corrupt systems in the past, and this year he returned with the scathing “Indian Givers,” while Jim James – less entangled with politics – came through in early November with his most political record to date, “Same Old Lie.”

FDT, Police Get Away Wit Murder – YG

Don’t Touch My Hair – Solange ft. Sampha

Hands Up – Blood Orange

VRY BLK – Jamila Woods

If we can find some positive out of the horrific, near daily occurrences of violence against black bodies, it would be how black musicians have relished the opportunity to rise above the carnage and speak out as cathartic, authoritative voices on issues unique to the black experience in America.

“Fuck Donald Trump,” has become something of a rallying cry for opposers of his toxic blend of misogyny and racism, and it all may have started because of YG’s 2016 anthem. “FDT” is a reactionary moment for an artist who had never been viewed as a political rapper until ’16, and while that moment features a rightfully incensed YG, Still Brazy‘s closer is perhaps 2016’s best politically, socially motivated track.

“This can’t be America,” an incredulous YG laments as “Police Get Away Wit Murder” begins. His anger is palpable, as is his desire to see justice in the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. It’s impossible to reconcile the America we learn about in schools with the America we interact with on a daily basis. YG has had enough, and “Murder” effectively distills all his swirling emotions into one potent rap song.

Solange and Blood Orange both returned in 2016 with their most politically charged work yet, A Seat at the Table and Freetown Sound, respectively. On “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Solange reclaims her body as her own, and in the process speaks for so many countless others. “Hands Up” is one of the toughest Blood Orange songs to listen to. Dev Hynes sounds tired, resigned through most of it as he sings lines such as, “Are you sleeping with the lights on,” “Keep your hood off when you’re walking,” or “Sure enough they’re gonna take your body.” It’s all set to one of Hynes’ trademarked beautiful melodies, providing some warmth. But my favorite moment is perhaps his simplest move, just three words that aren’t heard enough. After giving a warning of what people are capable of doing to black bodies, Hynes directly, sincerely asks one simple question: “Are you okay?”

There have been a lot of great lyrics in 2016 – some of them here – but none tops what Jamila Woods masterfully does on the great “VRY BLK.” Here’s a sample lyric to highlight her playful, one-step-ahead mentality: “Black is like the magic, and magic’s like a spell / My brothers went to heaven, the police going to / yeah, they’re going to, hello operator, emergency hotline / If I say that I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk line.” Her blunt assessment of what she’s witnessed is only countered by the pride she feels in her skin color. “I’m very black, black, black / Can’t send me back, back, back / You take my brother, brother, brother / I fight back, back, back, back,” she sings on the hook. Among the several songs to tackle the experience of being black in America “VRY BLK” is the most joyful, as Woods rests easy knowing she’s on the right side of history.

Woman Is a Word – Empress Of

Conceptual Romance – Jenny Hval

Your Best American Girl – Mitski

Women’s rights, and their well-being, have come under attack by several prominent politicians in recent years, and Empress Of deftly takes on this attack on her early 2016 single “Woman Is a Word.” “I’m only a struggle if I get in your way,” she reasons; in what world is a woman seeking equal pay, her reproductive rights, getting in anyone’s way?

While being less explicit in its political leanings, Jenny Hval’s “Conceptual Romance” and Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” are perhaps made even more political by their heavily personal nature. “Romance” finds Hval narrating a visit to an OB-GYN, lifting the veil we’ve thrown over menstruation, rejecting the idea that it’s some dirty thing that needs to be kept secret. She does so in icy, clinical terms, showing how deep the scars run. “Your Best American Girl” – while being one of the year’s best songs – is also one of the most powerful. For the first minute or so, Mistki tries to be just that, the best American girl; quiet, hushed, not speaking out of turn. But she can’t fight her nature, and as the song builds to a thrilling crescendo, we finally hear her true voice. “Girl” effectively deconstructs the notion of what constitutes being a “great American girl,” and how futile, destructive it is to let someone define that for you. “Your Best American Girl” isn’t political in the ways many of the other songs here are, but in the context of 2016 – where immigrants and women alike can be viewed as antagonistic to our way of life depending on what lens you choose to see the world through – it is one of the most important.

Heading photo credit: Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

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