At times of injustice and social unrest, music has often been used to bring people together, unifying them with a core message to fight for what is right.
Music can hold real power for positive change. When songs of protest and inspiration hit the mood of the time just right, they have helped change laws, free the innocent and end wars!
In 2013, ONE brought together high-profile musicians and street buskers as part of the agit8 project to capture the spirit of the protest song and spread the word of the fight against extreme global poverty. More recently, Africa’s biggest artists have joined together to create two powerful songs with important messages – ‘Strong Girl’ and ‘Tell Everybody’.
Check out our list of inspirational songs that have helped pave the way for REAL change across the world!
Get Up Stand Up (1973) – Bob Marley
“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!”
Marley was inspired to write this song after touring Haiti where he was moved by the extreme poverty Haitian people faced. The song describes taking action to avoid oppression by higher forces. As with many of the songs on this list, “Get Up Stand Up” still holds relevance in the world today where inequality and injustice are unfortunately still problems.
Times They Are a-Changin (1964) – Bob Dylan
“There’s a battle outside and it is raging / It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls / For the times they are a-changing.”
This has been described as the ‘archetypal protest song’ – an anthem for change that articulates the hopes of the Sixties folk generation. “This was definitely a song with a purpose,” Dylan has said. “The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.” The same year this song was released, the Civil Rights Act was passed which put an end to racial segregation in the US.
Strange Fruit (1939) – Billie Holiday
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”
In 1999, Time Magazine crowned this the song of the century 60 years after its release showing the enduring power of this haunting ballad. The song tackled the topic of racism head-on, a very bold move for the time. Holiday’s vocals lend an eerie beauty to what can be quite an uncomfortable listen. It was first performed 16 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus. The song has been described as “a declaration of war … the beginning of the civil rights movement.”
A Change is Gonna Come (1963) – Sam Cooke
“It’s been a long time coming / but I know a change is gonna come.”
The song was inspired by various personal events in Cooke’s life, in particular the time when he and his entourage were turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana. Cooke felt compelled to write a song that spoke of his struggle and that of those around him. However, it also has positive message about maintaining a sense of hope for the future.
War (1970) – Edwin Starr
“War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!”
Perhaps the most instantly recognisable anti-war song and certainly the most clear and direct of any of the songs on this list. Starr’s powerful delivery helped to further the voices of a generation growing in unease about the Vietnam War.
Free Nelson Mandela (1984) – The Specials
“Twenty-one years in captivity / Shoes too small to fit his feet / His body abused but his mind is still free… I said free Nelson Mandela!”
This song was a huge hit in the UK that also became immensely popular in apartheid South Africa while the revolutionary activist/politician Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for conspiracy to overthrow the state. After 27 years of incarceration, Mandela went on to become South Africa’s first black president and is an icon across the globe for triumph against adversity.
Strong Girl (2015) – Various Artists
“Wherever you are, show the world that you’re a strong girl!”
This song brought together 9 of Africa’s most talented female artists to create an anthem celebrating the strength of girls and women everywhere. It is a call to action for world leaders to empower girls and women in the poorest countries. The song is part of ONE’s Poverty is Sexist campaign, which calls for focus in targeting the barriers that affect women such as education and health.
Tell Everybody (2015) – Various Artists
“No it don’t have to be this way, there is hope for a better day”
‘Tell Everybody’ is the brand new protest song recorded by Africa’s biggest stars to ignite the political passions of young people and urge them to hold their leaders to account in meeting the Global Goals: to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and fix climate change by 2030.