The Daily Gamecock

Best protest songs of the past year

Lady Gaga performs at half time of Super Bowl LI on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017 at the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/TNS)
Lady Gaga performs at half time of Super Bowl LI on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017 at the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/TNS)

Music has a longstanding tradition of serving as a creative platform for artists to easily disseminate their message. Moments in history that are especially tumultuous may draw greater inspiration from musicians — Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” in the midst of Jim Crow, CCR’s “Fortunate Son” sounding off on the Vietnam War and Beyoncé bringing celebration of black features and culture to the forefront in “Formation,” to name a few. Our country’s political landscape since the beginning of the election is no exception; there has been no shortage of songwriting material, and many musicians have not shied away from weighing in on current events. These songs may not appear in the Top 40 but, years from now, they will have preserved sentiments that represent life today. Below are some of the most enjoyable protest songs released since this time last year.

“I Give You Power” by Arcade Fire ft. Mavis Staples

Grammy-winners and SNL regulars Arcade Fire broke their seemingly endless creative silence with “I Give You Power” on the eve of the presidential inauguration. The song consists mostly of electronic beats, uncharacteristic of the traditionally alt rock-centric band. The discordant sounds put the listener off-balance, but the strong vocals of the duet play atop them harmoniously. R&B veteran Mavis Staples — who appeared on "Rolling Stone’s" list of the top 100 singers of all time, and was featured on the soundtrack for the first season of “Orange Is the New Black” — brings a certain frigidity to the mic that she has never been known for. Staples and Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler sing with a cold urgency in their voices, giving weight to their words. They echo, “I give you power, over me ... I could take it away.” Considering its release date, the song’s lyrics show the artists speaking directly to elected officials and calling attention to the state of American democracy. Never ones to get overtly political, Arcade Fire unleashes their dissatisfaction with the outcome of November’s election as creatively as they're wont to do.

“Noble Nobles” by Esperanza Spalding

Bass connoisseur and Joni Mitchell sound-alike Esperanza Spalding sings of the beginnings of the slave trade in an otherwise light-hearted tune. Spalding weaves through years of history effortlessly with poetic, even enviable, songwriting: “Drinking dapper gents in wig and rosy cultured views toasting the news.” The most provocative set of lyrics, “Talking founding fathers with a free philosophy / That don’t mention me / Or the stain of red blood on their hands at all,” reminds listeners of America’s troubled past with extending equal rights to all its citizens. Spalding refers to the first colonizers as “noble nobles,” and remarks of their title, “what a savage myth.” Spalding casts doubt on the tradition of teaching about historical figures as if they could do no wrong (e.g., Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, etc.). She also doesn’t hide her black and Hispanic heritage, instead channeling her perspective into her art at a time when treatment of minorities is in great question.

“Have Some Love” by Childish Gambino

Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, departed from his roots in rap to release a completely funk-focused record in December. Glover pays homage to Kool & the Gang, Parliament and Sly & The Family Stone among others throughout the album, using fundamental elements pioneered in their ‘60s and ‘70s classics — namely soulful choirs, heavy bass to anchor a number of songs and the singer belting out impassioned cries over the music at points. In “Have Some Love,” he takes a page directly from Parliament with an upbeat rhythm and vast array of singing registers, including bass voices straight out of “Give Up the Funk.” Finding solidarity during hardship is a theme central to the song, in the same vein as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocating for protesting with love. Through its cool groove and nuanced arrangement, the singers encourage, “Have a word for your brother / Have some time for one another / Really love one another / It’s so hard to find.” In this divisive a time in American politics, it’s helpful for all of us to remember that we’re ultimately on the same team and to have some love for each other.

“Angel Down” by Lady Gaga

Released on her recent “Joanne,” Lady Gaga takes the four-minute track to speak on the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. With the feel that it’s emanating from a music box, the song lulls listeners with its subdued tempo and Gaga’s tame vocals. Gaga stores up her trademark vocal strength for the final instance of the line “Where are our leaders?” The angel represents Martin, and “Why do people just stand around?” questions people’s reactions, or lack thereof, to his death. Other lyrics allude to the singer doubting her faith with such tragedy occurring in the world. Serene and introspective, the song causes one to think of recent instances of violence and what is done on a larger scale to prevent them or reprimand those behind the acts.

For all the controversy surrounding this election cycle, we still have free speech at our disposal. Protest songs emblematize this democratic right, transcend genre and style and disperse meaningful messages to all music lovers. Here, music is created with the purpose of contemplating the world and subsequently providing a thoughtful critique of society. Since last year, artists have produced an expansive catalog of good, memorable songs that will be reflective of our current climate for years to come.