Music has been a powerful tool for social movements and campaigns throughout history.
Songs from different genres have been performed to highlight the plights of marginalized groups.
From Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome” to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” music can unite the masses toward a common goal.
Below, we explore 30 songs about social justice and human rights that united, inspired, and challenged communities.
1. “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday
“Strange Fruit” is one of the greatest protest songs of all time, famously performed by Billie Holiday.
Abel Meeropol wrote and composed this song as a poem in 1937 before Billie Holiday released her rendition in 1939.
The lyrics compare black Americans to a strange fruit, addressing the brutality, racism, and lynching faced by the marginalized group.
Today more than ever, the message resonates with black protesters in the US in the wake of societal issues like classism, killing, and police brutality.
The song has been described as “the beginning of the civil rights movement” and has been covered by many artists, including Jeff Buckley, Nina Simone, Josh White, and Terry Blade, to mention a few.
2. “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan
Not many singers have produced as many impactful songs as Bob Dylan.
And it’s fair to say his sixties protest anthems endeared him to music lovers and ultimately shaped his career.
“Blowin’ In The Wind” is one of Dylan’s best-ever protest songs, with rhetorical questions that evoke emotions.
In the song, the singer discusses all the global problems, from wars to deaths, hunger, and diseases, and asserts that man is to blame for every bad thing happening in the world.
In the classic Bob Dylan style, the song is just him and his harmonica.
But the powerful message transcends generations.
“How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?/How many seas must a white dove sail/Before she sleeps in the sand?”
3. “We Shall Overcome” by Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger’s song gave black protesters the courage, strength, and hope to continue even when they felt like giving up.
It is a powerful gospel song about overcoming racial injustices and is associated with the civil rights movements from the late 1950s and 1960s.
Protesters sang it at Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr’s funeral, which has since become a global anthem sung in China, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, and South Korea.
4. “Imagine” by John Lennon
John Lennon is one of the greatest 70s musicians who built an enviable reputation with The Beatles.
He’s best known for his rebellious nature and witty lyrics that came out throughout his solo career and as part of the Fab Four.
John’s 1975 “Imagine” song became the best-selling single of his solo career.
The reflective piece challenges the listeners to imagine a peaceful world without borders between nations, religions, or materialism.
While John’s dreams are all but fantasy, the powerful song gives the protesters the courage and hope to keep fighting for better days.
“Imagine” has become one of the most performed hit singles of the 20th century, providing solace to anyone looking for peace.
5. “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
Let’s take a trip down memory lane with one of the most impactful songs in history.
Sam Cooke had a first-hand experience of racial segregation after he was denied entry into a Louisiana whites-only motel.
Inspired by the day’s events, Sam wrote a song that resonated with many African-American protesters.
Hope for the African American people and a yearning for a better America is at the core of Sam’s narration.
And that’s given the song a bigger legacy, always held in the same regard as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
6. “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy
Nobody was left behind in the fight against racial inequality.
And the American hip-hop group shares in the fight with a song about the struggles of black men in America.
Unlike other songs about social justice and human rights, “Fight The Power” calls for a physical revolutionary fight against the powers instead of promoting peace.
It has elements from African-American culture and reached #1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart and #20 on the Hot R&B Singles chart.
7. “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley & The Wailers
Bob Marley’s revolutionary career goes back to 1963 with the Wailers.
In 1980, he released “The Redemption Song” as the final track from his 12th album, Uprising.
Bob Marley’s final track was a powerful redemption song, urging the listeners to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery.”
Some lines were borrowed from Marcus Garvey’s 1937 speech in Nova Scotia.
“Redemption Song” is widely regarded as one of the most influential songs in Jamaican music history, with a timeless message that transcends generations.
A few years later, Marley succumbed to cancer that had put him in a lot of pain towards the end of his career.
8. “If I Had A Hammer (Hammer Song)” by Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger co-wrote this song with Lee Hays to express their support for the Progressive movement, and it has since become one of the best songs about social justice and human rights.
The freedom song greatly influenced the 1960s American youth, leaving a matchless legacy in music history.
The radical message made the “Hammer Song” a little controversial.
But it still had a massive influence on marginalized groups.
9. “Which Side Are You On?” by Florence Reece
Florence Reece’s hit was born out of the intense labor conflict between American coal miners and operators in the 1930s.
The song rallied the people around the country to support the oppressed, with Florence’s songs being at the forefront of the violent protests.
10. “Step by Step” by Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger’s “Step By Step” is a lyrically impactful song from the late 1950s.
It is the shortest protest song on this list, with simple lyrics to sing along to as you march down the road toward the oppressors.
11. “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar’s powerful rap song is one of the best contemporary tunes about social justice and human rights.
The song looks at contemporary issues like racism and police brutality while offering hope that someday, things will change.
Kendrick encourages the listeners to put their faith in God, and everything will be alright.
12. “Solidarity Forever” by Utah Phillips
“Solidarity Forever” is a song written in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin as an anthem for trade unionists.
It preaches worker solidarity to overcome the problems facing them around the world.
The song has been translated into multiple languages, including Polish, German, French, Yiddish, Spanish, and Swahili.
13. “Living For The City” by Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder’s song paints a sad picture of living in New York City, with a message that persists in everyday conversations.
The song was part of Stevie’s 1973 Innervisions album and told the tale of an African American man escaping his troubles in Mississippi only to get into an even bigger misery in New York City.
Raised in abject poverty and racism in Mississippi, the man’s problems only worsen when he sets foot in New York City.
14. “Free Nelson Mandela” by The Specials
No African caught global attention from the early 60s to the 80s like Nelson Mandela.
And it’s only normal that his imprisonment would trigger a wave of protests across the globe.
That began with “Free Nelson Mandela,” the first protest song addressing his imprisonment from The Special AKA.
The simple song with powerful lyrics gave the African people and civil rights activists a sense of belonging, dancing its way into history as one of the best protest songs ever.
15. “Changes” by 2Pac
Every conversation around rapper Tupac Shakur always ends with the ‘what if question.’
What if he lived long enough to witness his influence on modern rappers?
What if his brief but successful music career had a better ending?
While Tupac’s hit isn’t an outright protest song, it addresses an important aspect of civilization and growth: change.
The rapper speaks to the black and white communities, focusing on racism and crime and why everybody should do better.
Ultimately, the social commentary piece depicts America as a civilized nation with countless social ills, affirming that everybody should be responsible for creating a better society.
16. “People Get Ready” by The Impressions
The Impressions lead singer Curtis Mayfield never shied away from tackling societal issues in his songs.
Although “People Get Ready” comes off as a spiritual song, it’s impossible to ignore the powerful message about racism and other social issues.
The song became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, reaching #3 on the US Billboard R&B chart.
17. “We Shall Not Be Moved” by The Seekers
“We Shall Not Be Moved” was inspired by the religious hymn, “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and became an anthem for labor movements of the 19th century.
It became popular with the Swedish anti-nuclear and peace movements of the 70s and is sung in many protests today.
18. “The Preacher and the Slave” by Utah Phillips
“The Preacher and the Slave” is attributed to Joe Hill, who wrote it in 1911 as a parody of “In The Sweet By-and-By.”
The song expresses the conflict between the Salvation Army and the anti-capitalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), where it gets its theme of social justice and human rights.
19. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone
Nina Simone’s song became a powerful anthem for Civil Rights Movement with its strong message about black identity.
Initially written for children, the song quickly became an anthem for anyone who resonated with the lyrics.
The timeless message is relevant today just as it was several decades ago.
20. “Bread and Roses” by Judy Collins
Bread and roses is a slogan from the famous activist Helen Todd.
The piece was a strike song that demanded better wages and conditions for workers.
The song has traversed generations with its timeless message of dignity and respect for workers.
21. “Keep Your Hand On The Plow” by Mahalia Jackson
This song was inspired by Noah’s story in the Old Testament when the flood filled the earth.
The traditional spiritual song outlines an African American’s view of life, with plowing representing the oppression of many black workers in the fields.
22. “We Have Fed You All A Thousand Years” by Utah Phillips
This one is a labor movement anthem from the 1900s, even though nobody knows the author.
Labor organizer and renowned poet Utah Phillips released his version in the 1970s that has since become a popular hit.
The lyrics describe the heavy exploitation of industrial workers and the class differences.
“We have fed you all, for a thousand years/And you hail us still unfed/Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth.”
23. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” by Marvin Gaye
The 1970s gave us a new Marvin Gaye.
A different Marvin Gaye with a newly found passion for creating good music and a burning desire to highlight societal issues.
He released his What’s Going On album in October 1971, with “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” as one of the outstanding tracks.
The song highlights the terrible economic status of inner-city America, sung from the perspective of an ex-Vietnam War soldier returning home.
24. “From Little Things Big Things Grow” by Paul Kelly
This protest song is always attributed to Australian singers Paul Kelly and The Messengers for their 1991 Comedy album.
It is centered on the Gurindji strike, describing the never-ending fight for land rights between the Australian government and the indigenous communities.
25. “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” by Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs addresses a tricky concept in his anti-war anthem.
He speaks for war victims, lamenting the so many killings across generations.
It became an anthem for countless protests.
26. “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
Decades after its release, Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” still gives the best social commentary on street life.
The song’s relaxed tempo perfectly compliments the powerful lyrics about ghetto violence and poverty.
The narration is centered on the lives of young black adults struggling to make it out of poverty.
The struggles in the song are only comparable to the proverbial “survival of the fittest,” with everybody adapting to the changes that come with it.
This is one of the most powerful protest songs from the early 1980s that paved the way for N.A.W. and future political rap groups.
27. “Testify” by Rage Against The Machine
Rage Against the Machine wasn’t left behind in the rebellious struggles, releasing a powerful song about how the government controls and misleads the masses.
It also highlights the public’s numbness and blindness to major issues.
The call to action song asks ordinary people to wake up and call out the social injustices happening before our eyes.
“Testify” refers to George Orwell’s 1984 novel and the iconic party slogan, “Who controls the past, controls the future.
Who controls the present controls the past.”
28. “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield
Buffalo Springfield’s “For What Its Worth” has extended beyond the intended meaning to become one of the best protest songs in history.
While some have labeled it an anti-war song, it is about the protesters demonstrating against the anti-loitering laws in 1966.
The day’s events culminated in a clash between the rioters and the police and the closing of Pandora’s Box, a West Hollywood nightclub.
29. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron was at the forefront of the 70s and 80s protests with a string of social critique songs in spoken word form.
One of his best-ever compositions is “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a song that proclaims a change in mindset as the true revolution.
According to the singer, that which will change the world won’t be televised because it begins with our mind.
And only after we’ve identified what’s wrong with the world and how we can change it shall we initiate a revolution.
30. “Fuck Da Police” by N.W.A.
Sorry for the explicit song title.
Sorry again for including one of the most controversial songs ever on this list.
Of course, we don’t encourage violence or abuse against the police.
But it’s on record that the N.W.A. sextet of Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, Ice Cube, and Arabian Prince greatly detested the law enforcers.
Their 1988 protest song from Straight Outta Compton album reveals the complex relationship between the police and civilians and racial tension in Los Angeles in the 80s and 90s.
The rappers protest racial profiling and police brutality, and the “fuck the police” slogan has found its way into modern culture.
Best Songs About Social Justice – Final Thoughts
Music creates an intimate connection with the listeners.
And for decades, it’s been one of the most powerful tools for fighting social injustices.
When harnessed toward a common cause, music can be refreshing, uniting, and inspiring.
These 30 songs about social justice and human rights made history.
While some pleaded for peace, others were sung in response to societal issues like racism, class segregation, and police brutality.
A few also highlighted the plights of war victims, resonating with world war victims and soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.
Whatever societal ill you want to address, we hope you find a song that best highlights your plight.
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