Resistance Radio: A Protest Mixtape for a Nation in Crisis

By Patrick Metzger

This week, a new president will take office. It is possible that more people will attend protests across the country in opposition to that president than those who are attending his inauguration. Leaders on both sides of the party line have spoken out against him, and over 60 lawmakers are choosing to boycott the inauguration as a matter of principle.

Organizing efforts are revving up all over the nation. In addition to the first, massive Women’s March on Washington (and its counterpart in NYC), direct actions will continue throughout the year. Shaun King has been spearheading the Injustice Boycott to demand action on social justice issues (along with, of course, the continued efforts of organizations like Black Lives Matter, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and many more that are too numerous to list here). The Resistance Manual—a Wiki with information on daily actions and resources for learning more about the Movement—was just launched this week by the folks at Stay Woke (DeRay McKesson, Netta Elzie, Brittany Packnett, and Sam Sinyangwe).

This week is the beginning of the next phase of a large-scale nonviolent resistance movement. And if we’re going to keep ourselves motivated, we’re going to need a soundtrack.

Below is a mixtape of some of the best protest songs ever written (along with YouTube links and a Spotify playlist so you can take them on the go). Some are great for singing at a protest. Some are great as background music for an organizing session/dance party with your friends. Some are just great to bob your head to while you’re programming the next great civic tech app. I will continue to add to this playlist in the days to come as we bravely march toward a brighter day.

With an eye to keeping things interesting, performers typically appear only once in the playlist. Songwriters, however, may appear several times. This is not to say that these writers are good because they’re old, but rather that they’re old because they’re good.

I’ll be adding to this playlist in the days to come. Comment below with your suggestions.

With that, I humbly submit: Resistance Radio.

Written by Woody Guthrie (check out his version here), this timeless anthem gives a clear warning to those who seek power for personal gain that “people all over the world are getting organized,” and that they’re bound to lose.

Beyoncé reminds us who really runs the world. This one is a particularly good jam for a bus ride down to the Women’s March, but will stay with us in the years to come as we continue dismantling the patriarchy.

Write your congressman with this in your earbuds.

“As the polls close like a casket
On truth devoured,
A Silent play in the shadow of power,
A spectacle monopolized,
The camera’s eyes on choice disguised.
Was it cast for the mass who burn and toil?
Or for the vultures who thirst for blood and oil?”

We lost Sharon Jones in November of last year. As a former Riker’s Island prison guard, she saw first-hand the brutality of the prison system, and she knew the importance of real justice. At a time when the president’s pick for Interior thinks that we should be drilling on public lands (yes—your land, my land), Jones’ rendition of this Woody Guthrie classic feels pretty timely.

If you haven’t yet, go watch Selma right now. Study from the masters. Learn to organize. Prepare for serious opposition. March anyway.

2Pac was an incredibly perceptive artist. The challenges we face today with racial injustice are not new ones. They are unfortunately very old challenges, set in motion and perpetuated by intentional decisions of those in power. 2Pac saw the results of an unjust system and communicated honestly about it.

“I see no changes all I see is racist faces.
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races.
It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact,
The penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks.”

This Jim Garland song, based on an old folk tune (“Greenback Dollar”), dates back to the 1930s when the greed of the wealthy caused the first Great Depression. At that time, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s socialist public works initiatives that brought jobs to millions and saved the country from the brink. Now in the wake of the Great Recession, with wealth inequality at its worst since the Great Depression, we could use some of those same public works programs today.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg can tell you: dissent is one of the most important stances we can take towards a broken system. Lily Alan concurs.

“You’re just some racist who
Can’t tie my laces.
Your point of view is medieval.”

Patty Griffin’s tribute to Martin Luther King encourages us all to take the higher perspective that Dr. King shared with us.

Florence Reece wrote this song in 1931 as workers were beginning to find the true strength and leverage of organizing in workers’ unions. Since the 1950s, afraid of this growing democratization, moneyed interests have worked to decrease union membership and slow the effectiveness of unions. But we have seen how powerful and crucial unions are in protecting the wages and wellbeing of workers, and unions aren’t going anywhere.

The only constant is change.

“Your old road is rapidly aging.
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand,
Cause the times they are a-changing.”

This song is an old spiritual that has been used in protests for nearly 100 years.The Freedom Singers performed this song during the 1963 March On Washington. We carry on a great tradition when we hold firm to our cause and say—with our bodies, hearts, and voices—that we shall not be moved.

This song chronicles the events of Bloody Sunday—when police in Northern Ireland shot 26 unarmed civilians who were peacefully protesting. It captures the horrors of injustice and the frustration of having to ask, “How long must we sing this song?”

An anthem for anyone responding to authoritarianism at every scale, this song is a great motivator to stand up for what’s right.

Put your metal ears on. This song came out in 2001 as the magnitude of the incarceration problem in our country was becoming ever harder to ignore. As private prisons continue to profit off of an unjust system, the song is unfortunately all the more relevant today.

“Our freedom of speech is freedom or death.
We’ve got to fight the powers that be.”

Billie Holiday’s performance of this Abel Meeropol song is absolutely haunting. The vivid imagery of lynchings in the South has moved audiences since the 1930s and up to this day. Most recently, Rebecca Ferguson publicly declined an invitation to sing at the inauguration of the 45th United States president, stating she would only appear if she could sing “Strange Fruit.”

This song was written in response to the Kent State shootings, where the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed students who were protesting the Vietnam War.

This movement isn’t going anywhere. We’re a force to be reckoned with. We are the voice of reason, the voice of compassion, the voice of justice. We are the majority. We’re unstoppable.

Anaïs Mitchell wrote this song long before the most recent talk of walls came around, but it has a particular resonance now. It is a song of resistance to the fear and greed that motivates all bigotry.

We can’t allow ourselves to be fooled into drinking the Kool-Aid. This song points to the dark side of what America has become—”the oligarchy…a system breaking down beyond repairs.”

“War is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate.”

“Even if it makes others uncomfortable
I will love who I am
I’m tired of Marvin asking me ‘What’s Going On?’
March to the streets ‘cuz I’m willing and I’m able”

Coming out of the legacy of slavery, white supremacists used to call black men “boy” in order to exert power over them. Since racism is still rampant in this country, this unfortunately still happens to this day, such that even Barack Obama must wonder when he’ll get to be called a man.

“Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism,
But we still got terrorists here livin’
In the USA, the big CIA,
The Bloods and The Crips and the KKK.”

Cooke’s classic song details the struggles of blacks in the United States and reinforces the certainty that change is possible, even inevitable.

Pete Seeger’s classic protest song brings a message of love—and it’s great to sing with a great big crowd!

“Hooterville Junction will no longer be so damned relevant
and Women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.”

“I’ve worked on jobs with my feet and my hands,
But all the work I did was for the other man,
And now we demands a chance to do things for ourselves.”

This song by Billy Taylor and “Dick Dallas” is a devastating in its simultaneous message of hope and ensnarement. We cannot truly call a people free that is oppressed by unjust powers beyond their control, and we must work toward the day when all people truly know how it feels to be free.

Some see nonviolent resistance as a spiritual pursuit. A couple thousand years ago, a working class carpenter traveled around and told everyone about wealth redistribution. The people in power didn’t like that so much. They don’t much like it these days either. Doesn’t make it wrong. Yes, Jesus Christ practiced nonviolent resistance.

Bob Marley was inspired to write this song with Peter Tosh after being deeply moved by the poverty that Haitians were living in during the 1970s. Encouraging direct action, it contains a version of the old adage:

“You can fool some people sometimes,
But you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

Don’t get discouraged if it seems like you’re fighting the same fight over and over again. The selfish and powerful have a way of using new tricks to try to achieve an old goal. Tell lawmakers that you see their inaction and you’re sick of it.

“The world is tired of pacifiers
We want the truth and nothing else.”

This old protest song is based on an even older folk song called “Gospel Plow,” and it’s gotten me through a lot of my most difficult times. We’re at the beginning of a long fight. Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.

The courage, endurance, and visibility of the Standing Rock protests inspired us all last year. Water protectors are continuing actions all across the country as oil corporations work to jeopardize the very source of life. The music for this track was put together by first nations DJs from Canada (sampling traditional music of the Black Bear tribe), with rhymes by Yasiin Bey (better known as Mos Def) and Iraqi-Canadian rapper, Narcy. It’s an incredibly powerful collision of forces that raises up the natural world around us and the first nations peoples who continue the tradition of protecting it.

This song was written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Brenda Russell, and expresses a deeply profound truth, that we all suffer when we subjugate our fellow human beings.

The video for this song is incredibly powerful. It’s also used to great effect in the Netflix documentary 13th, which everyone should go watch right now.

“I am no prison commodity, not just a body you throw in a cell.”

An adaptation of the hymn “I’ll Overcome Some Day” by Charles Albert Tindley, this song was passed down from Lucille Simmons leading tobacco workers on strike in 1945 and became one of the defining anthems of the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s. Pete Seeger sings this moving rendition with a crowd, ending with the verse, “We are not afraid today.”

“When the silence isn’t quiet
And it feels like it’s getting hard to breathe
And I know you feel like dying
But I promise we’ll take the world to its feet
And move mountains
We gonna walk it out
And move mountains
And I’ll rise up”

It is a hard thing to realize that this world is not as perfect as it should be—that we must imagine a better one. But it is our vision of justice, our dream of peace that will carry us into the equitable future that we will build together.

Equal pay for equal work is not a new conversation. Peggy Seeger (her brother Pete has a great rendition too) shares the story of a woman fighting to be respected for her skills in a man’s world, while constantly struggling with the expectations of what it means to be “a lady.”

Oh, you thought we were nasty before? Watch how we do peaceful civil disobedience.

“Don’t play stupid, don’t play dumb,
Vagina’s where you’re really from.”

This one is good for an afternoon meditation. Where do you fit in the great mandala? What role does your body, your heart, your mind have to play in the great expanse of the cosmos? As Mary Oliver says, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

There are people in power who don’t want harmony. Discord is more profitable. They would rather prop up a “bad guy” that they can blame everything on and watch as our country is divided into arbitrary categories. They act as though all these “bad guys” could just be cleared out. But as Aziz Ansari said on the night of the Women’s March, “We’re all going to move? All the minorities? 40-something percent of the country? Every minority’s going to move? Beyoncé’s going to move? Beyoncé ain’t moving. I ain’t moving.”

A powerful song. No matter what the opposition, we each of us have a light inside us. And no matter what shadow of lies is cast in our path, when we gather together, the truth shines brighter than a thousand stars.


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