It’s been almost three years since I published my top ten songs to make social change to – where did the time go?! I think it’s about time I follow up with part two – counting down from number 20 through to 11. There’s been much debate in the Student Hubs office about the selection and we’d love to hear your ideas too, so feel free to leave a comment below.
You can listen along to our YouTube playlist whilst you read.
20. I Was Here // Beyoncé // 2011
This ballad from Beyoncé is all about leaving your mark on the world and making a difference with your time: “I wanna leave my footprints on the sands of time / Know there was something that, meant something that I left behind”. It might not have had social change intentions originally, but it was put to good use in 2012 when Beyonce donated the song to the UN and World Humanitarian Day. They aimed to create history with one billion people sharing the message of doing something good for another person.
19. Fight The Power // Public Enemy // 1989
Spike Lee felt that he needed an “anthem” for his critically-acclaimed film, ‘Do The Right Thing’, about racial tensions in New York. He approached Public Enemy for their help and got what he asked for: a song that quickly became an anthem for young black people in Brooklyn and beyond. With lyrics praising freedom of speech and unity, the song was apparently used to great effect by radio stations silenced by Milošević’s regime in Serbia.
18. Redemption Song // Bob Marley // 1980
Bob Marley’s last single released before his death in 1981, Redemption Song is considered one of his greatest. The song is about historic and modern day slavery, and the struggle for physical and emotional freedom. It urges listeners to “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery” because “None but ourselves can free our minds” – lines taken from a speech given by Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey in 1937. It’s a song that feels part resigned, part inspirational: “Won’t you help to sing / These songs of freedom?”
17. If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next // Manic Street Preachers // 1998
After the 1980s chock-a-block with songs about social change, the 1990s were less prolific. Enter the Manics, at number one in the UK Singles Chart. The song is inspired by the 1930s Spanish Civil War, and the idealism of Welsh volunteers who joined the left-wing International Brigades fighting for the Spanish Republic against Franco’s military rebels. The song title is taken from a Republican poster of the time, but in 2015 it makes me think more of climate change and the action we need to take.
16. Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution // Tracey Chapman // 1988
This popular song has been widely covered, most recently by Israeli band Shmemel in 2011 who restyled it as “Talking About an Arab Revolution”. The lyrics carry a hopeful message starting out with “Don’t you know / They’re talkin’ bout a revolution / It sounds like a whisper” and ending with “Finally the tables are starting to turn”. Although Chapman has said she doesn’t consider herself a social activist, the song has widely inspired people taking part in social action and was famously performed at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party.
15. Oxygen // Willy Mason // 2004
A really sweet, uplifting kind of song from Willy Mason. It charted at number 23 in the UK – one of the poppiest protest songs of the noughties. It has a strong message of hope, peace and sustainability with lyrics like “We can be stronger than bombs / If you’re singing along and you know that you really believe / We can be richer than industry / As long as we know that there’s things that we don’t really need”.
14. What’s Going On // Marvin Gaye // 1971
Written by Al Cleveland, Renaldo Benson and Marvin Gaye, the song was originally inspired by Benson’s experience witnessing police brutality against anti-Vietnam War protestors in the US. “We don’t need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate / You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some lovin’ here today”. Benson was going to give the song to the Four Tops and later said “My partners told me it was a protest song, I said ‘no man, it’s a love song, about love and understanding. I’m not protesting, I want to know what’s going on.'”
13. Man In The Mirror // Michael Jackson // 1987
Thanks to our youth social action pals over at City Year for this brilliant suggestion! One of Jackson’s most critically acclaimed records, Man In The Mirror is a super catchy song telling us that to change the world we have to start with personal changes: “If you wanna make the world a better place / Take a look at yourself, and / Then make that change”. A very deliberate call to action, the music video showed a montage of scenes of racism, war and poverty from around the world, intermixed with scenes of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and John Lennon.
12. Free Nelson Mandela // The Special AKA // 1984
You’ll know this song, but have you heard the full version? What a brilliant record from The Special AKA (also known as The Specials). Unlike most protest songs the track is upbeat and celebratory, drawing on South African musical influences. The song peaked at number nine on the UK Singles Chart and quickly became an anthem at sporting events and ANC rallies in South Africa. Mandela was released six years later in 1990. The student committee at Wadham College in Oxford actually passed a motion to end every college ‘bop’ with the song. The tradition continues to this day.
11. Where Is The Love? // The Black Eyed Peas // 2003
Described as “the definitive youth social action song” by our Kingston Hub Manager, this song shot to number one in the UK singles chart and stayed there for six weeks. Released three months after the US invasion of Iraq, the song preaches a message of love, fairness and equality whilst decrying war and selfishness: “If you only have love for you own race / Then you only leave space to discriminate / And to discriminate only generates hate”. It finishes with the perfect echo “We only got (One world, one world) / That’s all we got (One world, one world)”.