Modern Protest Songs: 28 Powerful and Controversial Anthems

hands raised at protest rally

By Freedom Forum

The First Amendment protects five freedoms, including freedom of speech. Free speech protects the words we say and other forms of expression like music. Music has long been used by people to express themselves and, sometimes, to protest. That's where these modern protest songs come in.

Protest songs can be powerful critiques against society and politics or uplifting anthems. From gospel hymns of the Civil Rights Movement to folk anthems of the Vietnam War era to the popular music of today, music can power movements for change.

These modern protest songs are some of the most powerful, controversial and talked about pieces of protest music since 2000. 

Editor's note: Several of these songs feature explicit lyrics. 

28 modern protest songs you need to know

1. American Skin (41 Shots) | Bruce Springsteen, 2001

Springsteen has said that this song raising awareness of the death of 23-year-old Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo at the hands of New York police (who were acquitted) was not anti-police. But it did spark protests and criticism when "The Boss" performed at Madison Square Garden. Springsteen wasn't new to protest songs, and this piece has been covered and performed after other deaths in police custody.

2. What's Going On? | Artists Against AIDS Worldwide, 2001

This 1971 protest song originally by Marvin Gaye in reaction to violence against anti-Vietnam War protestors has been covered many times to show dismay about social and political conditions. An album with nine versions released in October 2001 was originally intended to raise money for programs addressing HIV and AIDS. It became even more timely after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when proceeds were sent to related funds. 

3. Where is the Love? | Black Eyed Peas, 2003

The group expressed criticism of many social ills, from terrorism to racism, war and pollution in this hip hop/soul take on a modern protest song in the style of Marvin Gaye. The video released with a 2016 update included police and family members of those affected by gun violence.

4. American Life | Madonna, 2003

After criticism of violent political imagery in the original music video of Madonna's anti-war/celebrity culture critique coincided with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the artist released a toned-down version. The original "director's cut" video was released in April 2023 for the album's 20th anniversary. 

"I feel lucky to be an American citizen for many reasons – one of which is the right to express myself freely, especially in my work. … As an artist, I hope that this provokes thought and dialogue. I don't expect everyone to agree with my point of view." - Madonna

5. American Idiot | Green Day, 2004

Coming out as support for the Iraq war waned, this criticism of the news media's coverage of the war earned four Grammy nominations. The modern protest song in the form of a rock opera helped revive Green Day's popularity and later became a Broadway musical that ran from 2010-2011.

6. Not Ready to Make Nice  | The Chicks, 2006

The country trio faced serious backlash, including being blacklisted from country radio and at least one credible death threat, after criticizing President George W. Bush and the Iraq war during a concert in London. This response track became one of the group's biggest successes as they refused to "shut up and sing;" it was also parodied by MADtv. The backlash and comeback both scared and emboldened other artists, and the group has gone on to make more modern protest songs.

7. Let's Impeach the President | Neil Young, 2006

Young's music had previously included politically aware songs, but this was more a more direct and literal protest song, both in its lyrics about President George W. Bush and in its aggressive, repetitive tune – so much so that "Saturday Night Live" parodied the album. Reactions fell largely along political lines. 

Fun fact: A similarly titled 1973 song by The Honey Drippers, "Impeach the President," criticized President Richard Nixon.

8. Born This Way | Lady Gaga, 2011

This gay anthem was inspired by "I Was Born This Way," a 1977 song by Black disco singer, AIDS activist and Archbishop Carl Bean. Gaga's song was criticized as racist, pandering and simplistic, and was censored in Muslim-majority Malaysia. But the iconic modern protest song was commercially successful and has had lasting impact among LGBTQ+ communities.  

"I want to write my freedom record." – Lady Gaga

9. Glory | Common and John Legend, 2014

This commentary on racial inequality compared the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement with present-day issues. It originally appeared in the 2014 film "Selma," about the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and won for best original song at the Academy Awards, where the duo performed this modern protest song live.

10. Alright | Kendrick Lamar, 2015

According to the artist, "Alright" was inspired by "The Color Purple" and a visit to activist Nelson Mandela's prison cell in South Africa. The hopeful, uplifting tone and message makes this different from many modern protest songs. It was performed at the 2022 Super Bowl LVI halftime show, and the chorus became a chant at some Black Lives Matter protests.

11. Formation | Beyoncé, 2016

This empowerment anthem channeled Black female positivity and was used by protestors during the Black Lives Matter movement and the January 2017 Women's March. Beyoncé's Super Bowl Halftime performance drew criticism as anti-police and anti-American, with a protest against her at the NFL's headquarters and dueling hashtags: #BoycottBeyonce and #IStandWithBeyonce. "Lemonade," the album that features the song, has become the subject of academic study.

12. FDT| YG & Nipsey Hussle, 2016

This hip hop track's title refers to an explicit lyric about then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. According to YG, the Secret Service tried to prevent the release of the song, and controversial lines referencing assassination were removed. The music video shoot, a protest scene, was shut down by police. At an October 2019 show, YG removed an audience member who did not repeat the title lyric. 

This modern protest song was inspired in part by N.W.A.'s iconic 1988 protest song, "F*** tha Police," which was criticized by the FBI in a letter to their record label.

13. We The People | A Tribe Called Quest, 2016

The group's first song in 18 years premiered just after Election Day 2016. It combines fiery commentary on hatred, fear and bigotry with a hopeful look at the possibility of equality. It references but does not directly name then-newly elected President Donald Trump, whose policies on immigration from majority Muslim nations were felt personally by two Muslim members of the group.

14. This is America | Childish Gambino, 2018

Actor and artist Donald Glover, performing under a stage name, released this hip hop/trap track as a portrait of contradictions of Black life in America and a critical commentary on racism and violence. The music video featured symbolism including references to racist Jim Crow caricatures and to the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C. The video generated controversy after it was shown in a high school class in California. 

Though its release was unrelated, "This is America" came out soon after "Ye vs. The People" by Ye (formerly Kanye West) and was used by some as a counterpoint to that song's messages.

15. Caro | Bad Bunny, 2019

Latin trap music artist Bad Bunny was inspired to co-write this song with gay icon Ricky Martin after being refused service at a nail salon. "Caro," which translates to "expensive," is a commentary on gender norms, toxic masculinity and LGBTQ+ equality. It adds gender identity to the topics of modern protest songs. 

16. Black Parade | Beyoncé, 2020

Grammy Award nominations for this modern protest song made Beyoncé the most nominated and most awarded artist to date in several categories. Its message of support for Black culture, history and activism was both critical and uplifting. Its surprise release on Juneteenth featured references to West African culture and religion, Black hair, leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and the effects of COVID-19 and police brutality on Black Americans. 

17. Lockdown | Anderson .Paak, 2020

Also released around Juneteenth, this reflective, lyrical commentary on gun violence also referenced COVID-19 restrictions and crackdowns on public protests. Inspired in part by his own participation in protests, this modern protest song touches on longstanding generational trauma. The imagery in the video, directed by longtime Kendrick Lamar collaborator Dave Meyers, features people wearing surgical masks and evokes Southern lunch counters.

18. I Can't Breathe | H.E.R., 2020

According to a New York Times investigation, the words "I can't breathe" have been used by more than 70 people who later died in police custody. H.E.R. said she felt a responsibility to carry on the legacies of past protest singers like Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone with this critical commentary but was surprised at the impact of this Grammy Award-winning Song of the Year.

19. Thoughts and Prayers | Drive-by Truckers, 2020

These Georgia rockers aren't strangers to modern protest music. Their 2016 album "American Band" contained some of their most political writing. And this track and the album on which it appears, "The Unraveling," are full of commentary critical of the lack of political action on gun violence. The song's title evokes a common refrain used after shootings, portraying it as hollow and empty.

20. March, March | The Chicks, 2020 

The country trio previously known as "The Dixie Chicks" released this call to action at the same time it dropped the reference to the pre-emancipation South. Inspired by the 2018 March for Our Lives, this protest song is a call to unite for social justice that touches on women's rights, gun violence and more. After the group's comeback following controversy over anti-Bush statements, some have seen this song as vindication for women artists who have been politically vocal.

21. Freeze Tag | Dinner Party, 2020  

The Los Angeles Times called this a "quiet cry of Black fury." It is a poignant, painful but hopeful look at violence inspired by Kendrick Lamar and Marvin Gaye. Artists Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and Terrance Martin have commented on feeling a deeper responsibility for artists to speak to the issues of the day. Martin also expressed cynicism about music's impact today after peers didn't speak up after the song was released; a harder-hitting piece from Martin, Washington and Denzel Curry, "Pig Feet," was a more direct and overt protest song. 

"It's a protest album but also not, you can listen to it and not feel like you're watching the news." ― Robert Glasper

22. Keep America Great | Camille & Haley, 2020

Sisters Camille and Haley Harris released their show of support for then-President Donald Trump in advance of a rally for him in Tulsa, Okla., where they live. The viral song urges listeners to vote and to focus on preserving American freedoms. The duo continues to write songs for causes they believe in.

23. Welcome to the Revolution | Hi-Rez & Jimmy Levy, 2021

This hip hop track's title and lyrics reference a slogan of the 1960s and '70s, "the revolution will not be televised," which was popularized in a searing 1971 song by poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron. This take on the protest slogan is similarly critical of the media and government and expresses distrust in institutions.

24. Let's Go Brandon | Loza Alexander, 2021

This modern protest song's title is a reference to a chant against President Joe Biden at a NASCAR event that was misheard by a reporter; the phrase has since become a common protest refrain. The video features rapper Loza Alexander, whose other tracks include "Voter Fraud/Fraud," "Wake Up America" and "Canceled."

25. Blood on My Hands | Five for Fighting, 2021

This September 2021 song by singer-songwriter John Ondrasik is critical of the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The artist said he wrote the song shortly after a suicide bombing there to call out how "America has broken her promise" to Americans and Afghan allies.

26. Fake Woke | Tom MacDonald, 2021

The Canadian rapper's single calls out censorship and cancel culture. The song's direct lyrics criticize labeling people based on their political views, characteristics or words as hypocritical, with the artist calling it "performative wokeness."

27. We The People | Kid Rock, 2022

Released after "Don't Tell Me How to Live," the country rock/rap artist's single criticized COVID-19 policies, big tech, economic policies and the media. Its "Let's go, Brandon" chorus is a reference to an anti-Biden chant. The song calls on Americans to listen to each other and unite.

28. Progress | John Rich, 2022

Released on Truth Social, this country song touches on current issues from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to Biden's proposed Build Back Better Plan. Rich laments social division and calls out government overreach and straying from faith and individual choice, saying, "Stick your progress where the sun don't shine."

These modern protest songs showcase the power of free speech

Thanks to the First Amendment, we can express our views and lift our voices with protest songs. Speaking up can court controversy, spark conversations and even inspire action. As the artists behind these modern protest songs show, we all have freedom of speech however we chose to use it. 

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