When was the golden era of creative and innovative music? It is not uncommon for passionate music fans to accuse modern music of lacking any type of substance or meaning. This may or may not be true. But one thing is clear: The 20th century privileged the world with some of the greatest and most legendary music.
The 1900s did allow for some of the most innovative sounds and instruments. But more importantly, the century of music provided creative messages that acknowledged important social and political issues. During this time, the musical messages were manifested in all types of genres and styles. Thanks to this vast diversity of music, the messages were capable of reaching people of all types of culture, style, and nationality. The 1900s thoroughly honored fans of all genres including rock & roll, reggae, metal, hip-hop, and plenty more. Musical pioneers such as N.W.A., Sam Cooke, and Rage Against the Machine were willing to push the envelope, doing things that had never been done in music before.
It was artists like these that played a huge part in expanding the boundaries of music and sound. They had no problem with pointing out government corruption, police brutality, the war on drugs, or any other government-influenced flaw or injustice. It is definitely unarguable that the 1900s lead an excellent example of how much an impact a generation can have, using only music. Here are 15 of the greatest songs from the 20th century that acknowledge social or political injustices.
15 The Beatles – Revolution
The song was recorded and released in 1968. The composure of the song is credited to The Beatles band members John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The song was recorded in inspiration of a wave of political protests. The protests occurred during the early months of 1968, and the song was released shortly after, within the same year. Lennon expressed a lot of ambiguity through the various revisions that were released. The second release of the song included a line, “count me out,” in the lyrics. This was later changed again. In the third released revision, Lennon changed the lyrics to “count me out, in.” The uncertainty by John Lennon provides for a good idea of what it may have felt like to experience the changes that were happening at the time. It may also be common for people to have the same conflicting mentality toward today’s political changes, and the opposing events that are following.
14 NWA – Express Yourself
N.W.A. is one of the first rap groups that was known for recognizing the racial discrimination and corruption in law enforcement. They publicly acknowledged the flawed justice system, as well as the growth police brutality. They focused primarily on injustices within the LAPD, many of which were widely ignored by the most of the popular media outlets at the time. “Express Yourself” does a great job of capturing the essence of 90s hip-hop. It samples a song by Charlie Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, which is also titled “Express Yourself.” Throughout the song, the west-coast collective is encouraging the listener to pursue utmost potential. Dre also includes the message of staying away from drugs, as it is brought up a number of times. Unlike most of N.W.A.’s songs, “Express Yourself” contains absolutely no profane content or lyricism whatsoever. In September 1989, the song peaked at number 26 on music charts in the United Kingdom.
13 The Doors – Five to One
The Doors were popular during the wakes of time that followed World War II. This time-era made for a band that was as revolutionary as they were poetic. In 1967, the ratio of younger people to older people was often said to be approximately 5:1. This was also the ratio of Vietnamese soldiers to American soldiers in the war. Jim Morrison was vague while writing the lyrics in “Five to One,” as he often was in many of his other songs. This may cause a lot of controversy as to what exactly is being described. But if nothing else, it is definitely clear that he is illustrating some type of revolution. Take a look for yourself. “The old get old, and the young get stronger. May take a week, and it may take longer. They got the guns, but we got the numbers. Gonna’ win yeah, we’re takin’ over!” Morrison later goes add to add some color to his picture. “You walk across the floor with a flower in your hand, trying to tell me no one understands. Trade in your hours for a handful of dimes.”
12 Bob Marley – Buffalo Soldier
“Buffalo Soldier” is the second track off of an album titled Confrontation. The song was recorded in 1978, however it was released on the album in 1983. The song, along with the rest of the Confrontation album, were released after Bob Marley’s passing in 1981. The writing of the lyrics is credited to Bob Marley, with the co-writing being credited to Jamaican DJ King Sporty. Buffalo soldiers was the term that was used to define the black U.S. cavalry regiments that fought in the Indian Wars. The term was originally given by the Native Americans. Duties of the buffalo soldiers included the repairing of structures and railroads, helping settlers find safe places to live, and preparing for enemy attacks. Throughout “Buffalo Soldier”, Marley calls the life of the soldier a “fight for survival.” In the song, he compares his life to that of a buffalo soldier’s, calling himself a “Buffalo Soldier in the heart of America.”
11 Common – A Song For Assata
Common is popular for being a prominent catalyst in the conscious hip-hop movement. Many of his songs reflect on the struggles of the urban environment, as well as political corruption. He wrote this song in respects for Assata Shakur. He tells the story of the Black Panther who was convicted of several crimes and eventually escaped prison. Assata Shakur’s crimes included bank robbery, armed robbery, kidnapping, attempted murder, and murder. Throughout the 70’s, Shakur was placed in several different prisons before her escape in 1979. After living in America as a fugitive for 5 years, she fled to Cuba where she found political asylum. Assata Shakur has since been classified by the FBI as domestic terrorist. In 2005, it was announced that there will be a reward of $1 million for anyone who can assist in the arrest of Shakur. The reward amount has since been increased, and there is now $2 million up for the 69-year-old who still resides in Cuba.
10 Sublime – April 29, 1992
Sublime is widely regarded to be the initiating band that popularized the genre known as “ska.” Before ska was a genre, fans would say Sublime had mostly reggae and punk rock influences. In their 1996 album, they released April 29, 1992. This is a song that acknowledges the beating of Rodney King, as well as of the most famous riots in American history. Bradley Nowell, the bands lead singer, begins the song by illustrating the scene of the graphic riots. He includes shattered windows, scattered fires, and theft everywhere. He also went into detail regarding his participation in the riots. The reason for his participation? “Everybody in the hood has had it up to here. It’s getting harder and harder and harder each and every year.” Brad goes on to acknowledge Rodney King’s case. He sums up the song by stating that the riots were a results of not just King’s isolated incident, but many more issues compiled together.
9 Marvin Gaye – What’s Goin’ On
Marvin Gaye was one of the very first Motown Artists to entirely escape the binding clutches of his production company. “What’s Goin’ On” was a song that was initially inspired by police brutality. The song was written after a brutal incident was witnessed by Renaldo “Obie” Benson of The Four Tops. The composure of “What’s Goin’ On” is credited to Obie Benson, Al Cleveland, and Marvin Gaye. Impressively, the production is credited to Marvin Gaye; himself alone. With “God Is Love” on the B side, the record has sold more than two million copies since it originally released in 1971. “What’s Goin On” would become Marvin Gaye’s second most successful single for Motown, after “Let’s Get It On.” It was also featured as song number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the song, Marvin Gaye acknowledges the deaths of “too many of his brothers,” the destructive nature of war, and police brutality.
8 Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna’ Come
Sam Cooke performed “A Change Is Gonna’ Come” for the first time on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. However, the single officially released just a few days before the Christmas of 1964. It was recorded nearly a year before its release at the end of the year. It was recorded at RCA Studio’s in Hollywood, California. Sam Cooke was inspired to write the song resulting from multiple racist incidents. Growing up in a time that racism was extremely prominent, he was often victimized by racist acts. Cooke specifically recounted an incident in which he and his recording crew were turned away from a motel in Louisiana. The song appears on Ain’t That Good News, Sam Cooke’s final album before he was murdered. In 2007, the song was selected to be preserved in the National Recording Registry within the Library of Congress. This act is only carried out when something can be deemed as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”
7 Bob Dylan – Hurricane
This is the first song to appear on the track listing for Bob Dylan’s album titled Desire. The title “Hurricane” refers to Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Hurricane Carter was a middleweight division boxer from Canada. Throughout the song, Bob Dylan tells the nightmarish story that was Hurricane Carter’s reality. Dylan describes the murder of 2 males and a female at a New Jersey bar in 1966. He later goes on to explain the process that was taken while convicting Hurricane. It was noted that finger prints were not taken at the crime scene, and that a paraffin test was never conducted in order to detect gunshot residue. He concludes the song by leaving the listener with the realization the Hurricane was wrongfully convicted, and spent nearly 20 years in prison. Bob Dylan decided to begin writing the song after visiting Carter in prison, once alone, and then again with a group of supporters. The song is widely credited as a contribution that led to a petition of habeas corpus just before Carter’s release.
6 Public Enemy – Fight the Power
“Fight the Power” was released in 1989 on Motown Records. It was originally recorded after a request was made to Public Enemy by film director Spike Lee. Spike Lee reached out to Public Enemy in search of a musical theme for his at-the-time upcoming film that was titled Do the Right Thing. "Fight the Power" was first released on the film’s “Do the Right Thing Soundtrack” in 1989. However, Public Enemy included the hit track in their studio album Fear of a Black Planet which released in 1990. The song features a variety of ingredients that stem from African-American culture. These include samples from civil rights incitements, black church harmonies, as well as some background hype from James Brown songs. The song reached number 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles. It also reached number 20 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Singles. The Recording Industry Association of America, The National Endowment for Arts, and Scholastic Inc. conducted a “Songs of the Century” in which Fight the Power was the only rap song to appear on.
5 Gregory Isaacs – Black Against Black
This was one of Gregory Isaacs’ earliest hits ever recorded and released. In 1973, Isaacs teamed up with Errol Dunkley, who was also a 22-year-old singer from Kingston, Jamaica. The two of them opened a shop. But the greater achievement was the launch of their own record label, calling their brand the African Museum record label. When the song was originally released under the African Museum record label, it was then titled “Black A Kill Black.” However, this was later changed when the song appeared on Gregory Isaacs’ album titled Extra Classic. When the song was released on this 1977 album, it was found under the new title of “Black Against Black.” However, “Black a kill black, Lord” can still be heard in the intro, and in the background throughout the song. “Political violence covers the Earth. (Back black). Men don’t know what life is really worth. (Black a kill).”
4 Tupac – Changes
With this 1998 hit song, Tupac covers a vast assortment of social and political issues. He talks about injustices and hardships that he experiences from an urban perspective. The issues that he discusses range from war corruption to police brutality to gang violence. In 2000, Tupac’s “Changes” was nominated as Best Solo Rap Performance at the Grammy Awards. This had been the first and last time that a posthumous song was nominated within this category. In 1999, the song ranked on nearly 20 weekly music chart categories in different countries around the globe. This includes America’s Billboard, ranking at number 32 in Hot 100 and number 12 in Hot R&B Singles. The song also placed number 1 Norway and the Netherlands. The release of “Changes” influenced people on an international level. Not only did it spread publicity for Tupac’s brand, but it also improved the reputation of the hip-hop genre.
3 Otis Redding – Sitting on the Dock of the Bay
Otis Redding allowed for two separate recordings of this song, both in 1967. The second recording of the song took place only days before his death. During the following year, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” was released on Stax Records’ Volt label. It later became the first posthumous song to ever rank number 1 on America’s Billboard Top 100 Singles. It also placed at the number 3 top single in the United Kingdom. In the song, Otis Redding mentions his recollection of leaving the south in search of peace on the west coast. He goes on to express hope, even in that not much has changed for the better. Redding was also the original artist of the song “Respect”. However, the lyrics were later revised and made popular in Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” song. Among “Respect” and other songs, Otis Redding was one of the greatest contributors toward the protest-inducing soul movement.
2 Rage Against the Machine – Testify
When the band reunited for a final tour, they opened nearly every show with this track. It was released in 1999 off of Rage Against the Machine’s third studio album titled The Battle of Los Angeles. The cover art for the single “Testify” is the same artwork that was used for the 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute. The lyrics to the song are a tribute to George Orwell’s novel called 1984: “Who controls the past now controls the future. Who controls the present now controls the past.” The song was played live at the Continental Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey five months before its official release. However, when “Testify” was released, the lyrics were changed while the rest of the song remained the same. The video features the two presidential candidates at the time, George W. Bush and Al Gore. They are portrayed as a single being that holds the same sketchy political outcomes.
1 Bob Marley – War
“War” is the ninth of ten tracks on the Rastaman Vibrations album by Bob Marley & The Wailers. The album was released in 1976. A majority of the lyrics in this song originally derive from a speech that was made by Haile Selassie I, former Emperor of Ethiopia. The speech was delivered in front of the United Nations General Assembly in 1963. However, the writing of the song was credited to Carlton Barrett and Allen “Skill” Cole. Like many of Bob Marley’s songs, there is frequent debate as to who really contributed the ideas of the speech and other lyricism in the song. Bob Marley often credited close friends and family for what he should have credited himself for. It is often said that he did this in order to avoid unfavorable circumstances with publishing contract agreements. Conversely, many still argue that these credits were given to those who helped and inspired his musical efforts. The truth remains unclear, however it wouldn’t be impossible for both answers to be simultaneously true.
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