Kanye West and Tennessee Ernie Ford, there is a great tradition in America and, heck, the world when it comes to musicians speaking out.
Obviously, these aren't the only protest singers, but they are among the most essential, the ones your record collection needs because they didn't just stand up to the man, they made it into the collective consciousness and you will be seen as far more worldly for knowing their names. Most political music is about as entertaining as a speech. As much as I may detest certain Supreme Court rulings or certain politicians, I hate them even more when they make musicians I like lousy!
Woody Guthrie: His guitar said it all: This Machine Kills Fascists. He traveled the country letting people know they weren't alone, that they had a voice and that as long as you held onto your spirit and your values, you had more than the opposition. Added bonus, his voice makes Bob Dylan's sound like Sinatra. Dust Bowl Ballads on vinyl came with an album cover made of very thick cardboard.25)
24) Odetta: Often lost in the shuffle, human rights activist Odetta had the unfortunate circumstance of being a folksinger before it was the trendy thing to be and then not a rocker once that became the trend. So, she is considered an influence on names we all know better and has been the recipient of many awards hailing her works. When you're known by one name — Bruce, Madonna, Prince, Joyce — you're part of a special 1%!
Pete Seeger: Bruce Springsteen helped bring new attention to old Pete Seeger. He was a member of the Weavers, who had the honor of being blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. Despite being 92 years old, Seeger has continued to play a prominent part in standing up for human rights, environmental causes and songs about turning and overcoming! I saw him in concert once and he was fun to watch.23)
22) Joan Baez: While Baez is known for her rather sober readings of folk songs, she is actually very funny. Her engaging appearance in the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home made you wish the documentary had been about her and that she'd been the one to send ol' nasty pants packing back in 1965.
21) Bob Dylan: Bob eventually deserted protest for the higher arts of timeless weirdness, but he wrote so much in those early years that it didn't really matter. He'd written enough solid protest tunes to keep people playing them for decades. "Masters of War"? That's a hot one!
20) Phil Ochs: Stuck often playing in the shadow of Bob Dylan, Ochs was every bit as entertaining and insightful in his own write. But where Dylan was a self-preservationist, Ochs was a bleeding heart. He unraveled. But not before he recorded great anthems and eventually his own imagistic reveries. Pardon me for preferring "Rehearsals for Retirement," "Pleasures of the Harbor" and "Gas Station Women" to the important stuff.
19) John Lennon: Yeah, yeah, Lennon was the millionaire who said "Imagine no possessions," and he couldn't decide if he was "in" or "out" when it came to destructive revolutions, but that's what made him so engaging. He was human. Music alone doesn't change the world. It eases the path to enlightenment. It changes people's hearts and works subtly on the mind. That's why politicians consider it so dangerous. It's intangible. You catch more flies with loud guitars than you do with propaganda.
18) The Clash: For all the junk written about these guys, they really did write songs that made you want to fight the power or at least smash up your room. While "The Call Up" was specific, "London Calling," "Clampdown" and others gave people the impression that the individual had more power than they initially believed. It was nice of them to charge less for their records.
17) Dead Kennedys: Lots of hardcore punk used the form to express its topical outrage. Who would've guessed that the "Jerry Brown" of "California Uber Alles" would still be a going concern in 2011?
16) Green Day: It's pretty amazing to think that at a time when most bands wouldn't touch politics, Green Day, only one of the biggest bands in the world, went out of their way to prove they were reading the newspaper! Almost makes me want to check out what all the fuss is about.
15) Pearl Jam: It would be a complete waste of a voice if Eddie Vedder didn't address "heavy" topics. He already sounds like he's been deliberating for years.
14) Bruce Springsteen: Since around Darkness On the Edge of Town, there's been a sense that Bruce never felt comfortable with the trappings of success. It didn't stop him from grabbing the brass ring, but it made him suspicious of it. For every "Born In the U.S.A." fist-pump, there was a donation to a local food bank. And if his listeners didn't catch on to the story in the verses, he eventually slowed the tune down until no one could miss the message. But, truth told, we missed the band.
13) Patti Smith: Some people lead by example. Sure, "People Got the Power" is a nice thought. But her best music was always the weird stuff. Anyone who begins their debut album with "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" is surely looking for trouble. But "Radio Ethopia"? That bit of noise is true protest.
12) Michael Franti: Each of Franti's projects, from the Beatnigs to The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy to Spearhead, have been socially conscious. He does not like to wear shoes. Are shoes a sign of imperialism? Around here at Yahoo!, we hate pants!
11) Steve Earle: He's stood up against the death penalty. He's held a critical eye towards the post 9-11 world. And he increasingly sings like he's got a bad cramp. Which actually makes him more interesting.
10) Tom Morello: A member of Rage Against The Machine and now an acoustic performer known as The Nightwatchman, Morello has performed at Occupy Wall Street protests and Occupy LA, and at concerts in support of collective bargaining rights in Madison, Wisconsin. His guitar says "Whatever It Takes."
9) Billy Bragg: If you had a voice like Billy's, you might be inclined to sing about world affairs, too. He doesn't exactly have the kind of voice you'd want singing in your ear. He sounds like he'd probably gob into it.
8) PJ Harvey: Her problems are more with England it seems. Which is fair enough. It's her part of the world. Is she really a protest singer? She sings loud enough.
7) Ani DiFranco: It's called living by example. She's her own boss. She makes her own rules. She does what she wants. By doing so, she makes all the performers who signed on the dotted line look like company men. Except for the guy in Fugazi.
6) Bikini Kill: Last I checked there were only three women on the Supreme Court. I'm not real good at math, but I'm pretty sure women make up more than 3/9ths of the population. I think they have a right to be annoyed. Imagine the cow men would be having if the numbers were reversed. Argue this point below and prove my point!
5) Bob Marley: With such toe-tappers as "Slave Drive," "Concrete Jungle," "Revolution," "War" and "Get Up Stand Up" (the unofficial anthem of Amnesty International), Marley wrote songs that will likely be sung long after the rest of us are worm food. So much for thinking positive.
4) Fela: The life of Fela Kuti is so controversial and crazy that it has been transformed into a three-time Tony Award-winning musical. The Nigerian musical leader was a pioneer of Afrobeat and a human rights activist, though his personal life had its ups and downs. Trust the art, not the artist.
3) Public Enemy: With a voice that sounded like he was speaking to us from the mountain, Chuck D could make anything seem serious. After speaking out about the issues that concerned him, he even managed to write a song, "Welcome to the Terrordome," that dealt with all his group's own problems, putting the "meta" back into the music!
2) John Trudell: Native American-Mexican poet-musician political activist, John Trudell has served as the chairman of the American Indian Movement. It was Jackson Browne, a songwriter who went from love to geo-political topics himself, who encouraged Trudell to pursue the musical world. Bob Dylan has championed him. He toured with Peter Gabriel for the WOMAD tour. If you like people who talk a lot in their music, you'll love him.
1) Victor Jara: Far too complex to get into here, Victor Jara's life was one that inspired musicians from U2 and the Clash to Jackson Browne and Marty Willson-Piper of the Church to all sing songs in tribute to him, a man whose awful, violent death became a rallying cry for anyone with a conscience.
- Bob Dylan