The latter half of the ‘60s was truly the beginning of an American revolution. With a melting pot of issues all colliding at once, such as equal rights and the Vietnam War, it was only inevitable that the new generation of youngsters would start writing tracks that expressed their political views. John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono were chief among them as they penned tracks in the Plastic Ono Band such as “Give Peace a Chance,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival gave us a song about going to war that would play in commercials and appear on soundtracks forever with “Fortunate Son.” While it was never explicitly political, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” became an anthem for equal rights, and Aretha Franklin’s cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” was a rallying cry for women everywhere. And, of course, there’s Country Joe and the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag,” which was immortalized with a performance at Woodstock in 1969.
With the 1970s came more turmoil politically with an extra notch of artistic creativity to boast. In Motown, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were utilizing their newfound creative freedom to make tremendous bodies of work, with songs such as “Livin’ For The City” and “What’s Goin’ On,” respectively, being high points of their work. Gil Scott-Heron was also making a statement of his own with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tackled the Kent State Shootings with “Ohio.” By the late ‘70s, punk rock was becoming a tremendous threat to the establishment all across the world, with the U.K. specifically having to deal with the Sex Pistols and songs like “Anarchy in the U.K.”
In the 1980s, hip-hop became a force to be reckoned with. As the genre developed throughout the decade, so too did the messages in its songs. While not explicitly talking about Reagan or the war on drugs by name, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” was the first politically conscious song and it influenced the creation of other staples of the decade, such as N.W.A.’s “F--- Tha Police” or Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” Across genres, Neil Young was challenging the system with “Rockin’ In The Free World,” and U2 was doing the same with regards to their home country of Ireland with “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
With the rise of a genre like grunge, the ‘90s always sound like a more tumultuous era than most others listed before it. Bands like Rage Against The Machine are a perfect snapshot of this period, with their most well known track “Killing In The Name” becoming a hit while attacking the police. Speaking of police, what can be said about “Cop Killer” by Body Count that hasn’t already been said. Ice Cube’s whole discography fresh out of N.W.A. also felt like a shot at the entire establishment, and songs like “Check Yo Self” help put the exclamation mark at the end of that point.
The era that had both 9/11 and the presidency of George W. Bush was bound to have some music that was the opposite of positive. The Dixie Chicks, who aren’t exactly fond of Bush to say the least, unleashed their venom on “Not Ready To Make Nice.” System of a Down made a song that uses a well known acronym to make something entirely different on “B.Y.O.B.,” and M.I.A. challenged America’s viewpoints of other countries' dangerous situations with “20 Dollar.” Oh yeah, and the Black Eyed Peas made a fun song with Justin Timberlake called “Where Is The Love?,” which is the real question that needs to be asked from time to time.
The most recent decade to have a plethora of politically charged songs includes two outstanding cuts from hip-hop stallworth Killer Mike, with solo cut “Reagan” being an attack on the former president, and his collaboration with El-P — Run The Jewels — on “Angel Duster.” D’Angelo came out of hiding to make a statement on Black Lives Matters with his band The Vanguard on “The Charade,” and Joey Bada$$ made an even more radical statement on “AMERIKKKAN IDOL.” Finally, in the age where Donald Trump is president, YG and the late Nipsey Hussle made a dedication of how they feel about the current commander in chief with “FDT.”