Music is one of the most powerful means of expression and the best artists are able to channel more than personal pain and struggle into their songs. Whether it’s a protest of a specific war, a universal plea for peace, a searing response to racism, or a celebratory victory cry, these seven songs tell human rights stories:
“Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution”
Though not as successful as “Fast Car,” the first single from Tracy Chapman’s first album, “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution” has endured. The song focuses on poverty with lyrics like, “While they’re standing in the welfare lines/Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation/Wasting time in the unemployment lines/Sitting around waiting for a revolution.”
In 2011, the song played frequently in Tunisia during the Tunisian Revolution, which was motivated by injustices like high unemployment, corruption, and food inflation. The longtime president was eventually unseated and the country democratized. “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution” also played before speeches at Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign rallies.
Bob Marley wrote and performed some of the most important songs in history. “Redemption Song” stands as one of the few without accompaniment beyond his guitar. It’s also significant because it was his last recording before his death at age 36. “Redemption Song” follows a story of persecution and ultimately victory “by the hand of the Almighty/We forward in this generation/Triumphantly.”
One of the most famous lines, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,” comes from a 1937 speech by Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political leader. Marley embraces a tragic history with a hopeful future, asking the listener, “Won’t you help to sing/These songs of freedom?”
The Rolling Stones’ 1969 album “Let It Bleed” opens with this powerful song. The world reeled from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, as well as the Vietnam War, which the band says inspired the song. “Gimme Shelter” contains lyrics like “War, children, it’s just a shot away.” Merry Clayton joins Mick Jagger in the chorus, and takes on the bridge solo: “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away!” Despite the bleakness of the lyrics, it ends on a note of hope with “I tell you love, sister, it’s just a kiss away.”
“They Don’t Care About Us”
Michael Jackson may be known as the “King of Pop,” but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t write politically and socially-significant songs. In 1996, he released “They Don’t Care About Us.” It was immediately controversial for some questionable lyrics, and Jackson ultimately re-recorded the song with changed words. The message remained intact: persecutors don’t care about those they persecute; those in power don’t care about the oppressed.
In the song’s second video, Jackson is filmed handcuffed in a prison with cuts of real footage of police brutality, the Ku Klux Klan, Tiananmen Square, and other abuses of human rights.
“She Keeps Me Warm”
It’s a bit sad that a beautifully-simple love song is revolutionary because it’s a woman singing about her girlfriend, but these are the times we live in. Mary Lambert, who wrote and sang the hook in Macklemore’s “Same Love” song, expands on the story.
The lyric “I’m not crying on Sundays” is especially poignant because Lambert was raised Christian, and experienced intolerance because of her sexuality. At the same time, she embraces the true message of “Love is patient, love is kind,” which is a reference to the famous love passage in 1 Corinthians 13. For anyone who has felt the sting of rejection from their religious community for being gay, but found acceptance in a partner, this song is magical.
“This Is America”
At first listen, it isn’t obvious just how deep Childish Gambino’s song is, and that’s why you need to watch the video. It consists of happy go-lucky dancing amidst violence, including a gun execution, riots, and cars on fire. Countless essays pick apart the video’s details, suggesting that the contrasting tones are meant to symbolize how America is outraged by an injustice only to be blissfully oblivious the moment the press cycle moves on. The verses get progressively darker and more serious, too, from the first bridge’s “We just wanna party/Party just for you” to “You just a black man in this world/You just a barcode.”
“Blk Girl Soldier”
Perhaps the least known song on this list, “Blk Girl Soldier” comes from Jamilla Woods’ debut album “HEAVN.” As the title suggests, the lyrics tell the stories of black women through history and their struggles and victories, complete with commentary on the “angry black woman” trope: “They want us in the kitchen/Kill our sons with lynchings/We get loud at it/Oh, now we’re the bitches.” In 2018, NPR listed “Blk Girl Soldier” in their ranking of the greatest songs by a female/non-binary artist in the 21st century.