Protest music: the curated playlist

Produced as part of You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970

Ran from 10 September 2016 to 26 February 2017

More about this Exhibition

To celebrate the exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution: Records and Rebels 1966 – 70, we created seven Spotify protest music playlists, ranging in theme from race equality and justice to anti-war and LGBTQI rights, and invited you to contribute your suggestions to create the ultimate revolution playlists.

For our final playlist, we invited five music artists, four bands and one music journalist to nominate their favourite protest songs. From a trilingual song about the first seven seconds of a newborn's life to a track with the most 'f'-words ever recorded, we hope this playlist will remind you of the continual importance of music in highlighting inequalities and helping to push for change.

Kate Tempest – Tunnel Vision (picked by Beans on Toast)

Beans on Toast is the stage name of British folk singer-songwriter Jay McAllister, whose music highlights topics including politics, drugs and love. After playing countless gigs in bedrooms and bars across the UK, he has now built himself a dedicated following and in 2016, he released his eighth studio album, A Spanner in the Works. Since 2009, Beans on Toast has released an album every year on 1 December – his birthday.

Kate is the greatest poet of our generation. The world is in trouble and this song and album depict a bleak reality of the modern day but still manages to find the magic. It finishes with the line 'wake up and Love more' – that's my kind of protest.

Beans on Toast

Kendrick Lamar – The Blacker the Berry (picked by ISLET)

ISLET are a four-piece collaborative band from Wales, described by NME as "a model of how a left-leaning rock band ought to conduct themselves." The members of the band have no set roles or instruments, creating a hypnotic and mesmerising sound. Their latest EP, Liquid Half Moon was recorded in a barn in Radnorshire in Wales, self-produced and self-released on Shape Records.

'The Blacker the Berry' by Kendrick Lamar is the second single from his third studio album To Pimp A Butterfly. The song's profound and enraged lyrics address Kendrick's internal struggles and conflicts with institutionalised racism in America and the effects it has on the black community.

Nina Simone – Mississippi Goddam (picked by Dorian Lynskey)

Dorian Lynskey is a music writer for the Guardian and Observer, as well as numerous magazines including Q, GQ and Billboard. He is the author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs.

'Mississippi Goddam', by American singer and pianist Nina Simone, was composed in less than an hour and is regarded as one of the most famous civil rights anthems ever written.

Written in one furious burst and only recorded in startling live performances to unsuspecting audiences. An almost impossible combination of visceral immediacy and subtle craft, humour and rage, energy and menace. Every time I hear it, it shocks me anew.

Dorian Lynskey

Dead Prez – Police State (picked by Loamlands)

Loamlands, are a DIY folk-punk band from North Carolina, US. Sweet High Rise, their first full-length record described as "a compelling, beautiful, and starkly political record" by Bitchmedia, is written as a love letter to their hometown of Durham, North Carolina and the LGBT community facing the state's increasingly oppressive discrimination laws.

There are definitely too many to choose from – depending on what you mean by protest. I saw Dead Prez recently at a small club in Durham and felt my heart race at the energy of 250 people yelling obscenities at the police whose jail was just across the street. Let's Get Free is a record from 2000 that is still unfortunately pertinent today. Durham, North Carolina, has been a hub of police brutality towards POC [people of colour] folks for years. This past year wasn't any different. Dead Prez revived the spirit of agitators in the room that night with old and new words such as these:

I'll take a slug for the cause like Huey P.
While all you fake niggaz try to copy Master P
I want to be free to live, able to have what I need to live
Bring the power back to the street, where the people live
We sick of workin' for crumbs and fillin' up the prisons
Dyin' over money and relyin' on religion for help
We do for self like ants in a colony
Organize the wealth into a socialist economy
A way of life based off the common need
And all my comrades is ready, we just spreadin' the seed

And it felt good to be in the presence of reality – in the presence of another person's/communities' truth. People of all colours and genders were in that room rallying under the same banner. When we align ourselves with each others' struggle and become accomplices, we get things done.


Will Varley – We Don't Believe You (picked by Frank Turner)

Frank Turner is a singer-songwriter from a small village called Meonstoke in Hampshire, UK. He began his career as the vocalist of post-hardcore band Million Dead, before starting a successful acoustic-based solo career. Taking influence from the punk and folk worlds, his music continues to grow richer and more colourful with each successive record. Twelve years later, Turner now has six studio albums under his belt and has recently featured in the documentary, Get Better – A Film About Frank Turner, directed by his friend Ben Morse.

[This is] a recent song, but it has a timelessness and simplicity to it that will, I think, resonate for a long time to come.

Frank Turner

Turner also complimented Varley as being, "one of the best songwriters I've ever heard."

Charles Mingus – Original Faubus Fables (picked by Downtown Boys)

The Downtown Boys are a self-described 'bi-bilingual political dance sax punk party from Providence' who create fiery punk rock with a sharp political edge. Their debut album, Full Communism, is a "screaming, teeth-baring call-to-arms for anyone stuck in a McJob or struggling to find their way in the world." Unsurprisingly, they selected one of Charles Mingus's most explicitly political works, 'Fables of Faubus'.

Orval Faubus was the governor of the US state of Arkansas from 1955 to 1967. He's most known for defying the US Supreme Court's order to desegregate schools by ordering the Arkansas National Guard to block black students from entering Little Rock Central High School in 1957. This track was Charles Mingus' explicit 'fuck you' to Faubus and all those like him.

Recorded in 1959, Columbia records refused to release this version of the song, forcing Mingus to re-record a version without the lyrics. Mingus managed to get this version out a year later, and it remains one of the strongest political-musical statements of the time.

Both the political and artistic history are important to remember here as we head into the next four years and beyond. The opening lines are still as necessary as they were in the 1950s:

'Oh, Lord, don't let 'em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don't let 'em stab us!
Oh, Lord, don't let 'em tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!'

Downtown Boys

Neneh Cherry and Youssou Ndour – 7 Seconds (picked by Viv Albertine of The Slits)

Viv Albertine is best known for being the guitarist of the punk band, The Slits – one of the defining bands of the punk era. Since then she has released her own solo album, The Vermilion Border in 2012, her autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys Boys, Boys, in 2014 and is soon to be releasing a new non-fiction book in 2017, published by Faber.

I really wanted a song involving a woman singer/writer and also not American, but Neneh I think of as international and she was in the Slits for a while. The song goes to the very start of oppression, starting from seven seconds after birth. It talks about colour and nationality but I would add gender and class too.

Viv Albertine

Super Furry Animals – Man Don't Give a Fuck (picked by Super Furry Animals)

Super Furry Animals, a band whose music might not immediately seem political, have in fact had a history of political involvement, both personally and within their songs. From heading a Tory party conference protest with Charlotte Church to their keyboard player Cian performing in the viewing gallery of a wind turbine to protest against the government's plans for nuclear expansion, the band have never shied away from voicing their opinion.

When asked what their selection would be, they chose one of their own songs, 'The Man Don't Give A Fuck'. The song, released twice as a single with the latter containing the most 'f'-words in any song ever, is based around a sample from the Steely Dan song, 'Show Biz Kids', and has been a regular set-closer for the band. Gruff Rhys, the lead singer, has described the song as a "protest song for our time", which can be used against "any organization which you feel is terrorising you as an individual, anyone who's cramping your style".

Jenny Hval – That Battle is Over (picked by Amber Arcades)

Amber Arcades is the stage name of Dutch singer-songwriter Annelotte De Graaf. De Graff funded and recorded her debut album, Fading Lines entirely herself by juggling her day job as an assistant for war crime tribunals at the United Nations.

She chose the song 'The Battle is Over' by Jenny Hval, a Norwegian singer-songwriter who has released six albums, with her fifth, Apocalypse Girl to widespread critical acclaim. 'The Battle Is Over' is a song that "looks at how we want to live versus how society tells us we should be living", with Hval singing "You say I'm free now, that battle is over, and feminism is over and socialism's over. Yeah, I say I can consume what I want now."

Mercedes Sosa – La Maza (picked by Holly Herndon)

Holly Herndon is an American composer and sound artist. She is currently a doctoral student studying composition at Stanford University. Influenced by club and techno music, she uses her laptop to create custom instruments and vocal processes developed in the visual programming language Max/MSP. For instance, one of her songs uses a piece of software to monitor the sound of web pages she visits. Her music asks questions about politics, community and communication.

When asked for her selection, she chose the song 'La Maza' by Mercedes Sosa. Mercedes Sosa, sometimes known as La Negra (the black female), was an Argentinian singer, popular throughout Latin America. She is one of the most important singers involved within the Nueva Canción movement – a genre within Latin America and Iberian folk-inspired music widely recognised to have played a powerful role in the social upheavals in Portugal, Spain and Latin America during the 1970s and 80s.