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9 Powerful Protest Songs Everyone Should Know

A change is gonna come.

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1. "We Shall Overcome," Pete Seeger

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The exact origins of "We Shall Overcome" are unknown. The song was popularized by folk singers such as Guy Carawan, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, who began performing the song at rallies and festivals during the early 1960s. It ultimately became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, and has been used in countless other protests since.

2. "Mississippi Goddam," Nina Simone

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Nina Simone wrote "Mississippi Goddam" as a reaction to two separate acts of violence: the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama.

She performed the song during one of the marches to Montgomery in 1965.

3. "Say It Loud, I'm Black And Proud," James Brown

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James Brown released "Say It Loud" in 1968; the song, which addresses prejudice and raises a call for African-American empowerment, became emblematic for the Black Power movement.

The children who sing during the song's chorus were residents of Watts and Compton, areas that were strongly affected by racial violence and that would later serve as the birthplace of gansta rap.

4. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," Gil Scott-Heron

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Scott-Heron's poem also became emblematic for the Black Power movement; its title was drawn from one of the movement's many slogans. Since its release in 1971, the song has become iconic, and has been alluded to in many other works.

The A-side of the single was entitled "Home Is Where the Hatred Is."

5. "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday

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"Strange Fruit" was first written as a poem by Jewish teacher and writer Abel Meeropol in response to lynchings of Southern African-Americans, specifically that of (warning: graphic image) Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. The piece was later introduced to Billie Holiday, who then incorporated it into her setlist. Despite her label's reservations, she recorded the song in 1939.

This recording sold over one million copies and is widely regarded as one of the best and most important songs of the 20th century. It has also become one of the most prominent icons of anti-racist sentiments and movements.

6. "Blowin' In The Wind," Bob Dylan

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"Blowin' In The Wind" was not written as a song specifically protesting racism; instead, its lyrics are ambiguous. Its message could be applied to many situations, from war to oppression to, of course, racism, and this is where the song found its niche in the Civil Rights Movement. Many African-Americans found that the song resonated deep within them and reflected their frustrations, and were surprised to find such poignant words coming from a young white man.

Dylan's legendary song inspired Sam Cooke's equally iconic "A Change Is Gonna Come."

7. "We Shall Not Be Moved," Mavis Staples

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"We Shall Not Be Moved" originated from an African-American spiritual, "I Shall Not Be Moved." It was adopted as "We Shall Not Be Moved" by the Civil Rights Movement, and versions of the song were recorded by artists such as Ella Fitzgerald.

8. "Alabama," John Coltrane

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Coltrane's "Alabama," inspired by the death of four African-American girls in a Birmingham church bombing, needs no words to convey the emotions surrounding the Civil Rights Movement.

9. "A Change Is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke

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Sam Cooke's magnum opus drew inspiration from many sources. One particularly influential event involved Cooke and his band being turned away from a Louisiana hotel, despite having made reservations, because the establishment was "whites only." Cooke's subsequent outrage led to his arrest for "disturbing the peace."

Cooke was also heavily inspired by Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind." He felt shame that a white man had written such striking words against prejudice and oppression yet he, as a black man, had done nothing of the sort. Despite initial fears of upsetting and/or alienating his white fans, Cooke wrote and recorded "A Change Is Gonna Come" in 1963; it was released a few days before Christmas 1964.

The song was not a major commercial hit; however, it became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, and is now considered one of the most important songs of all time.

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