Songs of protest: The power of music with a political edge

From old Irish ballads to Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Beyoncé, music with a political edge has always been a powerful force, writes Marjorie Brennan.

Songs of protest: The power of music with a political edge

From old Irish ballads to Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Beyoncé, music with a political edge has always been a powerful force, writes Marjorie Brennan.

Long before keyboard warriors took to social media to express their frustration and rage at injustice and inequality, song was one of the primary modes for people to communicate their discontent.

From Irish ballads to rap and reggae, music and political protest have always been a potent and powerful combination.

Now a collection of essays explores the richness and diversity of protest songs across the world, featuring research on singers from Damien Dempsey to Billie Holiday and genres from rap to punk.

Dr Aileen Dillane, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Limerick is co-editor of the 700-page opus, titled Songs of Social Protest, which grew out of a conference on the subject held at UL in 2015.

She says such songs operate in a variety of ways — as noisy, exuberant expressions of solidarity in a collective; as individual, insightful narratives or messages that draw attention to specific causes; or as something in between.

“They can be songs that have simple repetitive melodies and lyrics that have a very particular message to the government or an institution to say that something needs to change,” says Dillane.

“For example, at the Women’s March in the US, they had a song called ‘Quiet’ that was circulated beforehand that people learned online in a forum, then they all sang in solidarity.

"But then you can have songs that offer social commentary that is incisive, or more metaphorical.”

Dillane cites the example of Strange Fruit, by Billie Holliday, about the lynching of African Americans in the US.

“Then there are songs that people may sing along to without even realising they are social protest songs.

"There is a degree of a person having to be politically aware to interpret them. For example, people think Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ is about nationalism, but it isn’t, it’s the opposite.

So, the context is hugely important. Ballads are obvious, broadsides are obvious, simple songs we can all chant are obvious but you can’t define it all as one thing, it’s how people use it.

In many people’s minds, the protest song is inextricably linked to the political fervour of the 1960s and the emergence of singer-songwriters such as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.

Dillane acknowledges the significance of such performers but adds it is important to also remember female performers of the era, including Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez.

And while Dylan is one of the foremost proponents of the protest song, he in turn was influenced by other musicians, including the Clancy Brothers.

Dillane says this illustrates the importance of the Irish ballad tradition in the history of the protest song.

“The Irish ballad tradition is so rich,” says Dillane. “Think about something like ‘The Foggy Dew’ or ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’, or any of the many songs about being colonised and suppressed.

"That tradition is hundreds of years old and is always going to be an influence. Those kinds of songs have a hugely participatory element, somebody can stand up completely unmediated, just with their voice and a guitar, and get people to sing along with them.

“The folk song is powerful because it articulates the concerns of the common man and woman and encourages them to rise up.”


The collection covers Irish protest songs from all eras, and includes a chapter by UCC academic Tríona Ní Shíocháin on a 19th century maverick poetess called Máire Bhuí Ní Laoghaire, from near Ballingeary in Co Cork.

“It is a really feminist edgy chapter on a much longer chapter of protest than we might consider — the whole form of the aisling and the ballads have always been about protest in their own way,” says Dillane.

Christy Moore
Christy Moore

The book also features explorations of the work of two of Ireland’s best-known political and social singer-songwriters, Christy Moore and Damien Dempsey.

“I don’t think anybody could talk about protest song in Ireland without looking at Christy Moore,” says Dillane.

He has been so consistent. For all his apparent localisms in what he sings about, he really has international reach, he connects with that Anglo-American tradition in a way that few do.

"Damien Dempsey is very strong on critiquing the Celtic Tiger and all the issues around that.”

Dillane also cites the continued relevance of the protest song in Irish music, with the emergence of performers such as Steo Wall and Rusangano Family.

“Steo Wall would be in some ways a protege of Damien Dempsey, and to a degree, the artist formerly known as Sinead O’Connor (now Shuhada’ Davitt as she has just converted to Islam).

"She is the ultimate protest singer in many ways and was years before her time. In ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’, she was one of the first people in Thatcherite Britain to focus on the intersection of race and class and how people are left disenfranchised.

"Steo Wall has some great songs like ‘What’s Wrong with the World, Ma’, which is a critique of how our society is going backwards.”

While being labelled as a ‘protest singer’ can be disadvantageous professionally, it can also result in more serious consequences.

“There are many countries in the world where to do anything like that, you can be arrested, tortured and killed,” says Dillane.

However, she adds that in the current tumultuous global political climate, more performers are willing to be strident about their beliefs.

“There is definitely a movement and swing across the world to the right, with people promoting ideas of hatred and difference. This is why artists have realised they have a certain cultural power to intervene.

"Because music is ubiquitous, it is one of the most powerful media in which to communicate with people.

“For example, look at Taylor Swift who came out and told people to vote Democrat in the mid-term elections.

"She has said nothing on politics for seven years, and she doesn’t have a political song per se but the fact that she would come out and say ‘vote Democrat’ is huge. Of course, she was lambasted for it.”


In terms of commercially successful performers utilising their fame for activism, Dillane says it would be hard to find anyone more globally influential than Beyoncé.

“If you look at what she did with ‘Formation’ at the Superbowl, it was the most amazing performance of what it means to be black and female — it was feminist, intersectional, class-based.

"For some young people, it would have been the first time they had heard of the Black Panthers. She does the job of a public intellectual, in spades, she is extraordinary.

"I could spend the rest of my life career-wise deconstructing everything she does.

"She is building on the tradition of people like Nina Simone but her level of appeal outside of the African American community is what makes her unbelievably powerful.”

Another performer whose work features many of the same elements of social protest is Kendrick Lamar, who earlier this year won a Pulitzer prize for his album Damn.

“One of the things people say makes a protest song or singer efficacious is that you believe in them or their message, that there is some sort of authenticity.

"Kendrick Lamar is raw, at the edge, and he makes mistakes but he is always striving for something. That is a big part of why people are drawn to him.

He and Beyoncé are reflecting on what it means to be black, and how we look at structural inequalities. They don’t only use rap or hip-hop but also nod to the older traditions, the African-American spiritual, to punk, so many things.

"They are new but also an extension of older genres moving into the present.”

Dillane says she and her co-editors wanted to showcase the wide variety of protest songs around the world.

“Politically, the importance of putting different peoples, genders, countries and traditions, together because we tend to be so fixated on the West, is one of the most important things this book does,” she says.

She adds that the nature of protest song means it is a constantly evolving cultural entity that could withstand endless interpretation.

“The book doesn’t purport to be definitive, we could have had ten more books.

"We started it properly in 2016 and we were well into the process of peer review when the world flipped — Britain voted for Brexit, the US voted for Donald Trump and you are playing a degree of catch-up.

"We could do this all over again and have a dramatically different book in many ways.”

Songs of Social Protest: International Perspectives, edited by Dr Aileen Dillane, Dr Martin J Power, Prof Eoin Devereux and Dr Amanda Haynes, is published by Rowman & Littlefield International

From ‘Strange Fruit’ to ‘Zombie’: Ten classic protest songs

Strange Fruit

Billie Holiday

This 1939 song about racist lynchings, based on a poem by a Jewish communist called Abel Meeropol, was a milestone in popular music.

Many have tried but no-one has ever outmastered Holiday’s spine-tingling performance of the song, about which Nina Simone remarked: “That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard. Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.”

War (What Is It Good For)

Edwin Starr

Covered by numerous artists from Bruce Springsteen to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, this anti-Vietnam song was originally written for The Temptations. However, Motown Records withheld the single for fear of alienating their more conservative fans and it was re-recorded with Edwin Starr as the vocalist, going on to be a huge hit.

The Times They Are A Changin’

Bob Dylan

This timeless anthem, described as the archetypal protest song, was influenced by the Irish and Scottish ballad tradition.

Unfortunately, how little times may actually have changed is reflected in the line: “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call”, one that applies equally to the chaotic political climate in the US today.

What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye

This soul classic was inspired by an incident of police brutality witnessed by Four Tops member Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, who co-wrote the song with lyricist Al Cleveland and Marvin Gaye. Released on Motown subsidiary Tamla, it marked Gaye’s movement away from the Motown sound and his heartfelt rendition cemented its status as a classic.

Get Up, Stand Up

Bob Marley

The reggae pioneer’s songs still resonate hugely with the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. It was inspired by Marley’s travels in poverty-stricken Haiti, and the message, to fight for your rights, is universal.

Fight The Power

Public Enemy

A regular inclusion on greatest songs of all time lists, this rage-fuelled anthem was first featured on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Rosie Perez fizzing with physicality and energy as she dances to the song over the opening credits remains a sight to behold.

Ninety Miles to Dublin Town

Christy Moore

Moore has never been afraid to engage with controversial issues, as highlighted by his many songs on the political situation in the North. Featured on the album H-Block, which was produced by Moore and released in 1978, this ballad was written in support of the men and women held in the Armagh and Long Kesh H-Block prisons, and condemns the suppression of the right for political prisoners to fair trial by jury.


The Cranberries

This song was a reaction to the 1993 IRA bombing in Warrington and the shocking deaths of 12-year-old Tim Parry and three-year-old Jonathan Ball. Driven by Dolores O’Riordan splenetic vocals, it was a huge international hit for the Limerick band.

Celtic Tiger

Damien Dempsey

Written in 2013, Dempsey railed against the ugliness of over-consumption present at the height of the ‘boom’.

It may not have been the popular view at the time, but the track proved prescient and Dempsey’s anger justified.


Rusangano Family

“When I see Police I’m Amadou Diallo/ Haunted by the bodies Sahara swallowed/ Did I flee Lampedusa to die over you?” asks the Togolese MC, MuRli, on this 2016 song by the Limerick-based trio.

It bemoans the double standards of those who expect Irish emigrants to be welcomed with open arms while demonising immigrants who flee other countries.

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