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10 Social Justice Songs That Made History

There’s something magical about music. It’s both personal and public. Listening to a song is an intimate experience between a listener and an artist, but hearing or singing a song as a group is a powerful ritual, as well. For as long as music has existed, it’s provided a way for communities to connect. When harnessed for a cause, music unites and inspires. Here are 10 social justice songs that made history:

“Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol

Originally written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, he added music. The most famous version is performed by Billie Holiday. The song describes black victims of lynchings as “strange fruit” hanging from the trees. During the 1930s, lynchings were common but rarely talked about in public and certainly not sung about. Many consider “Strange Fruit” to be the first significant civil rights song. Famous cover artists include Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley. In 2002, the Library of Congress chose Holiday’s version for the National Recording Registry.

“We Shall Overcome” by Pete Seeger

This song has a fascinating history. It’s based on an old hymn sung by members of a union striking against the American Tobacco company in 1945. In 1947, the union’s version of the song appeared as “We Will Overcome” in a songbook. Folk singer Pete Seeger learned the song, changing the “will” to “shall.” In the 1960s, “We Shall Overcome” became tied to the Civil Rights movement, standing in as the unofficial anthem. In 1963, Joan Baez led a sing-along with a crowd of 300,000 during the March on Washington. At Dr. King’s funeral, over 50,000 sang the song. “We Shall Overcome” has since transcended the United States, appearing at protests around the world. During a copyright conflict in 2018, the song entered the public domain.

“Blowin’ In The Wind” by Bob Dylan

A classic example of a protest song, “Blowin’ In the Wind” asks a series of questions such as, “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” The answer is mysterious: it’s blowin’ in the wind. Dylan explains this line by saying that the answer isn’t found in a book, movie, TV show, or discussion group. It’s all around us, but if you aren’t paying attention, it flies away. “Blowin’ In The Wind” is considered an anti-war song and Civil Rights anthem. It played a role in inspiring Sam Cooke to write “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

“A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke

“A Change is Gonna Come” didn’t have a straight line to success. When a whites-only hotel rejected Sam Cooke and his group, he took that experience and wrote a song. It was more political than any of Cooke’s previous work. The chorus includes lyrics like, “It’s been a long, long time coming, but I know, but I know a change is gonna come.” Two weeks before the song’s release, the 33-year old Cooke was killed. The Civil Rights movement picked up the song immediately. It’s considered Cooke’s best work and in 2007, it was added to the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”

“Imagine” by John Lennon/Yoko Ono

Killed in 1980, John Lennon is one of the world’s most popular artists. “Imagine” is the best-selling single of his solo career. Released during the Vietnam War, Lennon asks the listener to imagine a utopia without borders, religions, or even possessions. He acknowledges that people will see him as a “dreamer,” but that “he’s not the only one.” Like many of Lennon’s songs, the music and lyrics are simple and impactful. When Lennon died, “Imagine” shot to #1. Dozens of artists have covered the song, including Elton John, Joan Baez, and Lady Gaga. Though world peace seems impossible, there’s something about this song that gives people hope.

“Redemption Song” by Bob Marley & the Wailers

“Redemption Song” borrows lines from Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican orator who promoted the “Back to Africa” movement. These lines include, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.” It acknowledges the reality of physical slavery, but while a person might be technically “free,” there’s a mental aspect that needs dealing with, as well. Many singers have covered the song, including Rihanna at the “Hope For Haiti” telethon after the earthquake and Alicia Keys at Nelson Mandela’s 91st birthday.

“Fight the Power” by Public Enemy

Director Spike Lee wanted a song for his film “Do the Right Thing” and contacted hip-hop group Public Enemy. They wrote “Fight the Power,” a song that describes the struggles of being black in America and the slow progress of society. It contains references to African-American culture, including James Brown’s distinct grunts and a vocal sample of civil rights lawyer Thomas “TNT” Todd. In contrast to many social justice songs that somewhat vaguely ask for peace, “Fight the Power” calls for its listeners to fight back.

“Changes” by Tupac Shakur

Released two years after the rapper’s death at age 25, “Changes” covers a spectrum of issues. It references the war on drugs, police brutality, black-and-white relations, and life in the ghetto.  Through all of it, Tupac wishes for reconciliation, rapping, “I got love for my brother, but we can never go nowhere unless we share with each other.” The song samples “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby. “Changes” expresses the complexity of social justice and issues that are still prevalent years later.

“Same Love” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

The third single from the duo’s debut album, “Same Love” promotes marriage equality. It features a hook from Mary Lambert, who also sings the outro, “Love is patient, love is kind,” and “Not crying on Sundays.” “Same Love” became the first Top 40 song in the United States to explicitly support same-sex marriage. At the Grammy performance of the song, Queen Latifah officiated the weddings of 33 couples (both gay and straight couples) on stage.

“Alright” by Kendrick Lamar/Pharrell Williams/Mark Spears

It took Kendrick Lamar a while to get this song put together. When it appeared on his groundbreaking album “To Pimp A Butterfly,” it quickly became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. During the year before the song’s release, police killed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and 12-year old Tamir Rice. At a Black Lives Matter gathering in Cleveland, the protestors sang the “Alright” chorus: “We gon’ be alright. Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon be alright.” The song expresses an unshakeable hope.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.