Top Ten Protest Albums Of 2018 (So Far)
*The following is a collection of some of the best albums of protest music in the first half of 2018. They were selected by Kevin Gosztola and C.J. Baker, who publishes writing regularly at Ongoing History Of Protest Songs.
Joan Baez – Whistle Down the Wind
“It is the song that chooses me,” folk musician Joan Baez told Billboard, when reflecting on how she selects songs to record for her albums. None of the songs were written by Baez, but given her decades of activism, her interpretations of songs take on a deeper social relevance.
Her version of “Another World,” produced by ANOHNI after the Iraq War, communicate the pessimism that underpins much of Baez’s album. “I need another world. This one’s nearly gone,” she sings. “The Great Correction” by Eliza Gilkyson is about the search for truth in a nation of lies. “I don’t know where this train’s bound. Whole lotta people trying to turn it around. Gonna shout til the walls come tumbling down, and the great correction comes.”
Those lines represent the cautious optimism that flows through the album. She transforms Tom Waits’ “Last Leaf” into an anthem for everyone like her, who have spent many, many years struggling for civil rights and justice, lending their voice to peace. She recognizes the world needs more compassion and empathy and the kind of simple songs she’s been interpreting all her life to bring us together, especially as we seek out pockets of hope in these darker times.
J. Cole – K.O.D.
The rapper’s ambitious fifth album is an acronym for “Kids on Drugs,” or “King Overdosed,” or “Kill Our Demons.” As suggested by those titles, the album is a thoughtful examination of drugs, addiction, and personal demons.
J. Cole’s exploration of addiction is not only about drugs. The song “ATM” is an abbreviation for “Addicted To Money,” and it expresses how greed causes people to engage in destructive behavior in order to get that “slice of Devil’s pie.” He also tackles the theme of social media addiction on “Photograph.”
One of the album’s timelier tracks in terms of social commentary is “Brackets.” It refers to his personal story of moving into different tax brackets while poignantly addressing how the taxes he pays to the government never filter down to underprivileged communities. He also confronts the government’s relationship with “money-hungry company that makes guns that circulate the country” and shows he is an articulate storyteller capable of grappling with difficult subjects.
Camp Cope – How To Socialize And Make Friends
The Australian all-female indie rock trio’s sophomore album is melodic rage against the patriarchy. They lyrically navigate the issues of succeeding in a male-dominated industry. Much of the band’s potency comes from the emotionally vulnerability of sharing firsthand experiences of dealing with misogyny.
These experiences include dealing with attitudes of tokenism within the music industry. On the scathing song, “The Opener” (“Yeah, just get a female opener, that’ll fill the quota.”), they address music bookers and critics who try to dismiss them because of their gender.
The emotional centerpiece of the album is “The Face of God.” The song deals with lead singer Georgia Maq harrowing real life #MeToo experience. It also addresses issues of victim-blaming with the lyric, “That somehow what happened to me was my fault.” It is an important album against toxic masculinity.
Fantastic Negrito – Please Don’t Be Dead
Fantastic Negrito is from Oakland. He performs “blues with a punk attitude,” and many of his songs deal with poverty, capitalism, police brutality, and gun violence. He won a Grammy Award for his 2016 album, “Last Days of Oakland,” which grappled with gentrification in the Bay Area of California.
“Please Don’t Be Dead” follows up on Negrito’s award-winning album by confronting the evils of American culture, such as addiction, guns, consumerism, and censorship. It is a father’s response to fear as he raises his black son in a country sinking deeper into moral depravity.
The music is populated with characters on the margins seeking a way out of poverty and despair. “The Duffler” is a dark tale with lyrics that speak to the experience of being an addict or simply what it is like to be poor and struggle to earn enough money to survive. “A Letter To Fear” features a mass shooting and a pledge to keep carrying on. The final track, “Bullshit Anthem,” seeks to empower the downtrodden. “Take that bullshit, turn it into good shit.” Because the path to a better life is not letting all that bullshit define you.
Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine
The inventive and satirical hip-hop duo explores what it means to be fine in this current political landscape. In an interview with UPROXX, Jean Grae explains the meaning behind the title: “A lot of times in conversation, especially in the past couple of years. As you get older, it tends to be a response that you give more and more without realizing that you’re even doing it. You’re like, “Everything’s fine,” but the narrator in your head is like, “Everything was not fine.””
Grae added, “Clearly, everything is not fine, so we don’t have to not talk about it. It’s okay to talk about it.” By talking about, the album processes the chaos that we face in the current political climate.
While most rap albums feature guest verses from several emcees, “Everything’s Fine” features guest socially conscious bits from a slew of comics including Hannibal Buress, Michael Che, John Hodgman, and Nick Offerman. Comedy is used as a powerful tool to address serious issues.
One of the more political tunes is “Peacock,” which addresses issues such as gun violence and systemic racism. They also effectively explore the subject of cultural stereotypes in “Gold Purple Orange” (“Everybody alt-right gotta be white” | “Everybody disagree gotta be wrong” | “Everybody from the hood gotta be G” | “Every Jew, golden rule, gotta save bills”). Both these tunes build upon the dominant theme that everything is not fine, and we need to talk about that.
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80- Black Times
Nigerian musician Seun Kuti, the youngest son of Fela Kuti, produced “Black Times” to honor past revolutionaries and rally those who will spark the next revolutions. He also sought to build global class solidarity through his music because the elites are always dividing us. “The same oppression felt by workers in Flint, Michigan is felt by workers in Lagos and Johannesburg.”
His protest anthem, “Corporate Public Control Department (C.P.C.D.),” is primarily directed at Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari but its lyrics against neoliberalism speak to corruption in governments throughout the world. Backed by Carlos Santana, he rallies people to rise and be free on “Black Times.”
“Last Revolutionary” recalls the revolutionaries who inspire Kuti, like Kwame Nkrumah, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Abdel Nassar, Marcus Garvey, and his father, Fela. The afrobeat groove of “Struggle Sounds” is a rousing tune about the life of someone in the struggle for justice and human rights and how it is not easy. But the system is for money, and the struggle is for people so we must struggle.
Last Poets – Understand What Black Is
For fifty years, the Last Poets have promoted black liberation with their music. They are forefathers of hip hop. President Donald Trump’s election and the “renewed struggle for America’s soul” stirred them into making another album, and they produced ten tracks, which combine jazz and reggae rhythms and feature African-style percussion and horns to punctuate their radical poetry.
“Rain Of Terror” recalls all the terrorism America has inflicted on humanity, particularly black people. It confronts the “collective psyche” in the country and repeats “America’s a terrorist.” A similar track, “How Many Bullets,” defiantly addresses the systemic racism which has resulted in the deaths of so many black lives. “You can’t kill me. You can’t kill what you can’t see,” they recite while examples of oppression that blacks have survived are recounted.
Several tracks encourage pride and appreciation. Both “North, East, West, South” and “The Music” are celebrations of black culture. “The Bridge” imagines what it would be like to achieve liberation and cross over into a world, “where people greet each other with a smile, where children can play without being hit by stray bullets. There are no guns there. Money does not exist.”
Likewise, “What I Want To See” is a vision of life with “no prisons, no locks, no keys.” Everyone knows this place they want to go. They know what it will be like to touch, taste, see, and smell the fresh air in this place. It is this vision that must be called upon to renew one’s spirit in the everlasting struggle for life.
Superchunk – What A Time To Be Alive
According to lead singer Mac McCaughan, the veteran indie rock band 11th studio album is a record “about a pretty dire and depressing situation but hopefully not a record that is dire and depressing to listen to.”
The band’s most political album to date was heavily influenced by the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s election. For example, the title track attacks the regressive nature of the “Make America Great Again” philosophy. The lyrics make it clear that Trump is “at the bottom of a swamp” and that he desires “to take us all the way back.”
Another poignant highlight is “Cloud of Hate”. Clocking in at a minute and 13 seconds, it is a concise synopsis of the divisiveness that pervades American society. The anger and darkness are balanced out with a sense of hope that a “cloud of love” will eventually overshadow the darkness. The song includes the poignant lyrics, “You scare the kids / I hope you die scared / Of all the kids that know the truth,” alluding to the rise in activism among young people.
The band accomplishes their objective of providing commentary on dire times without being dire. It is essential music for the times in which we live.
Frank Turner – Be More Kind
On the English folk punker’s seventh studio album, Frank Turner holds out hope that lasting change is possible with tangible efforts. Both the album and title track are taken from a line in the Clive James poem “Leçons des Ténèbres.” The need for open dialogue and human kindness are themes explored on several of the album tracks.
Many of the songs represent a deviation in sound from his typical sound, but tunes, such as “1933,” feature the traditional Turner folk punk sound. In that song, Turner draws parallels between the current political climate and when the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933.
One of the more upbeat tunes, “Make America Great Again,” is a look at Donald Trump’s campaign slogan from an outsider’s perspective. Turner expresses a yearning for the United States to reject the regressive philosophy of MAGA.
The most infectious tune on the album is “Little Changes.” The lyrics stress that true progress starts with small steps. The tune also includes the timely line, “Let’s not just pray/ Let’s make a change,” which highlights that meaningful changes requires concrete action.
It is one of multiple tracks on the album that proves socially conscious music can be joyful. In these tumultuous times, we need upbeat tunes of resistance.
Kamasi Washington – Heaven And Earth
Jazz musician Kamasi Washington describes the album as “two sides of reality.” There is the reality experienced internally, and then there is the reality that exists all around. In presenting these two distinct realities, Washington hopes people can see they do not have to wait for someone to make the world a better place. The internal does not have to be less important than what is external. Anyone can take power over their own world.
The opening anthem, “Fists of Fury,” magnificently sets the tone by reworking the theme to Bruce Lee’s film into a call to action—to no longer ask for justice but fight back for dignity and respect. As Washington says, it is about “the internal nature of struggle and how we have power to overcome that struggle. It’s eternal. It never ends. It’s perpetual.”
Washington also sees “endless potential” if we can recognize those who rule over us will not give us the world we want. That potential is what the second half of “Heaven & Earth” represents. It is spiritual. The cosmic beauty of the jazz music is intended to rejuvenate our spirit and help us imagine the proverbial heaven that could be reached if we commit ourselves to this journey.