Shadowproof

Ten Of The Best Protest Albums Of 2021

Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Photo: mirrors are more fun)

*The following is a collection of some of the best albums of protest music released in 2021. They were selected by Kevin Gosztola and C.J. Baker, who publishes writing regularly at Ongoing History Of Protest Songs. They are in alphabetical order by artist.

**Full playlist with each album on Spotify

Black Monument Ensemble – NOW

The story behind the making of this album is part of what makes it exceptional. According to Damon Locks and the Black Monument Ensemble, it was recorded in the summer of 2020, “following months of pandemic-induced fear and isolation, the explosion of social unrest, struggle, and violence in the streets, and as the certain presence of a new reality had fully settled in.”

BME, which is a “multi-generational collective” with members who range from 9 to 52 years old, entered a garden behind Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio and recorded each track in a few takes. 

The percussion and wind instruments combine for  transcendent beats and rhythms, and for “The People Vs. The Rest of Us” and “Keep Your Mind Free,” Locks seamlessly weaves in samples to create a sound collage. BME even embraces the presence of cicadas, which enhances the performance in a remarkable way.

It is easy, as “The Body Is Electric” recognizes, to be caught up in the grind of life, the struggles around us, the despair and devastation that surrounds us. Yet BME dares to dream of what can be achieved in this new reality, especially if we can all enter that forever momentary space that is now.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’s END

If late-stage capitalism sounds like anything, it is the brooding dissonance of this album from Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Their soundscapes survey civilizations ravaged by pestilence and climate disaster. Yet there is a majesty and grandness to their music of desolation.

GYBE is a Canadian post-rock band that combines noise with a range of instruments, including violins and an organ. They wrote the album on the road before the pandemic, and then they came home in the pandemic normal to finish completing the project in masks.

Radio frequencies on the album are “pulses of rising white static” because “automated militaries” take up so much bandwidth. There are periodic announcements from the watching and killing machines of our world, but then there are also the “ham radio dads,” who stay up all night talking about their dying wives and “what they will do with their guns when antifa comes.”

As the band states, the apocalyptic pastors now cry, “End Times Soon!” Their album is about waiting for the end because all “current forms of governance” have failed. It’s also about waiting for a beginning, and for that, they have a list of demands for humanity—empty the prisons, take power from police, give the power to neighborhoods, end forever wars and imperialism, and tax the rich until they are poor.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Irreversible Entanglements – Open The Gates

The free jazz collective’s third offering is a sonic exploration of post-colonialism. With Aquiles Navarro’s trumpet blaring out into the universe and Keir Neuringer’s saxophone piercing the sky, the ensemble summons whatever spirits they can connect with from the past and present to propel the music forward.

Fragments of poetry from Camae Ayewa (a.k.a. Moor Mother) agitate but also reach for deeper understandings of creation and what brought Irreversible Entanglements to this place, to where they are crying out, “Open the gates!”

While some of their previous ompositions have explicitly named the sources of struggle and despair, particularly for Black lives, its lyrics are more understated. They are above all beckoning. This is an evaluation of what has been and what could possibly be.

As they put it, “The universe was awash in the sickly static veneer of anti-cosmos, of anti-nation; the halls were emptied, our shadows echoing and staining the walls of our abandoned oases – so we poured out into 2020’s wild streets. The ghosts of our labor danced around the sickness as we set fire to our old ways of thinking and moving, as we set fire to cop cars and bashed in the windows of our own rising disenfranchisement.”

“Open the gates!”

(Kevin Gosztola)

Femi Kuti & Made Kuti – Legacy+

The legacy of legendary activist and Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti is carried on by his son Femi and grandson Made on “Legacy +.” It is a double album that includes “Stop The Hate” (the 11th album by Femi) and “For(e)ward” (Made’s debut album).

Like Fela’s music, the two albums mix poignant political commentary with infectious beats. Femi takes aim at Nigerian political corruption while touching upon issues of universal concern. On “Na Bigmanism Spoil Government,” he says, “Come on, tell them, let them change their ways.” He also encourages the masses to take their stand against authority on tracks like “Set Your Minds Free.”

Made covers similar themes but experiments more with the music. He also pays tribute to his grandfather on “Different Streets,” (“A prophet is what many of us call Fela. Someone with very special skills to see very far. But grandpa was not predicting the future with songs. He was speaking about everything he saw. Everything that was wrong”).

Femi and Made are torch-bearers of Afrobeat, and no doubt Fela would be proud of the music they are creating.

(C.J. Baker)

The Muslims – Fuck These Fucking Fascists

The Muslims are what they say they are and fucking mean every fucking word on this fucking album. They describe themselves as a “crunchy, kickass punk band of Black and brown queer muzzies.” They say “your racist dad is a piece of shit and THIS IS NOT A SAFE SPACE.” That is fucking all caps because no one perpetuating vile systems of oppression will be spared.

With that said, the band’s messages range from deadly serious to the stuff of anarchic pranksters. “Crotch Pop A Cop” and their song imagining the ghost of John McCain visiting the White House are mischievous fun. The sharp wit of “Illegals” is more biting than the majority of protest songs recorded recently.

The average song length is a little less than two minutes because the Muslims don’t need any fucking longer to fucking call out who needs to be called out. They just fucking show solidarity with those feeling spit on and beaten down then get on to pounding out the next riff.

Fuck Nazis. All cops are class traitors (and bastards). Take your pleas for unity and fuck yourself. And most importantly, be proud of who you are.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson – Theory Of Ice

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is an acclaimed novelist, poet, scholar, and singer, as well as a member of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, an indigenous group in southern Ontario, Canada.

A prominent theme on “Theory Of Ice” is climate change. On “Break Up,” the opening track, Simpson poignantly sings, “There is euphotic rising and falling. Orbits of dispossession and reattachment. Achieving maximum density: 39 degrees Fahrenheit.” The song “Failure of Melting” bleakly depicts the impact on our natural world (“The caribou sit measuring emptiness. The fish study giving up.”) 

But the album’s standout is her potent reworking of indigenous musician Willie Dunn’s “I Pity The Country.” The tune not only builds on the theme of climate change but explores other aspects of Canada’s troubled history of colonial oppression. 

Dunn’s classic protest song may be from 1971, but the lines, The police they arrest me. Materialists detest me. Pollution it chokes me. Movies they joke me. Politicians exploit me. City life it jades me,” still resonate in fifty years later.


(C.J. Baker) 

Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Life After

On the indigenous Canadian rap duo’s fourth album, they once again blend banging beats with pointed political commentary.

Darren “Young D” Metz of the duo described the origin of the title: “There are times when I don’t want to talk to people about [my struggles], so I just write about it, for my own sanity.”

“There were things that we needed to say and get off our chest. We came up with [the concept of] ‘Life After’ because it’s about life after the pandemic, but it could be life after anything, really. Life after depression, or life after success, after grinding for so long.”

Beyond the pandemic, they confront police brutality on ‘Red Sky at Night,’ rapping, “We ain’t safe in the streets from the people or police or the system put in place for the wealthy. No Justice, no peace, we’re dying in the belly of the beast.” They rap about religious corruption and the numerous children’s graves found at former residential schools on “Grave Digger,’ saying “I been tryna save my people. I’m the one that should be saved. I just wanna catch a body. I’m so tired of digging graves.”

In Canada, there is much discussion about truth and reconciliation. SNRK play a vital role in amplifying uncomfortable truths that must be part of that process for indigenous communities.

(C.J. Baker)

Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future

“I wanted to get a better sense of how African traditional cosmologies can inform my life in a modern-day context,” Sons of Kemet bandleader Shabaka Hutchings told Apple Music. “Then try to get some sense of those forms of knowledge and put it into the art that’s being produced.”

The jazz ensemble’s fourth album takes these cosmologies and explores the Black experience. “Field Negus,” the opening track (featuring vocals from Joshua Idehen), is a response to Black Lives Matter protests in London. 

“Pick Up Your Burning Cross” (featuring Moor
Mother & Angel Bat Dawid) addresses issues of oppression, and “In Remembrance of Those Fallen” pays tribute to those who have fought for liberation and freedom within anti-colonialism movements.

The album reflects upon the past while providing a galvanizing message for moving onward to the future. It is music that successfully engages the mind, the heart, and the body.

(C.J. Baker)

David Rovics – May Day

Guitarist and folk singer David Rovics remains one of the most prolific and hardest working musicians writing songs of struggle. In 2021, Rovics reunited with the band he performed with from 1997-2008. Sean Staples played mandolin and guitar, Eric Royer played banjo, and Hazel Royer played bass live in a studio.

The banjo and mandolin combine to add a bittersweetness to “If A Song Could Make Your Troubles Go Away,” as Rovics sings about all he wishes he could do for the downtrodden.

“I know I’m not the first to feel like I’m knocking on the door of either a new dystopia or some movement of great renown,” Rovics muses on “116 Degrees,” a song that surveys the human sacrifice zones, which are and will continue to bear the brunt of climate-fueled disasters.

He pays tribute to Anne Feeney, the late great protest singer who departed this world in 2021, and memorializes more atrocities against Palestinians living under Israeli apartheid. And in the tradition of music’s best topical protest songs, the ballad, “When Chevron Came To Ecuador,” summarizes the sordid events around the oil company’s “Chernobyl of the Amazon” and their imprisonment of human rights attorney Steven Donziger.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Witch Camp (Ghana) – I’ve Forgotten Now Who I Used to Be

This is an important archival project that collects field recordings from Ghana’s infamous witch camps.

Witch camps are settlements, where women accused of witchcraft can seek refuge. Those persecuted as witches often suffer from mental health issues and physical ailments. Others are shunned as a ploy to steal their land after their husband’s passing.

“Belief in witchcraft is sometimes also used as simple scapegoating for the arrival of bad luck, such as foul weather or illness,” said photographer Marilena Umuhoza Delli, who worked on the archive project.

“More commonly, it is a justification for pre-existing hate and prejudice. A member of my own family was driven out of her village in Malawi as a child after she was accused of being a witch due to having a white father— a fate that could have been my own if our places of birth were simply swapped.”

The musicians employ unique instruments from the natural environment, such as corn husks, a teapot, tin cans, and tree limbs. Altogether, those involved create a remarkable project that preserves overlooked cultures and elevates the voices of those who often overlooked and rendered voiceless.

(C.J. Baker)

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Jackson Browne – “Downhill From Everywhere” | Evan Greer – “Spotify Is Surveillance” | The Halluci Nation – One More Saturday Night | Curtis Harding – “If Were Words Were Flowers” | Haviah Mighty – “Stock Exchange” | Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey – “Uneasy” | Nick Lutsko – “Songs On The Computer” | The Weather Station – “Ignorance”
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