Everyone knows at least one protest song. There’s Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which American Songwriter magazine says is “arguably more popular than our national anthem”; Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”; Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”; Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”; Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”; Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”; Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”; Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”; Fiona Apple’s “Tiny Hands.” The list goes on and on.
These songs endure because their comments on fascism, racism, neglect for the environment, sexism, privilege and more burrow deep into the ears, hearts and minds of listeners, stirring emotion and reaction by speaking truth to weighty issues that affect all of us in some way.
But protest songs aren’t just written by folk icons, riot grrls and hip-hop legends—plenty of Charlottesville musicians of many genres are actively writing and performing songs in the protest tradition. Here’s a sampler from local artists.
Keith Morris, “What Happened To Your Party?”
Known to at least one of his fellow musicians as “our rockin’ protest grouch in chief,” Keith Morris has a slew of protest songs, such as “Psychopaths & Sycophants,” “Prejudiced & Blind” and “Brownsville Market” from his Dirty Gospel album, plus “Blind Man,” “Peaceful When You Sleep” and “Border Town” from Love Wounds & Mars. He wrote his latest release, “What Happened To Your Party,” about a month ago. Morris says “it’s about Trump, the Republican party, fundamentalist Christianity, my brother’s suicide, and just what the hell is going on right now.”
Erin Lunsford, “Neighbor’s Eye”
Lunsford recorded this song about resistance in February of this year. “Brother we must resist / Sister we must persist / This is no easy road / We’re going down. / Shoulders sore from fists held high / Boots on the ground but our spirits fly / How will I know if I’m on the right side? / I’ll tell by the love, tell by the love in my mother’s eye,” she sings.
The Beetnix, “Dirty World”
“Most extreme acts of protest come from a sense of desperation and lack of hope derived from the belief that a person or group of people lack value or respect within a society or community,” says Damani “Glitch One” Harrison, who performs in local hip-hop group The Beetnix with Louis “Waterloo” Hampton. Harrison says that although Beetnix songs might not be protest songs by definition, “they definitely embody the struggle.”
“Dirty World” describes “the sense of hopelessness we feel at times, existing in a society where we know there are so many forces that work against the best interest of the common people,” says Harrison. “The quotes from George Carlin [the late comedian famous for his “seven dirty words” routine] further illustrate that feeling while fighting a losing battle against an elitist power structure.”
Matt Curreri & The Exfriends, “Vote for Me”
“I’m the real thing, I’m the real deal. I have things you would kill for / You can have ’em if you vote for me / I’ll re-rig the system to the way it used to be,” begins “Vote for Me,” a song that Curreri wrote during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Lauren Hoffman, “Pictures From America”
“They tell me war is justified, to forward all mankind / And peace only comes through sacrifice / Do you think they’re right?” Lauren Hoffman sings on “Pictures from America,” a track from 2010’s Interplanetary Traveler. The song paints a picture “of the juxtaposition between deep sadness for the world—war, injustice, bigotry, hubris—and the importance of human connection, because without that we could despair completely.” See also “A Friend for the Apocalypse.”
“The stylish kids put in their false teeth / They cut off their hair and occupy Wall Street / I wish I were pure enough to believe / I wish then again that all the fakers would leave,” Jonathan Teeter sings on “Police.” It’s “a criticism about the disconnected way that Occupy Wall Street was handled by protesters,” Teeter says of his Brit pop-y tune with ’tude. “Every group involved seemed to have a different plan and there was no unanimous decision for an endgame.”
“Then there’s the problem with the police / They cut their hair and keep the peace / They keep it with guns / And they keep it with mace / They keep telling me I’m in the wrong parking space,” Teeter sings on the next verse—the police are just as unorganized as the protestors. Basically, Teeter says, “this whole thing is one big fucking mess.”
Jamie Dyer, “King Of The World”
This song “protests the overall political structure that’s existed for all of history and the seeming human need to crown someone as a ‘leader,’” Jamie Dyer says. “The end result of how humans allow this idea to propagate is shown in our history: tens, hundreds of millions of dead humans at the hands of kinds, leaders and the state.” With lyrics such as “the meek will inherit what the strong will lose. / What the meek don’t want, I don’t use. / I heard about a party, I heard about a feast. / The most make a meal of the least,” Dyer’s message is clear.
Hip-hop duo EquallyOpposite spits some of the most clever lyrics in town, and the message in “Temper” is crystal: #DONTCENSORME. It’s not the duo’s only protest song. Check “The Blind Mans outro,” too.
Brady Earnhart, “Emancipation Park”
“Robert E. Lee’s in a public park / Out in the middle of a public park / The shadow of his sword falls on the grass till it gets dark / General Lee’s in our public park,” Brady Earnhart sings about the statue that’s caused a hell of a lot of controversy in Charlottesville. So “stick it in an alt.-right petting zoo,” he says. “The South’s not dead but the men who fought for slavery are / Emancipation Park is a Southern star.”
“I hear slaves would follow the Northern Star to freedom. At this point, I’m hoping other Southern towns will follow Charlottesville’s suit and cleanse themselves of the Confederate monuments that are getting more embarrassing with every passing year,” says Earnhart.
Fellowman (ft. Sizz Gabana), “Loot This”
“Almost all of my songs are in the protest tradition,” says MC and lyricist Cullen “Fellowman” Wade, but he feels that “Loot This,” from his 2016 album Raw Data Vol. 1: Soul of the Shitty, is especially relevant to Charlottesville this summer. Wade says the song is “a response to the respectability politics of liberals who say ‘I don’t understand how destroying their own communities helps advance their agenda.’ Institutions of power have consistently shown that they value property rights above human rights; our showing flagrant disregard for their property is the only proportionate human response.”
“Give me uncommon stars in a barren ether / A sure direction of universal entropy / Feel their cold gazing with blackened eyes, but without fire,” members of Astronomers sing in unison on this stargazey rock track from their 2011 album Size Matters. The song “isn’t protest so much as unity, which I am much more for,” says Astronomers’ Nate Bolling. “I realize it’s a bit abstract, but it was meant to be so that it could be interpreted individually by listeners. The gist is that there’s a lot of people out there and everyone’s moving in their own direction; lots of confusion and bad stuff too, but somehow we figure out how to live together.”
Tracy Howe Wispelwey, Hold on to Love
Tracy Howe Wispelwey has made an album rife with protest songs—the titles speak for themselves, really: “Call to Nonviolence,” “Do Not Be Afraid” and “People Come Together,” on which she sings, “People come together, come together right now/ Fear won’t find us when we know we’re a family.”
Gild the Mourn, “Hanging Tree”
Local goth duo Gild the Mourn were compelled to cover this track from the Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1 soundtrack to “convey its message to our audience: We have been mistreated, we have suffered injustice and accepted it as life. Now we rise together and unify, we fight,” says singer Angel Metro. In the film, Katniss Everdeen sings it while citizens of Panem rise up to protest torture they’ve experienced at the hands of the Capitol. It goes: “Are you, are you / Coming to the tree / They strung up a man / They say who murdered three / Strange things did happen here / No stranger would it be / If we met at midnight / In the hanging tree.”
Breakers, “D.I.Y. Trying”
“D.I.Y. D.I.Y. D.I.Y. D.I.Y. die trying/ D.I.Y. D.I.Y. D.I.Y. D.I.Y. die trying/ We found the lost and gave ’em microphones to yell/ Until their voices echoed ‘change’ down in the well,” goes the refrain on Breakers’ song on the importance of unity and empathy, and how it’s that’s not easily achieved. “long story short…if you want something done, you have to do it yourself,” says Breakers songwriter Lucas Brown.
“In our current political climate, it feels like there has never been more division between groups of people,” says Brown. The divide can be attributed to many things, such as news outlets pushing certain agendas and constant consumption of varying perspectives on social media. “People are much easier to control when their worlds are shaped to their own beliefs by constant consumption and affirmation of said beliefs. When they fear or despise their fellow human beings because they disagree, all hope of unity is lost. And for those in power, unity is the enemy. …Connecting with others has never been easier, yet face-to-face human interactions have suffered a blow. A large number of voices could be united on this front, but the internet usually turns them into an echo-chamber of babble. …If you can empathize with and find a common goal to unite the people around you, everybody’s efforts are necessary to make any change,” says Brown.
“Ghost of the King,” Gina Sobel
This bluesy/jazzy track “deals with mountaintop removal, changing economies and the people left behind,” says Sobel. “It can be hard to see through culture and history, even when the issue is something like blowing up mountains.”
We’ll update the page as more artists submit their songs, so check back periodically for more. Got a song to share? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.