On November 8, 2016, the unthinkable happened: Donald J. Trump, a wig-wearing, sentient jack’o’lantern whose only qualifications for the office were a reality television career and a simmering contempt for brown people, was elected the 45th President of the United States of America. Ever since then, the unthinkable has continued to happen with numbing regularity. The executive chair of a racist chain email disguised as a news source was appointed to the position of White House Senior Counselor and Chief Strategist. A literal neo-Nazi rally was held with impunity in Washington, D.C., ending with shouts of “hail Trump!” The Senate held confirmation hearings for a potential Attorney General who previously lost a district court nomination due to allegations of racism; along with a potential Secretary of Labor who wants to eliminate the federal minimum wage, and a potential Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who has actually gone on record saying that he is not qualified to run a federal agency. Oh, and did we mention that the Republican-led Congress is halfway through repealing the Affordable Care Act, without even the slightest glimmer of a plan to replace it with?
So, yes, this country is going to shit, and we hope every day that a meteor will fall to Earth and put us all out of our misery. But we also don’t want to succumb entirely to cynicism and apathy. We’re mindful of something El-P from radical hip-hop duo Run the Jewels told NPR’s Morning Edition last week: that “it’s a mistake to let our history off the hook so much so to say that Trump is introducing the idea of dread into American culture.” We’re aware that Trump, while easily one of the worst things to happen to American politics in recent memory, is far from the worst thing to happen to American politics ever. And we know that we–most of us, anyway–will outlive his presidency: not in the wan, “conservatives survived eight years of Obama, so we can survive four years of Trump” sense, but in the sense Angela Davis is talking about when she says that freedom is a constant struggle.
Yesterday, hundreds of demonstrators disrupted Trump’s inauguration; today, the Women’s March on Washington is rallying as many as a quarter million women and allies to advocate for the rights that are under threat from the most openly misogynistic administration in recent memory. These protests obviously won’t stop the Trump Train from careening directly into Fuck This Shit station; that ship sailed a long time ago, and if removing Trump from office is the goal, we’ll be better off crossing our fingers and hoping that one of his many pending legal proceedings will reveal something impeachment-worthy. But this weekend is an invaluable opportunity to organize, make our dissent known, and settle in for a long four years (Christ, I hope it’s only four years) of resistance. Whether you’re taking to the streets or not, we hope this playlist of anti-authoritarian anthems will help put you in the right frame of mind. Now let’s fuck some shit up.
1. Bad Brains: “Big Take Over”
(from Bad Brains, 1981)
The cover art for the debut album by D.C. hardcore group Bad Brains depicts the U.S. Capitol rotunda being struck and shattered by a bolt of lighting. And while we weren’t lucky enough to see that happen in real life yesterday, listening to the band tear through “Big Take Over” is almost as exciting. Over a vicious, high-velocity riff from guitarist Dr. Know, frontman H.R. offers a timely warning against being taken in by empty promises from totalitarians: “Understand when I say, there’s no hope for this U.S.A. / Your world is doomed with its own integration / Just another Nazi test.” The next time somebody tells you to “give Trump a chance,” play them this song–then peace out and never talk to them again.
2. The Last Poets: “Blessed Are Those Who Struggle”
(from Delights of the Garden, 1977)
One of the most tiresome strategies in the right-wing playbook is to discredit acts of dissent by protesters and activists as mere whining from professional malcontents. That’s why songs like this one by Harlem proto-rap troupe the Last Poets are so vital: poets Jalaluddin Mansur Nurriddin, Suliaman El Hadi, and Abu Mustapha celebrate resistance and struggle as the very connecting thread of African American history, from Nat Turner and Sojourner Truth to Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. And that thread reaches all the way to those “who will join with us now in this struggle of life and death / So that freedom and peace will be more than a word to the offspring that we have left.” I don’t know about you, but that sentiment seems a lot more American than shutting up and letting a bloated real estate mogul run roughshod over our civil liberties.
3. Gang of Four: “Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time”
(from Gang of Four EP, 1980)
In discussions of fascism, the horrors of totalitarianism and ethnic cleansing understandably tend to dominate our attention. But it’s important to remember that when Benito Mussolini rose to power in 1922, his platform was basically “Make Italy Great Again”: one of the recurring themes of his early propaganda was that the order he’d imposed had made the nation’s ailing train system more efficient. And that obsession with order isn’t restricted to dictators; as this grim character study by agit-punks Gang of Four suggests, there’s a little Mussolini in every right-winger who “wants his wife to run and fetch,” who feels nostalgia for a glorified past and complains that modern society lacks “discipline.” But hey, people like that just elected a thin-skinned egomaniac who’s used to getting everything he wants; what could possibly go wrong?
4. The Clash: “White Riot”
(from The Clash, 1977)
One of the recurring conundrums of our unequal society is why, when power and wealth are held by a tiny minority, the majority doesn’t simply rise up and take it. Listen to this debut single by the Clash, though, and the answer is pretty clear: “Everybody’s doing / Just what they’re told to / And nobody wants / To go to jail.” As frontman Joe Strummer notes, those with less privilege–ethnic minorities and working-class people, historically–are likelier to break out of their complacency and fight back; the question is when things will get so bad for the middle class that we’ll be willing to throw a brick or two ourselves. I guess we’ll find out in the next four years; but from the sounds of today’s protests, we might be getting close.
5. Ted Nugent: “Stormtroopin'”
(from Ted Nugent, 1975)
Yes, I’m aware of the irony of putting a song by rock’s best-known right-wing extremist on a playlist against right-wing extremism. But what can I say, I love using people’s shitty politics against them; and by all rights, Nugent’s fever dream of defending ourselves from jackbooted thugs “looking in [our] windows” and “listen[ing] to [our] phone[s]” belongs to the left. So there, Uncle Ted: you wrote a far-left anti-fascist protest song. Fuck you.
6. Blind Willie Johnson: “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down”
(1927 recording, available on Dark Was the Night)
I have a confession to make: I actually don’t like protest songs all that much. And when it comes to gospel protest songs, while I can certainly appreciate them on a musical level, as a non-believer I find their passivity a little frustrating. Blind Willie Johnson, however, is another story. Singing from the perspective of the Biblical hero Samson–just before he buried the Philistines in the rubble of their own temple– Johnson sounds downright wrathful when he threatens to “tear the building down”; which, as a Black man in 1920s Texas, he frankly should have been. Sacrifice and perseverance are all well and good, but when it comes to applying scriptural lessons to contemporary politics, I’m with Samson and Blind Willie: if we’re gonna die, let’s bring the walls crashing down with us.
7. John Sinclair: “Detroit Beat-Down”
(from Mobile Homeland, 2016)
Detroit-area radical icon John Sinclair tends to be depicted in the mainstream media as your basic aging hippie: a perception that probably isn’t helped by the fact that he now has his own line of “connoisseur” cannabis seeds. But Guitar Army, the 1972 “manual for revolt” Sinclair wrote during his infamous ten-year prison sentence for possession of two joints of marijuana, remains an absolutely vital document of the New Left; and Sinclair himself is an inspiring voice of dissent to this day. On his 2016 musical poem “Detroit Beat-Down,” for example, Sinclair flips the usual narrative of Michigan’s economic depression into an anthem of artistic resistance in the face of adversity: “we got another Detroit beat-down coming up this way,” he proclaims. “We gonna beat you with the conga drum / We gonna beat you with the bass / We gonna beat you with the hi-hat / We gonna put this beat up in your face.” Oh, and did I mention this track has Wayne Kramer of the MC5 on guitar? If anybody knows about the “Detroit beat-down,” it’s these two.
8. Patti Smith Group: “Till Victory”
(from Easter, 1978)
Let’s face it: there aren’t a lot of happy endings in left-wing politics. Even the rare victories, like the 1789 French Revolution or the 1917 Bolshevik uprisings, have a tendency to spiral out of control into fresh dystopian nightmares. Maybe that’s why I like Patti Smith’s “Till Victory”: drawing on Biblical imagery, Smith imagines a future in which we can finally stop fighting, and not just because we’ve beheaded or imprisoned all of our political enemies; a future with “no one to bow to, to vow to, to blame.” This is the utopian dream that allows us to continue standing up for what’s right–even when we’ve seen, time and time again, that it’s a lot easier to imagine that it is to actualize. I don’t know if we’ll ever see it in person, but even an unfulfilled promise is preferable to the alternative.
9. The Coup: “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.”
(from Party Music, 2001)
Donald Trump’s cabinet appointees include no less than four chief executives recruited from the private sector: most of whom–such as the aforementioned Secretary of Labor pick, Andrew Puzder, or former ExxonMobil CEO and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson–represent either open hostility or profound conflicts of interest for their departments. So, while I would never advocate violence against any of these upstanding citizens, I feel like this 2001 track by the Coup might be worth resurrecting for 2017. Again: I’m not advocating violence. But if we were to “throw a twenty in a vat of hot oil” like Boots Riley recommends, and Rex Tillerson were to jump in after it, would it really be such a loss?
10. Rage Against the Machine: “Killing in the Name”
(from Rage Against the Machine, 1992)
During their peak of mainstream success, Los Angeles rap-rockers Rage Against the Machine were frequently dismissed as peddlers of aimless Gen-X angst, dressed up with Poli Sci 101-level radical rhetoric. But a little context goes a long way: their debut single, 1992’s “Killing in the Name,” was released in the wake of the uprisings in South Central L.A., which brought a degree of mainstream attention to police brutality not seen since the 1960s. And right now, with police brutality a hot-button issue once again and an incoming administration that promises “law and order” with even fewer than the usual guarantees of our constitutional rights, listening to Zack de la Rocha scream “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” just might be more cathartic than ever. Let’s hope that in another 25 years (good god, has it really been 25 years?!), this song won’t still be so goddamn relevant.
11. A Tribe Called Quest: “We the People…”
(from We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, 2016)
Speaking of groups from the ’90s that are still depressingly relevant, A Tribe Called Quest reunited last year, and not a moment too soon: as we discussed in our best-of-2016 podcast, Tribe’s Saturday Night Live performance of “We the People…” and “The Space Program” the weekend after Election Day was exactly what we needed to lift us out of our post-Trump depression. But how sad is it that all Q-Tip needs to do to write a scorching protest song is recite the barely-veiled subtext of the Trump/Pence agenda: “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays / Boy, we hate your ways / So all you bad folks, you must go.” This is what you voted for, America!
12. Elvis Costello: “Night Rally”
(from This Year’s Model, 1978)
And here’s another thing y’all voted for: as mentioned earlier, soon after Trump won the election, the white supremacist National Policy Institute met in the nation’s capitol to celebrate. Racist dog whistles (and just regular-ass racist whistles) were blown. Nazi salutes were raised. Tila Tequila was there for some reason. It was a fucking mess. But it was also hardly unprecedented, and the whole thing reminded me of this 1978 lyric by Elvis Costello: “You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny / Wait until they’ve got you running to the night rally.”
Costello, of course, was talking about the U.K.’s far-right National Front party, which had taken an unprecedented 33 out of 92 constituencies in the 1977 Greater London Council election; while I love the song, his forebodings always seemed distant to me because the prospect of a legitimate neo-fascist party always seemed much likelier in Europe than in the States. But now we, too, have a vocal minority of white nationalists who have been given just enough legitimacy to feel entitled; and, while the worst they’ve done to date is ruin a beloved meme and harass people on Twitter (well, that and help elect the worst president in recent memory), I’m not especially keen on seeing what they do next. So, sure, go ahead and laugh at a former MySpace model and reality TV “star” dressing up as a Nazi on social media; but make sure laughing isn’t all you do, or else we might be laughing all the way to the gas chambers.
13. Nina Simone: “Mississippi Goddam” (Live at Westbury Music Fair, April 7, 1968)
(from ‘Nuff Said!, 1968)
It’s a testament to Nina Simone‘s brilliance as a songwriter and a performer–or maybe just to the world’s staggering shittiness–that a protest song as historically specific as “Mississippi Goddam” could have such long-lasting resonance. Simone wrote the song in early 1964, in response to two events from the previous year: the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Edvers in Jackson, Mississippi, and the fatal bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. But despite its ripped-from-the-headlines inspiration, she continued to perform “Mississippi Goddam” throughout her life, using its righteous rage as a vessel to contain whatever new disaster had struck Black America in the interim.
In this April 1968 performance, for example, Simone performs the song as a way to process the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just three days earlier: an event, she tells the crowd, that “left me so numb, I don’t know where I’m at.” It’s a stirring version of the song, its middle section more devastating than ever: “Hound dogs on my trail / Little school children sitting in jail / Black cat crossed my path / I think every day’s gonna be my last / Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We all gonna get it in due time / ‘Cause I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” If that sense of hopelessness doesn’t resonate at least a little with you in early 2017, then I guess you’re a more balanced person than I am.
14. Run the Jewels featuring Tunde Adebimpe: “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)”
(from Run the Jewels 3, 2016)
Due in large part to Killer Mike’s high-profile support of insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary last year, Run the Jewels have become one of the most important political voices in contemporary hip-hop. But this standout track from their third and most recent self-titled album proves that they have the ideas to back up their influence. A nightmarish vision of a Twilight Zone-style “future that might be,” “Thieves!” imagines America embroiled in violent revolution: “No more moms and dads crying / No more arms in the air,” Mike raps, referring to the “hands up, don’t shoot” slogan popularized in the wake of Michael Brown’s 2014 police killing. “We put firearms in the air / Molotov cocktails thrown in the air.” He doesn’t revel in the carnage, but he does suggest that it’s inevitable if we continue to ignore our society’s injustices: “Death gon’ deal with the guilty, mane / The universe curses the killers, mane / Can’t keep killin’ God’s children, mane / A pound of flesh is what you owe / Your debt is due, give up your ghost.”
“Thieves!” is a Shakespearean tragedy of a protest song, but the mythic elements are deeply rooted in reality. The song closes with a sample from Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech “The Other America”–a.k.a., “The One White People Don’t Like to Talk About”: “I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” The message, from both King and Killer Mike, is clear: if we don’t want the riots, we need to change the conditions that cause them, and allow the “unheard” to speak through less destructive means.
15. Public Enemy: “Party for Your Right to Fight”
(from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 1988)
My favorite thing about “Party for Your Right to Fight” is the title: a pointed reappropriation of the white teenager’s faux-rebellion of “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” by Public Enemy’s much more successful Def Jam labelmates the Beastie Boys, imbuing the “party music” that is hip-hop with militant political intent. My second favorite thing is the line that inspired its parent album’s title: “it takes a nation of millions to hold us back,” probably one of the most powerful turns of phrase in the history of the English language, let alone rap music. The rest of “Party for Your Right to Fight,” to be honest, doesn’t really live up to those two things–really, Chuck, the Freemasons?–but I like them enough to earn the song a place on the playlist anyway.
16. OG Swaggerdick: “Fuck Donald Trump”
(from Swaggerdick 2016, 2016)
Finally, let’s end on a simple and direct note with this presidential diss from the delightfully-monikered OG Swaggerdick, from his 2016 EP with similarly-themed songs about Dick Cheney, Jeb Bush, Ann Coulter, and Stacey Dash. “Why they always making bitch niggas relevant?” That’s a damn good question, OG; but let’s keep fighting so that Donald Trump is a whole lot less relevant by 2020. Or sooner. Sooner would actually be great.