We live in troubled times, and fighting for social justice is more critical than ever.
But in the face of numerous overwhelming catastrophes – wars, sickness, lethal inequities, climate change, encroaching loneliness – what does fighting even mean? The mere prospect of trying can feel prohibitively daunting. But try we must – whatever that may look like in our individual lives. Maybe it’s having difficult, uncomfortable conversations with misguided loved ones. Maybe it’s grabbing a sign and heading to a protest. Maybe it’s sharing resources with others, within your means. Or, maybe it’s finding ways to weave your principles into your work.
The women artists below have embodied that last concept, raising their voices – literally – against that which ails our society. The songs featured on this playlist push back against sexism, racism, authoritarianism and cultural erasure. They encourage us to recognize and honor one another’s inherent humanity, no matter where we come from or how old we are.
Take a listen, and take heart – because as these tracks also remind us, there is strength in solidarity. Together, we can work to make things better.
“Ella's Song” – Resistance Revival Chorus
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” – This song, performed here by an ensemble of women and nonbinary singers, was written by Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon in honor of her mentor, prominent civil rights activist Ella Baker. It’s refrain – a famous and powerful quote of Baker’s – is insistent that fighting for justice is a commitment.
“We Shall Not Be Moved” – Mavis Staples
“Just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” – This song, on the immovability of those working for justice, was first crafted and shared by enslaved people, then found renewed popularity during the Civil Rights movement. This version is performed by Mavis Staples, a gospel singer and activist who has long used her voice and platform to effect change.
“Not Ready to Make Nice” – The Chicks
“I’m still mad as hell, and I don’t have time to go ’round and ’round and ’round.” – In protest of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, The Chicks said they were ashamed to hail from the same state as him. The backlash was long-lasting, and deadly. When they returned, it was with this barn-burner – harnessing their lasting, justified anger and fear into a hit anthem.
“I Can’t Breathe” – H.E.R.
“I can’t breathe. Will anyone fight for me?” – Released in June 2020, this song was written as a direct response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, as well as the broader problems of police brutality and systemic racism in America. It went on to be named Song of the Year at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards.
“The Joke” – Brandi Carlile
“Let ’em laugh while they can./Let ’em spin, let ’em scatter in the wind./I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends./And the joke’s on them.” – Carlile wrote this song to speak to members of marginalized communities – those who feel “underrepresented, unloved or illegal,” she once said – as a way of encouraging them to both be and love themselves.
“On Children” – Sweet Honey on the Rock
“You can give them your love, but not your thoughts – they have their own thoughts.” – This setting of a poem by Kahlil Gibran is not necessarily a protest song. But its message flies in the face of established schools of parental thought. It reminds us that children are not continuations of individuals or legacies, but rather, their own beings – and should be respected as such.
“Strange Fruit” – Billie Holiday
“Here is a strange and bitter crop.” – A haunting song, based off of a poem by Abel Meeropol, that evokes lynchings inflicted upon Black people throughout America’s history with its stunning, horrific imagery. The listener is forced to think about the pain brought to others because of racism. Holiday elevated its profile by performing it regularly, despite fear of a backlash.
“We Rise” – Rhiannon Giddens
“Hand in hand we stand as one./We push, we reach, we rise.” – Folk musician Giddens wrote this piece – a bold, increasingly layered a cappella rallying cry – as a contribution to an album put forth by a group of activist musicians based in North Carolina. It stands on its own as a powerful gathering force, encouraging progress through coming together.
“Child Of The Government” – Jayli Wolf
“Mixed up the bloodline, lost to his people./Broken and cursed, wrapped him in evil.” – Wolf wrote this piece about her father’s experiences during the Sixties Scoop – a decades-long practice in which Indigenous Canadian children were separated from their families by the government and forced into foster homes, to be adopted by white families.
“Police State” – Pussy Riot
“No problems in paradise./We’ll lock them up.” – Pussy Riot, a feminist performance art group based in Russia, has made an international name for itself by taking aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as pushing back against harmful institutions like sexism and homophobia. This song specifically pushes back against encroaching governmental overreach.
“U.N.I.T.Y.” – Queen Latifah
“I bring wrath to those who disrespect me like a dame.” – Queen Latifah released this song in 1993 – but it also could have come out today. It calls out our misogynistic culture for the ways in which women are ignored and demeaned, while spotlighting ongoing threats like domestic violence and street harassment as particular detriments to women’s happiness and well-being.
“We Shall Overcome” – Joan Baez
“Oh, deep in my heart I know that I do believe./We shall overcome, someday.” – Another gospel song with significant ties to the Civil Rights movement, “We Shall Overcome” has roots as a hymn, and as a workers’ protest song in the 1940s. Baez’s version performance during a 1963 protest at the Lincoln Memorial gave it new life.