From the original protest songs of the civil rights movement to the charity singles raising money for those in need, for decades musicians have inspired change through their songs.
Here are our top 10 songs to inspire you to change the world for the better.
1. Blowin’ in the Wind – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s classic instantly became a civil rights anthem when it was released in 1963. The song had a major influence on American singer-songwriter Sam Cooke, who was so moved by the song he began to perform it as part of his live set.
Released: August 1963
Record label: Columbia
Most poignant lyric: The answer my friend is blowin’ in wind
Interesting fact: Dylan claims he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 10 minutes
2. Public Enemy – Fight the power
Arguably Public Enemy’s most famous song, “Fight the Power” was produced for Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing. Speaking to the social and psychological struggles being experienced by the American youth, the song decried racism and a lack of social progress, encouraging people to fight back.
Released: June 1989
Record label: Motown Records
Most poignant lyric: Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
Interesting fact: “Fight the Power” was used in another film, 2005’s US military movie Jarhead
3. Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
One of the most tragic and disturbing songs ever recorded, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is about the barbaric practice of lynching – when a group of people kill someone for an alleged offence, usually by hanging, without a legal trial – which was common at the time the song was released.
Record label: Commodore
Most poignant lyric: Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze | Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Interesting fact: The song was originally written as a poem by American writer and teacher Abel Meeropol after he saw a photograph of a lynching in a civil rights magazine
4. From Little Things Big Things Grow – Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody
An Indigenous rights classic, “From Little Things Big Things Grow” is based on the story of the Gurindji Strike, a walk-off and strike by 200 Gurindji stockmen, house servants and their families in August 1966 at Wave Hill cattle station in Kalkarindji, Northern Territory. The strike took place mainly due to work and living conditions but ultimately became about the return of Gurindji peoples’ land.
Record label: EMI, Festival
Most poignant lyric: Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting | Till one day a tall stranger appeared in the land | And he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony | And through Vincent’s fingers poured a handful of sand
Interesting fact: Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody sang the song at Gough Whitlam’s memorial service in November 2014
5. A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
In 1963 Sam Cooke, along with his wife and band, was turned away from a “whites only” motel in Louisiana and arrested for disturbing the peace. A key song for the civil rights movement, some of the lyrics of “A Change is Gonna Come” were inspired by this incident – as well as by Bob Dylan’s 1963 hit “Blowin in the Wind”.
Released: December 1964
Record label: RCA Victor
Most poignant lyric: It’s been a long, a long time coming | But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
Interesting fact: The song was released on 22 December 1964, two weeks after Cooke was shot dead by motel employee in Los Angeles – he was 33 years old
LIST CONTINUES BELOW
6. Imagine – John Lennon
Of course we couldn’t miss out the ultimate call for world peace, John Lennon’s “Imagine”. The song, written during the Vietnam War, asks listeners to imagine a world at peace, free from religious, class, or political boundaries. Jack Johnson recorded it for the 2007 compilation “Instant Karma: The Campaign to Save Darfur” by Amnesty International.
Released: October 1971
Record label: Apple
Most poignant lyric: You may say I’m a dreamer | But I’m not the only one | I hope someday you’ll join us | And the world will be as one
Interesting fact: Oasis used the piano intro on their 1996 song “Don’t Look Back In Anger”
7. Redemption Song – Bob Marley
Bob Marley’s final single before his death from cancer in May 1981, “Redemption Song” is about historic and modern day slavery and our struggle for physical and emotion freedom.
Released: October 1980
Record label: Island/Tuff Gong
Most poignant lyric: Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery | None but ourselves can free our minds
Interesting fact: This was the last song Marley performed, singing at a show in Pittsburgh on 23 September 1980
8. Man in the Mirror – Michael Jackson
Released in 1988, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” is an inspirational song about personal redemption and making a positive impact on the world. The catchy song tells us that not only is it possible to change the world, it’s possible for us – as individuals – to do it.
Released: January 1988
Record label: Epic
Most poignant lyric: I’m Gonna Make A Change | For Once In My Life | It’s Gonna Feel Real Good | Gonna Make A Difference | Gonna Make It Right
Interesting fact: Following Jackson’s death in 2009 the song became the number one single on iTunes in both the US and the UK
9. One – U2
Released as a benefit single in 1992, with the proceeds going towards AIDS research, “One” is said to be partly inspired by the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Others believe that the song represents a conversation of acceptance between an AIDS sufferer and his father.
Released: March 1992
Record label: Island
Most poignant lyric: We’re one, but we’re not the same | We get to Carry each other
Interesting fact: The song was written in Berlin because the band was hoping to find inspiration from the changes happening to the region
10. Joan Baez – We shall overcome
Originally written by American folk singer and activist Peter Seeger, “We Shall Overcome” is a hauntingly peaceful protest song that became an anthem of the civil rights movement in the US. The only artist to chart with the song was Joan Baez, whose soft and uplifting version is still as powerful today as it was during the turbulent sixties.
Record label: Vanguard
Most poignant lyric: Oh, deep in my heart | I do believe | We shall live in peace someday
Interesting fact: Peter Seeger performed the song for Martin Luther King in 1957 at the 25th anniversary of the Highlander Center in Tennessee. Rosa Parks was also in attendance
Want to listen again? Check out our human rights playlist on YouTube.