5 Powerful Protest Songs Released by Womxn in 2020

Music has always served as a battle cry and a balm during particularly tumultuous times, and in 2020—when injustices like the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on BIPOC, the slaying of George Floyd by police, the assault on immigrant, women’s, and LGBTQIA rights by the Trump Administration became apparent—music was there to help us grieve, process, and make change, yet again.

Here’s a list of a few of this year’s stand-out protest songs featuring womxn. It’s by no means exhaustive, so let it be your gateway toward more songs of peace, love, and change.

Stevie Wonder“Can’t Put It In the Hands of Fate” (feat. Rapsody)

This poignant, funky single from legendary soul artist Stevie Wonder engages directly with issues of police brutality, black lives and voting for change, especially as he invites rappers like Rapsody to spit a few verses about her experience as black woman in America. “Apologize, you denied my people/Made our death legal, we all paralegal,” she raps. “Gotta defend ourselves when the laws ain’t equal/Cops aim lethal, death in cathedrals/Bang-bang boogie, you could die wearin’ a hoodie.”

Stephanie Anne Johnson“American Blues”

In her blues song for America, Seattle-based songwriter Stephanie Anne Johnson addresses America like a lost lover, and as a BIPOC in this country. “I’ve been sad/I’ve been blue/I’ve been dying/All over you/ You’ve been washed in my blood/All these years,” she sings. With her soaring gospel voice, Johnson spills her truth and pain—and like all great protest songs, it inspires you to really make some change.

Shea Diamond“I am America”

Visibility can be revolutionary in itself, and singer, songwriter, and transgender activist Shea Diamond knew that when she released her song “I am America,” in June. Co-written with Justin Tranter, the sizzling anthem centers Diamond’s own experiences as a black trans woman in America, and her views on the belonging and inclusion of the LGBTQIA community, while the uplifting video features short clips from members of the LGBTQIA community.

Sunny War“The Orange Man”

Americana artist Sunny War pulls no punches with “Orange Man,” pointedly going after the current U.S. administration. In the lyrics of the song, the Los Angeles-based artist acknowledges the diversity in America and how President Trump’s hatred of difference makes him unfit to lead, singing, “If I were you/I’d run for my life, not for president/cos the residents/need a leader and that is not you.” To send the point home, several boastful and bigotry-laden soundbites from Trump, on issues like popularity with the Black vote and immigration, are layered throughout the melancholy but passionate tune.

Thana Alexa“The Resistance” (feat. Staceyann Chin)

In March, Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and loop artist Thana Alexa delivered her rousing protest song, “The Resistance.” She originally penned the song after attending the Women’s March in 2016, but by releasing it in 2020, the song gains broader meaning. “We must rise/Revolutionize our minds/To unify, detoxify,” she sings—and after the hardships we’ve collectively faced head-on in 2020, it’s a fitting imperative to carry into a new year, too.

PREMIERE: Naima Shalhoub Sings Rallying Cry of Resistance on “Five (The Calling)”

Photo Credit: Tarik Kazaleh

Naima Shalhoub’s music is not just for entertainment or artistry; it’s a form of social activism. In addition to being a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, the Lebanese-American artist is a Restorative Justice practitioner who holds healing groups for women of color. Her upcoming album, Siphr (August 6) — like her first, Live in San Francisco County Jail — uses music to convey powerful messages of social change and resistance.

In the latest single off the album, “Five (The Calling),” soul influences are evident, with rich harmonies accompanied by piano. Then, strings and other instruments join the mix as the singing becomes more erratic and discordant. “You may hear a thousand voices calling you another way/But you will know that heavenly sound calling your name,” Shalhoub sings.

As the centerpiece of the album, “Five (The Calling)” was meant to be a “still point” that began one way and ended another, she told Audiofemme over the phone soon after attending a #BlackLivesMatter rally.

The track aims to send the message, “Don’t get distracted, don’t get it twisted, you have to learn what your integrity is,” she explains. “For me, it’s crying out to God, to the most high, the people who came before me, the Audre Lordes and the Angela Davises that aren’t my blood ancestors but that I feel like are my political ancestors — Billie Holiday and Nina Simone — the teacher will emerge when you’re ready, so always be attuned to that frequency of grace.”

The rest of the album contains blues and jazz influences, as well as Southwest Asian and North African folk, with lyrics in both Arabic and English and a Middle Eastern guitar-like instrument called an oud accompanying Shalhoub’s voice. However, she also says more modern artists she listened to growing up, like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, influenced the LP. “I wanted it to feel ancient in some ways and futuristic in other ways,” she explains.

The tile Siphr is Arabic for “zero,” which for Shalhoub symbolizes “everything and nothing, which is grace and the grace of the creator.” The track titles are numbered from 1-9, signifying “the journey of finding oneself in relationship to others,” Shalhoub explains.

Some of the songs are more relevant than ever right now. The lyrics to the bluesy “Four (Roumieh Prison Blues)” were written by men incarcerated at Lebanon’s Roumieh Prison, which is meant to illuminate the struggles that incarcerated people face. “Eight (Arab-Amerikkki)” features Palestinian-American producer Excentrik rapping about white supremacy against infectious piano and oud melodies.

The album release was originally scheduled for June 19 but was delayed to avoid taking the spotlight away from the Black community. Shalhoub finds it synchronistic that it’s coming out during a time when people are speaking out about racism; she sees the music as “crying out for freedom in solidarity with others,” she explains. “I certainly, as a brown woman, stand so firmly in solidarity with my Black kin. That means it’s an ongoing process and that also means dismantling the internalized colonialization I carry as a brown woman from a brown land.”

As someone who has survived sexual trauma and other abuses in her life, this album was also a way for Shalhoub to transmute her own experiences of injustice. “This was like emancipation for me to write this album,” she says. “My spirit needed it. My ancestors needed me to sing it. My creator needed me to sing this.”

Follow Naima Shalhoub on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Fab the Duo Release “Our Love Is Resistance” EP to Celebrate Pride Month

During a time of upheaval and turmoil, Fab the Duo’s music provides an uplifting message of resilience and perseverance. Today, the queer glam pop-rock duo is releasing their debut EP Our Love Is Resistance, which tackles LGBTQ rights and social justice more broadly on a political level, as well as their own experiences as a gay couple.

The members, Greg Driscoll and Brendan Eprile, met on Tinder three years ago and have been performing together for the past two years. The EP release was originally scheduled for April but got pushed back because of the Coronavirus. Truly, there’s no better time to share their debut with the world than Pride Month – and the songs have taken on a new meaning in light of the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests.

“We realized, as artists, it’s important to hear our voice, and we had to share the message for social change,” says Eprile, who also considers the release’s timing appropriate due to the recent Supreme Court decisions to protect transgender rights in the workplace and block Trump’s ending of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The first track on the EP, “Our Love Is Resistance,” is the most political. The strings and theatrical singing, with lyrics that make powerful statements like “love trumps hate,” give the song a dramatic, anthemic feel, and the video was filmed at the Stonewall Inn, the site of the historic LGBTQ riots in the ’60s, with an intentionally racially diverse cast. “We decided to keep the video black and white to show how timeless this is,” says Eprile. “The Stonewall uprisings happened over 50 years ago, and it shows how what we were fighting for then is what we’re fighting for today.”

“No Prince Charming” and “I Want a Man,” deal with empowerment in relationships, and the last, “American Icon,” deals with redefining what it means to be American, particularly in terms of LGBTQ inclusion. “Every song has to do with a different element of love, whether it be self-love or world love, love for each other, love in a relationship, love of the world,” says Eprile. “Every song goes into this overarching theme of love, and we like to think this EP tells the story of our love – from where we met to where we are now.” The album is an important step toward representation and visibility for queer couples.

Musically, you can hear hints of pop artists like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, as well as older glam-rock influences like David Bowie and Queen, combined with Driscoll’s musical theater background. Eprile says they aimed to infuse retro, blues, and rock influences into a modern sound.  Whether harmonizing or giving each other the space to belt a solo, the cooperative vocals reflect the EP’s overall message of simultaneously cultivating self-love and togetherness.

Self-love on its own can be an act of political resistance, Eprile points out. “Being who you are and loving who you love is so powerful in itself and does so much to change the world,” he says, “especially in times where there’s so much hate and anger and division.”

“I personally hope people get from this that love is achievable no matter who you are,” adds Driscoll. “I hope they realize that it can’t happen until you love yourself first, and I hope people realize that love has a lot of power in the world.”

Follow Fab the Duo on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Raye Zaragoza Reclaims Playground Taunt “Fight Like a Girl” for Latest Protest Anthem

Every one of Raye Zaragoza’s songs has a political message. It’s sometimes a very specific one, as in “Driving to Standing Rock” and “In the River,” both about the Dakota Access Pipeline, and often a broader one, as in “Fight for You,” a call for people to speak out about injustice and stand up for the oppressed.

Her latest single, “Fight Like a Girl,” falls somewhere in the middle, advocating for intersectional feminism with lines like “grandma nature, mother moon/show me what to do/they are taking our rights away/policing our bodies.” For the folk singer-songwriter, who is of Native American, Mexican, Taiwanese, and Japanese descent, inclusivity has always been paramount.

Zaragoza has been performing professionally since she was 19, starting off playing two-hour sets in exchange for a piece of pie at an LA pie shop. She worked restaurant jobs until age 23, and for the past four years, she’s been pursuing music full-time, putting out her first album Fight for You in 2017. Later this year, she plans to release her sophomore LP, recorded with Tucker Martine (who has worked with The Decemberists, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, case/lang/veirs, and others). With the quarantine limiting her ability to produce a more elaborate video, she recorded and shot herself performing “Fight Like a Girl” in her own home.

We talked to her about the message behind her latest single and the role of political activism in her music.

AF: What inspired the song “Fight Like a Girl”?

RZ: I wrote this song because I wanted to write an anthem with marginalized women at the center. The voices of women of color have not historically been at the forefront of feminism, and I think 2020 is an important time to change that. I wrote this song around the time that I met Deb Haaland, one of the two first Native American women in congress [D-New Mexico]. It’s women like her that remind me that women are capable of anything. I also really wanted to reclaim the term “fight like a girl” as an empowering term rather than what it meant on the playground when I was a kid.

AF: What do you hope people take away from the song?

RZ: I really hope the song will comfort those who have ever felt disempowered by their gender. I feel my greatest way of contributing to making the world a better place is comforting souls within it. I felt like such a lost misfit for most of my life, and music has given me so much solace. I hope this song will do that for others.

AF: What does fighting like a girl mean to you?

RZ: For me, it means to view the feminine energy within me as a strength rather than a weakness. We all have feminine energy, no matter our gender. And I feel that society has conditioned us to think that this part of us is our weakness. So “fighting like a girl” to me is channeling this energy and using it to become strong, brave, and vulnerable. It also means to reclaim my voice as a woman and stand up for myself!

AF: You describe “Fight Like a Girl” as a call for feminism to include all women. In what ways do you see it falling short of that right now?

RZ: Women of color, trans women, and disabled women have been left out of the conversation of feminism for a long time. These voices have been under-represented in media, politics, events — you name it. It’s important to fight for women’s rights, but it’s also important to fight for the marginalized voices within that identity.

AF: Activism plays a big role in your music. Why do you think it’s important to use your voice this way?

RZ: Sometimes I feel silly calling myself an activist. So many of my “activist songs” are really just me singing about my life and experience. Sometimes it feels that as a woman of color, my very existence is politicized in a way. So, the deeper I go with my own self-discovery and songwriting, the more “political”and “activist” the songs get. Really, I’ve never thought of it as important or something I should do. It just is what I experience and observe in song form.

AF: What issues are you trying to spread awareness of right now?

RZ: Right now, I am most concerned about spreading awareness in regards to indigenous communities in need. This virus is devastating tribal nations. I urge people to learn more and donate at Return2Heart.org.

AF: What are you working on now?

RZ: Working on an album release that will be happening later this year! Also always writing new songs. With all that’s going on, there is so much to write about and reflect on.

Follow Raye Zaragoza on Facebook for ongoing updates.

ONLY NOISE: Marching Songs

women's march

It may be difficult to remember what politicized youth culture looks like. Some of us weren’t born in time to witness it at full wattage – in the student-helmed anti-war campaigns of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement that marched for the cessation of our own domestic race war. The efforts of second-wave feminists to seal with mortar the gender gap that has plagued most of human history. The Reagan-era LGBT activists, who effectively fought the religious right’s claim that AIDS was solely God’s way of eliminating the gays. Or the more widespread fury Reagan’s cabinet stoked in the poor, the disenfranchised, and the mentally ill when they binned the Mental Health Systems Act just as they were settling into office.

All of these efforts found their way into youth culture, whether directly, or just as an undeniable force of the time. Film, fashion, literature and music reflected the political unrest of their respective era in one way or another. And because youth culture and pop culture are all but synonyms in this country, whatever the “kids” liked was as pervasive back then as it is now.

Despite their history, politics and pop culture have an unsteady relationship. When we look specifically at music and politics, there lies an on-again, off-again affair that is as fickle as a middle school romance. From a zoomed-out, perhaps overly simplified lens, the pattern of their union seems to ebb and flow, with en vogue factions of politically incensed music followed by complacency and nihilism.

The anti-Vietnam War activists were emboldened by the music of Bob Dylan, Edwin Starr, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, to name a few. Seeger and Baez’s politics in particular overlapped with their support for the Civil Rights Movement. While the latter effort inspired the likes of Nina Simone, Gil Scott Heron, and Marvin Gaye, among many. The Black Power Movement and Black Panther Party found an odd ally in the likes of Detroit radicals the MC5, and the proliferation of politico punk during Regan’s reign is undeniable.

Punk was one of the few musical styles that seemed to morph its focus within the same genre. The substance-fueled hedonism of the mid-to-late ‘70s (Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Dead Boys, The Germs, etc.) eventually gave way to the more substantive and topical songs of bands like Reagan Youth, Dead Kennedys, Youth Brigade, and Crass.

Arguably, the latter camp’s music is less lauded on a critical level, but both have their place in political and sonic history. While first wave punk certainly had many things to rebel against (The Eagles), it was also sprouting out of a time in which youth culture wasn’t as politicized. The Ramones weren’t exactly partisan revolutionaries staging protests and forming their own Weather Underground. First wave punk was more cultural rebellion than it was political rebellion, despite what Malcolm McLaren would have liked you to believe about his Sex Pistols, or his New York Dolls, whom he steered into a phony, late career Communist phase. It was more shock marketing than an actual political statement.

Second wave punk, despite being less inclined to smuggle interesting pop melodies, jazz, and a love of Doo-wop into its songs, had a whole hell of a lot to rebel against. Of course, everybody still hated The Eagles, but the onslaught of Reagan’s conservative policies, the oversold, underperforming promise of a suburban utopia (let alone an urban one), and the apolitical punk movement just before, left more to be desired.

The very aimless debauchery of previous punks inspired D.C.’s Straight Edge Movement, helmed by Minor Threat, whereas bands across the country needed only speed as an impetus for changing the game. Once showing its component parts of rock n’ roll and other beloved genres, punk had grown a thicker skin and put on a war helmet. When hardcore emerged with bands like Black Flag and Bad Brains, it somehow morphed what punk meant for generations. It had literally been hardened, and shined like a weapon. No longer existing for the sake of its own exploratory purposes, but as a vessel for discourse and agitation.

And it wasn’t just the punks who were getting political. The Reagan administration saw criticism from musicians obscure and mainstream both. Let us not forget that despite Reagan’s misuse of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.,” as his re-election campaign score, the song is in fact a damning reprimand of Reagan’s mistreatment of American veterans and his economic policies. Even His Purple Majesty Prince used music to criticize Reagan in cuts like, “Ronnie Talk to Russia” and “Sign o’ the Times.”

Sadly, none of this has happened in my lifetime. Though it may not be entirely true, I feel as though I have lived in a time period without its own protest music. I was too young to understand the relevance of ‘90s rap, let alone remember it as it happened. Only now, with detached hindsight can I see that it too was protest music, no matter how much the media tried to demonize it. I remember a smattering of artists, mostly smallish in name, condemn the Bush administration in the early 2000s…but I also remember that when a mainstream band tried to be critical, they got panned.

I will never forget how unexpected country sweethearts the Dixie Chicks nearly lost their fan base when in 2003, singer Natalie Maines spoke out against Bush at the Sheperd’s Bush Empire Theater in London:

“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

I didn’t start immediately loving every song the Dixie Chicks put out, but I was sure as hell proud that a mainstream country act would risk the bulk of their followers to speak their mind.

There has long been a lull in political music. The eight years of Obama’s presidency have left us complacent – and they shouldn’t have. There is always something to improve. Just as the second crop of punks made the genre their own; just as the second wave feminists worked to continue what the first wave had laid for them; just as the Black Lives Matter movement has taken the still blazing torch from the Civil Rights activists; it is the turn of the artists, the authors, and the songwriters, to match the task at hand with cultural inspiration. Fiona Apple knows this, as she’s already given us two anti-Trump tunes. There was of course her Christmas parody, “Trump’s Nuts Roasting on an Open Fire” released just around the holidays. But her new song, “Tiny Hands” is one to march to.