LISTEN | 10 powerful songs that became anthems for social change

These iconic songs are proof that rock, folk and pop can cut straight to our hearts, regardless of creed and colour

05 January 2020 - 00:02
By Shannon Sherry
Juluka featuring Johnny Clegg in London, June 1983.
Image: Fin Costello/Redferns Juluka featuring Johnny Clegg in London, June 1983.


Written by Johnny Clegg. Performed by Juluka

Making a case for universal sister/brotherhood through the world's shared African heritage, Juluka defined a period in South African history with this 1982 release, heard by a nation yearning for change that was already everywhere to be seen but still required legitimisation.

It was the local band's most commercially successful release and this song, played by Juluka's later incarnation, Savuka, was used on the soundtrack of the hit film Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.


Written and performed by John Lennon

Emerging in 1971 after the dissolution of the Beatles, this anti-religious, anti-nationalist, anti-war, anti-materialist declaration led many to adopt alternative ideas about the world and staked out Lennon's turf as perhaps the major creative force behind the '60s supergroup.

A haunting piano tune and perfectly coherent lyrics that avoid tangled lines and complex words ensured that it became an anthem of sorts for all who ever wanted to declare to the world: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."


Written and performed by Bob Dylan

That a 20-year-old country boy who had made his way from the Midwest to New York City could in 1962 pen a song that was embraced by the US civil rights movement and sung during marches protesting against racism and other forms of injustice is astounding.

This enduring song has been covered by hundreds of other performers and derives its power not from providing answers but a series of questions posed by the author.

In response to its opening question, "How many roads must a man walk down?", none other than Pope John Paul II offered the answer: "Only one road. The road that leads to God."


Written and performed by Bob Marley

Marley's 1980 tune, the last song on the album Uprising, mourned the killing of black prophets but was more than just a lament, rather a call to rise up in resistance against injustice and "fulfil the book".

The melody complements the serious theme awesomely and it was covered by Stevie Wonder, one of a host of Marley admirers in the music community.


Written and performed by Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder released this joyful dance track in 1980 as part of a campaign in the US to have slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King's birthday declared a public holiday. The campaign succeeded, in no small way thanks to the hit status of the song, and Wonder stood proudly on the stage next to King's widow, Coretta Scott King, when the announcement was made.

And the song will live on for as long as people have birthday parties!


Written and performed by Bruce Springsteen

The title track of the Boss's 1984 album - incidentally the first to be released only on compact disc - was one of the most misunderstood songs.

The rousing chorus gave many the impression that the singer was declaring his country of birth in a spirit of triumphalism and pride, when precisely the opposite was intended, as even a cursory examination of the verses between the choruses will confirm: "Got in a little hometown jam/ so they put a rifle in my hands/ sent me off to a foreign land/ to go and kill the yellow man ..."

Mindful of the ambiguity engendered by the song, especially after having to bat away praise from right-wing politicians, Springsteen nowadays reportedly often refrains from playing the song in his concerts. Which is a pity because it's a powerful rocker.


Written by Glen Matlock, John Lydon, Paul Cook and Steve Jones. Performed by
the Sex Pistols

Punk rock ruled Britain in the summer of 1977 and the Pistols were at the forefront of the movement. This song, a single taken from their only album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, savagely attacked the ruling elite - "God save the queen/ the fascist regime" - and was denied airplay by the BBC and other major British broadcasters.

Despite this, the record shot up the charts, reaching No 1 on most independently compiled lists. Its No 2 ranking by the staid BBC - behind Rod Stewart's I don't Want to talk about It - was said by many credible observers and insiders to have been manipulated by Britain's national broadcaster expressly to deny the Pistols' triumph. Clearly, a great section of the public endorsed what the band had to say.


Written by Francis Scott Key and John Stafford Smith. Performed by Jimi Hendrix

Otherwise known as the American national anthem, this transcendent piece of music was first performed by Hendrix on the last muddy morning of the Woodstock festival 50 years ago, when most of the audience had already left. It is the only instrumental on this list, but any lyrics would be superfluous.

Hendrix delivered as profound a commentary on the US as has ever been committed to music. His twisted, strangled, choking, bombed, screaming, tortured Fender Stratocaster intermittently struggles to break into clear melody lines, only to be kicked back into the maelstrom and beaten down and traumatised.

It is a brilliant virtuoso performance from a master musician who never reached the age of 28.


Written by Roger Waters. Performed by Pink Floyd

Penned in 1979, it provided Pink Floyd with their only no 1 hit in both the UK and the US. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher declared she "hated" the song, which memorably incorporated a children's choir.

Declaring "we don't need no education, we don't need no thought control", the song was adopted by the nationwide school boycott protest movement in SA in 1980 and was promptly banned by the apartheid government.


Written and performed by Nina Simone

In 1964 the divine Ms Simone wrote this song to protest against the killing of US activist Medgar Evers (the theme also of Bob Dylan's Just a Pawn in their Game) and the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was banned in the Southern states of the US, ostensibly because it used the word "goddam".

Promotional singles sent out to radio stations were returned, each cracked in half. Simone took to performing the song in concert, to mainly white audiences, and it was reportedly well received.

PS: This list is not claimed to be definitive.