I went to bed last night thinking about this list, and woke up still thinking about it. It was so difficult for me to whittle it down to 10 songs, none of which I wanted to be obvious choices, and I ended up making it even harder by dividing them into different genres and areas of protest. I work with so many different organizations because so many different people have influenced me—once that spark of activism ignites inside you, it’s very difficult to narrow it down to just one cause. I wanted to craft a collection of songs that show how we’re all grappling with our own existential dilemmas, no matter what type of music we listen to, what part of the world we live in, or what language we speak. As people, we have the insatiable need to communicate and figure out what it all means.
Country Joe and the Fish’s “The Fish Cheer & I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.” (Folk) I grew up listening to this old Vietnam War protest song: “Put down your books and pick up a gun, we’re gonna have a whole lotta fun!” When [Country Joe McDonald] played this song at Woodstock, he told the crowd to sing along with him, and it’s so genius because he starts screaming at everybody, like, “There’s 300,000 of you fuckers out there! How do you expect to stop the war if you don’t start screaming better than that?” He sings, “Come on Wall Street, don’t move slow,” which is so perfect, because he’s telling Wall Street, ironically, that we need to supply the army with the tools of the trade. We’re now in the middle of a recession that’s costing us trillions of dollars, and we’re out fighting a war that we’ve known for years now is based on false pretenses. Yet we’re still there, and we’re still entangled with Iran and Pakistan. It’s never-ending. This is my anti-war song, but done in a very Stephen Colbert-like way.
Tori Amos’ “Me and a Gun.” (Singer-songwriter) This is pretty amazing because Tori Amos is singing about her own rape. It’s about this guy with a gun who pushes her on her belly, and she sings, “It’s kind of funny/ The things you think at times like these/ Like I haven’t seen Barbados/ So I must get out of this.” So many women don’t speak about the violence they’ve endured. It’s not sexy to talk about rape, especially your own. Even after all the years that I’ve been working on the board of V-Day [a campaign to stop violence against women and girls], this song still gives me chills.
Zap Mama’s “Nostalgie Amoureuse.” (R&B) Zap Mama is from Brussels, and she’s amazing. This song is about a homeless man who speaks to her. I love the line, “We are all winners if we unclose our eyes.” Homelessness is not a conversation we have anymore. We can talk about the “housing crisis”—like the houses give a shit—but that’s a very nice and bookish way of talking about families being kicked out onto the street. Remember all the telethons we used to have with Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal? Where are those telethons for the homeless now?
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Hawai’i ’78.” (World) This is on his Facing Future album. He sings about the king and queen who used to rule over Hawaii, and how they would feel about their sacred land being covered by highways. There is still a lot of racial tension between the Samoans, the native Hawaiians, the whites, and other people who have moved there. It has become cliché or jokey to so many people who visit the islands there, but those traditional dances and tattoos are such beautiful expressions of a native culture trying desperately to retain its roots.
Syl Johnson’s “Is it Because I’m Black?” (Soul) This is a beautiful song about race, which is obviously a huge issue in this country. The fact that we still have our own native peoples in segregation is disgusting. They are still on these plots of land that we designated for them hundreds of years ago, and that’s never changed. We never really talk about them as a community. We’re all like, Hey, we’re one world, we’re one mind, we’re all connected, but the reality is that we still have very legal segregation in this country. In this song, Syl Johnson describes all of the things he wants for himself and his life, but can’t achieve, and so he asks, “Is it because of the color of my skin?” After 9/11, Muslims were easy targets, but group prejudice comes in waves. Latinos are now joking, “Ah, it’s our turn!” It happened to the Chinese, it happened to the Japanese, it happened to the Irish, and it happened to the Jews. We have these waves of hate that wash over this country, despite the existence of a symbol like the Statue of Liberty.
Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” (Rap) Even though it’s a bit obvious, this song really is just that dope, and I love Queen Latifah. The song is about taking back language, which is something The Vagina Monologues addresses in “Reclaiming Cunt.” When that book first came out, you couldn’t even say “vagina” on national television. Even now, just a couple of weeks ago, I was listening to the radio and they were playing the Eminem song, “The Real Slim Shady.” There’s a line in there about the clitoris, but the word “clitoris” was actually blanked out on the radio. I was like, What? I’m sorry, you can’t say “clitoris” on the radio? Are you kidding me?
Fela Kuti’s “Water No Get Enemy.” (Afrobeat) When it wasn’t about sex, Fela’s music was mostly about protest. Given the current discussion about the privatization of water, as well as soaring food prices, this is still a very poignant song—probably more so now than it was back then. It’s also joyous and full of expression. V-Day is very much about injecting art and poetry and acting and singing and dancing—all of that great stuff—into the conversation about violence. Without it, that discussion can get too intense. When that happens, you can only preach to the choir because no one else will listen to you.
Saul Williams’ “Not in Our Name.” (Spoken word) I love when he says, “No more transfusions of blood for oil.” It’s a short, simple song. There are versions with music, but I like it a cappella. The number of different ways we try to reach out to each other, scream our frustrations, and call out for help blows me away. I think Saul Williams captures that rebellious sentiment beautifully and in a really modern way.
Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.” (Jazz) This song speaks to our current recession: Why are there more billionaires now than ever before? Why are people making record amounts of money? Why are the people who created this “housing crisis” getting bonuses? And why is my ass on the street right now? I can’t get a job and my kids got kicked out of their school program, and they’re talking about taking away my healthcare. That’s what “Whitey on the Moon” is about. It’s like, “Listen, I’m not just angry in some arbitrary way. These are the facts. A rat bit my black sister and Whitey is on the moon. I’m sorry that those two thoughts are in my head at the same time but that’s just crazy. I’m sitting here looking at my sister getting bit in the face by a rat and I see on the news that some dude is jumping up and down on the moon?”
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ “El Matador.” (Ska) This song is about the military dictatorship that controlled Argentina in the ’70s and early ’80s. Many of the song’s lyrics come from a poem by Chilean activist Victor Jara, who was killed in 1973. Los Fabulosos Cadillacs started making music in Buenos Aires in the early ’80s, when Argentina was in the Falklands War with Britain, and a lot of musicians were literally being thrown in jail for playing ska music because it was considered a British genre. How crazy is that? The beauty of music is that it gives voice to disenfranchised people—whether it’s because you’re poor, or because you’re gay, or because you’re homeless, or because you’re anti-war. Real artists are people who make music that provokes you, that moves you, that forces you to get up off your ass and do something. Once you know something you can’t un-know it—it rings in your head, and it’s impossible to ignore. Plus, it’s way better than hearing something on the news and then forgetting about it as soon as the diarrhea commercial comes on.