Songs about Race and Injustice – Top Ten

Racial inequality and injustice are core themes within A level and degree-level Sociology, and there are a huge variety of songs across many genres which deal with such themes. The selection below deal with issues and concepts such as prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, Islamophobia, and many are critical of the nation state in perpetuating racial injustice through violence and moral panics.

The amount of such songs probably reflects the fact that their authors’ really aren’t being heard through regular channels, hence the musical outlet. Below are my top ten songs about race and injustice which can be used to illustrate various sociological themes. If you have any alternative suggestions about other songs which should be included please provide them in the comments.

10 – “War”, Bob Marley and the Wailers (Rastaman Vibration, 1976)

‘One Love’ and happy-spliff posters only represent a slither of Bob Marley’s philosophy – take a closer look at the lyrics of many of his songs and you’ll find a more serious political side to them  – the opening verse of ‘War’ illustrates this perfectly..

‘Until the philosophy which hold one race superior
And another
Is finally
And permanently
And abandoned –
Everywhere is war –
Me say war’

(Complete lyrics to Bob Marley’s War)

In later verses there’s a vision of globalisation based on human rights and international morality, and there seems to be a critique of the role which various nation states have played in preventing this from happening, a theme which you’ll find in some of his other songs such as ‘No Woman, No Cry”, which has precious little to do with romance btw.

9 – “Columbus”, Burning Spear (Hail H.I.M., 1980)

There’s not a great deal of sociological/ political content in ‘Columbus’ compared to some of the other songs on the list, but it does provide us with an unambiguous criticism of colonialism and reminds us that much of our history comes from a Eurocentric perspective.

‘Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar
Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar
Yes Jah

He’s saying that, he is the first one
Who discover Jamaica
I and I say that,
What about the Arawak Indians and the few Black man
Who were around here, before him’

8 – “Beds Are Burning”, Midnight Oil (Diesel and Dust, 1987)

This song protests the forcible removal of the Australian Aboriginal people, the Pintupi, from their western desert homeland, to the Northern Territories. During the 1950’s, the western desert was used for missile testing so the government forcibly relocated the Pintupi. Their land was not purchased from them and they received no compensation for their troubles.
The relocation didn’t just remove a people from their land; it also forcibly removed thousands of Aboriginal children from their parents, who were dispersed into separate government and religious institutions and foster care. They became known as “The Stolen Generation”.

‘The time has come
To say fair’s fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share
The time has come
A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back’
Midnight Oil performed this song at the close of the 2000 Sydney Olympic games to a world audience of billions of people, including Prime Minister John Howard. The entire band was dressed in black with the word “sorry” printed on their clothing because the Prime Minister refused to apologise on behalf of Australia to the Aboriginal Australians for how they were treated in the past 200 years.

7 – F**k Tha Police, NWA (Straight Outa Compton, 1988)

A good candidate for the angriest of the songs on the list – but it is none the less an authentic account of perceived police racism in LA in the 1980s.

Selected Lyrics

‘Searching my car, looking for the product
Thinking every n***a is selling narcotics
You’d rather see, me in the pen
Than me and Lorenzo rolling in a Benz-o’

There’s not really too much to say about this one, other than it’s a useful, and classic, illustration of NWA applying labelling theory – the version above is the classic, but they’ve been performing this live even in recent years to a popular reception.

6 – Sonny’s Lettah, Linton Kwesi Johnson (Forces of Victory, 1979)

Sonny’s Lettah was written in protest of the so-called ‘Sus law’, which allowed police to detain people suspected of having “intent to commit an arrestable offence,” in England.  The story of Sonny is a condensation of various experiences gathered by Johnson into this one song.

The ‘lettah’ is written from a man to his mother explaining that he’s in prison – for defending a friend who was detained and beaten by the police for no apparent good reason.

‘Me and Jim stand up waiting pon a bus
not causing no fuss
when all on a sudden a police man
pull up
out jump 3 police man
De ‘ole a dem carrying baton

Ma Maa, meck a tell yu weh dem do to Jim
Ma Maa , meck a tell yu we dem do to him
Dem tump ‘im in ‘im belly
an’ it turn to jelly
Dem lick ‘im pon ‘im back
an ‘im rib get pop
Dem lick ‘im pon ‘im head
but it tuff like lead
Dem kick ‘im in ‘im seed
an it started to bleed

Ma Maa I just couldn’t just stan’ up
deh a no do nutten…’

In contrast to NWA, this is the most depressing song on the list, testimony maybe to the power of the narrative voice: the fact that it’s just one personalised (albeit hypothetically mish-mashed) case somehow has more of an emotional impact than many of the other songs which are more generalised and abstract.

5 – “Talk That”, Rival (Lord Rivz EP, 2011)

Written on the back of the London Riots, grime artist rival reminds us that there are literally hundreds of thousands of marginalised young people living in London who don’t identify with The City, the Olympic Park or Buckingham Palace – theirs is a life of blocked opportunity, crime and violence.

“A lot of people ask me why I speak so much violence, so much pain, so much rage,

That’s all I know”

4 – “Fortress Europe”, Asian Dub Foundation (Enemy of the Enemy, 2003)

A song dealing with asylum seekers – Asian Dub Foundation believe Britain’s boarders should remain open because Britain needs immigrants, with even illegal immigrants generating wealth. They also believe that the media making the link between asylum seekers and terrorism does not reflect the reality of most asylum seekers, i.e. most of them (near enough all of them in fact) are not terrorists.

‘Safe european homes built on wars
You don’t like the effect don’t produce the cause
The chip is in your head not on my shoulder
Total control just around the corner
Open up the floodgates time’s nearly up
Keep banging on the wall of fortress europe
Keep banging
Keep banging on the wall of fortress europe’

3. “Rong Radio Station”, Benjamin Zephaniah (Naked, 2006)

Deals with the role of the media in maintaining ideological control/ hegemony/ false consciousness. You have to watch it with the video – it adds another dimension!

‘For years I’ve been sedated
Now I think I’m educated
I’ve been listening to the rong radio station
and every time I felt ill, I took the same little white pill
I’ve been listening to the rong radio station,
When I started I was curious but then it got so serious
I was cool when I began but now I really hate Iran
And look at me now I wanna make friends with Pakistan
I wanna bomb Afghanistan’

2 “Terrorist”, Lowkey (Soundtrack to The Struggle, 2011)

Serves to remind us that while ‘terrorism’ is almost exclusively associated with Islamic Fundamentalism these days,  there are in fact many violent, politically motivated actions which maybe should be regarded as terrorism, but aren’t labelled as such.

Selected Lyrics

Tell me, what’s the bigger threat to human society
BAE Systems or home made IED’s
Remote controlled drones, killing off human lives
Or man with home made bomb committing suicide

If you look back over the past century, there are dozens of cases of western governments using violence to pursue their political goals – but when powerful organisations use smart-weapons to kill innocent people thousands of miles away, this is ‘legitimate force and collateral damage’, but when some Muslims do the same in the West, but with cruder home made weapons, they get labelled ‘terrorists’.

In versus two and three we get a nice historical overview of recent democratic regimes in developing countries which the West overthrew using military force, and in verse three a broader account of non-Islamic forms of terrorism.

1 – “Freestyle”, Akala (Fire in the Booth, 2011)

Eight minutes of freestyling by Akala, covering numerous sociological issues. Common themes in Akala’s songs  include war and conflict, racism, social injustice, and false consciousness – nicely illustrating many of the concepts developed by Marxist and Interactionist thought.

Selected Lyrics…

‘We can all fight our brothers over crumbs,

Harder to fight the one who makes guns’

NB Akala is very knowledgeable about the history of class and race relations in the UK – you should look at some of the videos with him talking/ being interviewed for an accessible introduction to this area of sociology.

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