The history of protest songs


The latest Amnesty resource and activity for schools focuses on the history of protest songs and challenges students to create their own. Naomi Westland explains.

At their best, protest songs have the power to inspire, inform and unite. They have shaped movements and changed history, from the struggles of the suffragettes to the recent uprisings in the Middle East. One even made it into the Olympics opening ceremony – God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols.

For anyone who supported the South African anti-apartheid movement in the 70s and 80s, just catching a few notes of N’Kosi Sikeleli Africa, accompanied by a mental image of a defiant clenched fist salute, is enough to bring a tear of solidarity to the eye. The lyrics of Strange Fruit – a song made famous by Billie Holiday about racism and lynching in America’s Deep South – are still haunting; Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ is as pertinent today in some parts of the world as it was in 1960s America. 

That’s what makes protest songs such a powerful tool to help young people explore some of the most iconic and evocative moments in recent history. They bring to life the issues of human rights and dignity and can awaken our curiosity and empathy.

With that in mind Amnesty has launched a new interactive, multimedia education pack on protest songs. Called The Power of Our Voices, it is aimed at secondary students and designed to fit into national curricula across the UK. Students are also being invited to enter their own protest songs in a competition to find the next Woody Guthrie or Joan Baez.

The pack helps students to learn about the role of protest music across the world. There is a film about a group called Women of Zimbabwe Arise who use music to demand justice in their country. Former child soldier Emmanuel Jal explains how he uses rap music to draw the world’s attention to the suffering of children forced into combat. And London poet and rapper Kate Tempest guides students through the process of writing their own protest song.

She said: “I think what is beautiful about protest songs, what is beautiful about songwriting in general, is that you can find a way to speak the things that everybody feels, but that we just don’t have the space to talk about.

“Everybody has a voice, everybody has the ability to express themselves and everybody has something really powerful to say.”

The education materials are designed for English, music, citizenship, PSHE and cross-curricular projects. 

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said: “Through this pack students will learn how artists have used their words and music to make a stand for human rights and fight for change. They will hear Billie Holiday sing about lynching and racial hatred. They will stand with the Egyptians in Tahrir Square in the recent movement for democratic change. The artists in this pack speak with unforgettable urgency.”

Interestingly, an Amnesty poll released earlier this year found Woody Guthrie’s 1940’s classic This Land is Your Land to be the UK’s favourite protest song. Amnesty is inviting students to follow in the footsteps of grandfather of folk Guthrie – who would have been 100 this year – and write their own song, to be entered into the competition 

The contest, open to all UK-based secondary and further education students aged 11 to 19, has two categories: Best Lyrics and Best Performance.

The winner of the Best Lyrics will see their entry published by Amnesty and the winner of the Best Performance will be asked to perform at an Amnesty event. Ms Tempest will visit the schools of both the winning entries, where she will perform and run a workshop with the winners and their peers.

  • Naomi Westland is from Amnesty International UK.

Further information
To order the new pack or to find out more about how to enter the competition visit The songs and artists referenced in this article can be found at the following links: 


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