Bob Marley's 10 Best Protest Songs

"Stand up for your rights!"

Bob Marley
Keystone / Getty Images

Reggae legend Bob Marley wrote and recorded songs about all sorts of things, from love songs to dance party anthems, but he's probably best-known for his political and protest songs. They range from the spiritual to the aggressive, but all carry the same theme: the overthrow of Babylon (essentially, the oppressive culture of white Europeans and Americans) by the "downpressed" (the Rastafarian term for "oppressed"), and more broadly, the end of slavery, extreme poverty, and exploitation of all of those who suffer. Protesters around the world have found solidarity with these songs and their messages since they were first written, and they remain as relevant today as they ever were.

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"Get Up, Stand Up"

© Def Jam Records

"You can fool some people sometimes, but you can't fool all the people all the time. So now we see the light! We gonna stand up for our rights!"

Written by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh in 1973, "Get Up, Stand Up" is one of the greatest (and most popular) protest songs of all time, and it's a particularly popular sing-along number for live protests, demonstrations, and marches. Not only is it on message for many different types of protests with a fantastic, easy to sing, who-can-argue-with-it chorus, but it has a musical advantage, as well: the musical accompaniment can consist of exactly one chord (Bm seems popular), so even a very rudimentary guitar player can handle it.

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"Small Axe"

Bob Marley and the Wailers - African Herbsman
Bob Marley and the Wailers - 'African Herbsman'. (c) Silverline Records

"If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down, to cut you down!"

This song is about as clear as metaphors get: the righteous little guys are going to, slowly but surely, take out the big evil ones. Drawing heavily from biblical references, "Small Axe" has an elegant and deeply poetic feel and represents the fundamentally spiritual framework that supported Marley's political beliefs.

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"Redemption Song"

Bob Marley - 'Songs of Freedom'
Bob Marley - 'Songs of Freedom'. (c) Island Records

"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds."

This song, one of Marley's most beautiful (and most covered), is a rare example of Bob Marley recording solo, with just his voice and his guitar. With lyrics that are partially taken from a speech by Marcus Garvey and that make the argument that slavery was never truly abolished (it just changed), it's a powerful piece of both music and poetry.

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"War (No More Trouble)"

Bob Marley and the Wailers - 'Exodus'
Bob Marley and the Wailers - 'Exodus'. (c) Island Records

"Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war, me say war."

There's no question about what Marley's protesting with "War": it's a clear and unabashed message against racism, classism, and poverty. The lyrics, taken from a 1963 speech given by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, speak specifically to troubles in Africa (most of which remain unsolved), but also more generally about the same issues around the world.

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Bob Marley and the Wailers - Natty Dread
Bob Marley and the Wailers - 'Natty Dread'. (c) Island Records

"It takes a revolution to make a solution, too much confusion, so much frustration!"

This closing track of the highly political album Natty Dread is a smooth and beat-heavy call for -- what else? -- a revolution. Musically, it's a bit quieter than some of the songs on this list, but the lyrics are strong and powerful.

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"Real Situation"

Bob Marley and the Wailers - Uprising
Bob Marley and the Wailers - 'Uprising'. (c) Island Records

"Well, it seems like total destruction the only solution, and there ain't no use -- no one can stop them now!"

If you listened to this song without paying any attention to the lyrics, you'd probably think it was a pretty cheerful, upbeat number, but indeed, it's one of the most radical and anarchic recordings that Bob Marley ever made. "Real Situation" posits that the governments of the world and the ruling class are so corrupt that the only thing to do is strip them of all power and start again, but the positive sound of the melody leads one to believe that the destruction mentioned in the lyrics might just be a joyful process.

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Bob Marley - 'Survival'
Bob Marley - 'Survival'. (c) Island Records

"So arm in arms, with arms, we'll fight this little struggle, 'cause that's the only way we can overcome our little trouble."

"Zimbabwe" is one of several highly specific Africa-themed protest songs that Bob Marley wrote. Released in 1979, when Zimbabwe was still called Rhodesia and was ruled by a small white minority, the song is quite literally a call to arms to Black Zimbabweans, encouraging them to overthrow their government. Indeed, they did overthrow their government, and a new one, under the now-infamous Robert Mugabe was installed. Marley performed at the celebratory concert, along with Zimbabwean legend Thomas Mapfumo, among others.

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"Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)"

'Bob Marley and the Wailers Live Forever' (c) Tuff Gong / Island Records, 2011
'Bob Marley and the Wailers Live Forever' - September 23, 1980 - Stanley Theatre - Pittsburgh, PA. (c) Tuff Gong / Island Records

"Them belly full, but we hungry! A hungry mob is an angry mob!"

Though this song warns of an angry mob, it also suggests that music and dancing is a good escape from the troubles of poverty. In that sense, it thumbs its nose at the "downpressors" while encouraging positivity from the "downpressed." Marley originally released this song on Natty Dread, but performed it in concert regularly until he died, including a particularly rousing version at his final concert, which was immortalized as Bob Marley and the Wailers Live Forever.

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"Burnin' and Lootin'"

Bob Marley and the Wailers - Burnin'
Bob Marley and the Wailers - Burnin'. (c) Island Records

"How many rivers do we have to cross before we can talk to the boss? All that we got, it seems we have lost. We must have really paid the cost."

Probably the most seditious of any song that Bob Marley ever wrote, this protest song straight-up talks an impending riot; not necessarily from a standpoint of encouraging rioting, but simply talking about how a natural consequence of domination and autocracy is a violent overthrow. Though it's probably not the first choice for a nonviolent protester's playlist, it's still an important part of the Bob Marley canon.

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"Chant Down Babylon"

Bob Marley - 'Confrontation'
Bob Marley - 'Confrontation'. (c) Island Records

"Men see their dreams and aspiration a-crumble in front of their face, and all of their wicked intention to destroy the human race."

"Chant Down Babylon" is sort of a meta-protest song -- the song itself is about singing protest songs and how protest songs will bring down Babylon. Practically by definition, though, it's a fantastic sing-along and, despite Rastafarian overtones, is not so message-specific that it can't be applied to many different types of protests.