’80s Protest Songs

Posted: September 11, 2014 in Protest Songs
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What would the eighties have been without protest songs? Just as every decade prior, and since, the eighties were filled with protest songs. There were protest songs about nuclear war, oppressive regimes, gang violence, and anyone who was president at the time. The whole of 1982’s Combat Rock album from The Clash was pretty much a protest to all things wrong in the world. Besides the videos of the impending doom of a nuclear holocaust, the ones that readily come to mind had to do with anti-apartheid.

For all its faults, one good thing that came out of MTV was bringing awareness to causes outside my small world. Before being exposed to these videos, I wasn’t even aware of apartheid or Nelson Mandela. Musicians from all genres were getting involved. Artists such as Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, The Specials, and the whole eclectic mix of musicians in Artists United Against Apartheid all participated in this effort and it was hard to not take notice.

One of the first references I have of Nelson Mandela, and apartheid, was the video “Nelson Mandela” by The Special A.K.A. The song was released in 1984 and became a hit around the world, except the U.S. where it didn’t chart. With its upbeat African rhythms and catchy beats it’s easy to see why this became a hit. Some say this song was focal in the anti-apartheid movement, largely due to its mass appeal.


Recorded under the name Artists United Against Apartheid, and led by Steven Van Zandt, the song “Sun City” brought together the likes of Bruce Springsteen, The Fat Boys, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Lou Reed, Afrika Bambaataa, U2, George Clinton, Stiv Bators, Keith Richards, Hall & Oates, and Joey Ramone among many others. Released in 1985, the song was a pledge by these artists to not perform at this large resort town. The song is a fusion of hip hop, rock, and African beats. It peaked at #38 on the U.S. charts with only half of radio stations giving it airplay – the other half having issues with its anti-Reagan sentiments.


Then there is Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko,” a song about Steve Biko, a well-known anti-apartheid activist who was arrested and jailed in South Africa in 1977. He died in police custody a month later. Released in 1980, the single was off of Gabriel’s self-titled album. It reached #38 on the British charts but didn’t get much airplay in the U.S. until its promotional use for the 1987 film Cry Freedom.




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