The world is currently facing numerous ongoing conflicts, with the most vulnerable populations bearing the brunt of wars, the climate crisis, and poverty.

Bob Marley. Nina Simone. Public Enemy. Sinead O’Connor. Bob Dylan. Fela Kuti. Miriam Makeba. Throughout history, musicians have used their art as a tool for inspiring change and shed light on social issues and global injustices, from the original protest songs of the civil rights movement to charity singles raising money for those in need. 

That tradition continues today with artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Stormzy, and H.E.R. who continue to harness the power of music to protest inequality, promote peace, equality, and human rights, and drive change. 

Global Citizen has been at the forefront of using music as a catalyst for positive change, leveraging the art form to bring awareness to critical global issues. From fighting to end extreme poverty at the annual Global Citizen Festival to advocating for the planet's future, music has played a pivotal role in the organization's campaigning efforts. 

Here are 13 songs about social justice to inspire you to change the world for the better.

1. ‘Baraye’ by Shervin Hajipour (Iran, 2022)

In 2022, Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour shared his song "Baraye" with the world via an Instagram post in response to the protests ignited by the tragic death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. The song became an anthem for the “Woman, Life, Liberty” protest movement that was gaining momentum across Iran. It was sung by schoolgirls in Iran, played in cars in Tehran, and blasted at solidarity protests in Washington, Strasbourg, and London.

The song was woven together entirely from a Twitter hashtag trend in which Iranians expressed their reason for protesting and their hope for a future free of oppression and violence. It was even covered by Coldplay, who performed it alongside exiled Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani at the band’s Buenos Aires concert in October, 2023.

In 2023 Shervin Hajipour’s “Baraye” made history by becoming the first award-winner for the new Grammy Award category, “Best Song for Social Change.” Announcing the award, US First Lady Jill Biden described the song as a “powerful and poetic call for freedom and women's rights.”

2. ‘Wo Fie’ by Angel Maxine featuring Wanlov the Kubolor & Sister Deborah (Ghana, 2022)

In June 2022, Angel Maxine, Ghana's first openly transgender musician, joined forces with Wanlov the Kubolor and Sister Deborah to create the viral Pride month hit "Wo Fie." The song, which translates to "your home" in English, carries a powerful message about the importance of LGBTQIA+ individuals feeling a sense of belonging. Through a blend of Twi and English lyrics, Maxine calls for an end to homophobia in Ghana and advocates for the acceptance and inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community in the country.

Amidst a challenging socio-political landscape for LGBTQIA+ rights in Ghana, the song has emerged as an anthem for the community. In 2021, the introduction of the Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghana Family Values Bill, also known as the "Anti-Gay Bill," points to the ongoing struggles faced by LGBTQIA+ individuals in the country. 

Against this backdrop, "Wo Fie" serves as a poignant call for unity and understanding, amplifying the voices of those advocating for greater acceptance and equality for LGBTQIA+ individuals in Ghana.

3. 'Patria y Vida’  by El Funky, Yotuel, Maykel Osorbo, Gente De Zona, and Descemer Bueno (Cuba, 2021) 

The 2021 anti-government protests in Cuba brought thousands of people together to voice their frustration with the country's ongoing economic challenges, food shortages, and lack of access to vaccines. This marked one of the largest anti-government demonstrations in Cuba in the past decade.

Amidst the protests that took place, a song titled "Patria Y Vida" which translates as "Homeland and Life” became the anthem of Cuba's anti-government protest movement, according to Reuters

The defiant hip-hop song, which was released in Feb. 2021, was a collaborative effort by Cuban musicians in exile, including members of Gente De Zona, Yotuel Romero from Orishas, and singer-songwriter Descemer Bueno, along with Maykel Osorbo and Eliécer Márquez

According to the New York Times, the title of the social justice song is a twist on one of the most iconic slogans of the Cuban revolution, “patria o muerte,” a phrase that Communist leader Fidel Castro often used to end his speeches. Indeed, the lyrics take direct aim at Cuba’s communist government, whilst amplifying the message of longing for change and a better future for the people of Cuba: “No more lies. My people ask for freedom, not more doctrines. We no longer shout, ‘Motherland or death,’ but ‘homeland and life,’ and we begin to build what we dreamed, what they destroyed with their hands.”

During an interview with Rolling Stone, one of the artists involved in the collaboration, Yotuel Romero, expressed his hope that the song would serve as a catalyst for change in Cuba, aiming for it to be the last song written about longing for a free Cuba. He envisioned a time where all future songs would celebrate the return to Cuba and the reconnection with loved ones. 

4. ‘Alright’ by Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell Williams, and Mark Spears (US, 2015)

The year of 2015 was a time of social unrest where headlines were dominated by the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Grey, and Philando Castile — all Black men who died at the hands of the police in the US. 

Their deaths acted as the catalyst for the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement leading to mass protests in the US and around the world. 

In the midst of this, Kendrick Lamar released his social justice song “Alright” from his To Pimp a Butterfly album, which became the go-to chant at Black Lives Matter protests across the US. The song’s empowering chorus sees Lamar repeat the mantra, "We gon' be alright," which provided a sense of hope and united voices around the world against police brutality, racism, and violent oppression. 

Global Citizen's first Move Afrika event at BK Arena in Kigali, Rwanda saw Lamar headlining with a dynamic set including a performance of "Alright." Lamar's powerful rendition not only had the crowd moving but also sent a strong message in highlighting how music can be a catalyst for addressing social issues and inspiring positive change. 

Lamar has also been known for using his creative flair to highlight the many social and political issues in the world with songs such as “The Blacker the Berry,” “DNA,” and his powerful collaboration with Beyoncé "Freedom."

5. ‘Take Me to Church’ by Hozier (Ireland, 2014)

Hozier's "Take Me to Church" was one of the breakout protest songs of 2014. A mid-tempo soul song, the tune’s lyrics use religious terminology to describe love in the face of Church discrimination.

The harrowing black-and-white music video follows a romantic relationship between two men and the violent homophobic attack that follows. It also includes footage from anti-LGBTQIA+ demonstrations in Russia and became an unofficial anthem for the struggle there. 

6. 'Run The World (Girls)' by Beyoncé (US, 2011)

Over the last decade, various women’s issues and movements have gained global attention, with music being used as a powerful medium for raising awareness. 

Beyoncé's 2011 release of the women's empowerment anthem "Run the World (Girls)" was a groundbreaking moment in music. The accompanying visuals showcased stunning scenes of dancing, fighting, and intricate outfits adorned with fragmented metals. This song became an iconic and timeless representation of female empowerment, inspiring listeners worldwide.

In Beyoncé's song "Run the World (Girls)," she celebrates women's financial independence and determination: “How we're smart enough to make these millions, strong enough to bare the children, then get back to business.”

7. ‘Where is the Love?’ by Black Eyed Peas  (US, 2003)

In 2003,  the legendary hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas released their iconic song “Where is the Love?” The socially conscious track was a response to the 9/11 terror attacks that took the lives of 2,977 people in 2001. 

Moreover, according to Glamour, the lyrics of the song address global issues including terrorism, racism, gang crime, pollution, war, intolerance, and violence against LGBTQIA+ people. The song also promotes themes of unity, compassion, and social justice. 

The hip-hop group reunited to recreate a new version of the hit song in 2016, collaborating with artists including Jessie J, ASAP Rocky, Mary J. Blige, Justin Timberlake, Usher, and many more.

8. 'Umi Says' by Mos Def (US, 1999)

The rapper and activist Yasiin Bey, who came to notoriety as Mos Def is the father of politically-conscious hip-hop and has consistently used his platform to raise awareness about social and political issues.

In 1999, Mos Def released his hit "Umi Says" from his album Black on Both Sides. The song is a rallying cry that calls for the liberation of Black people amidst systemic racial injustices

The chorus, which repeats the line “my Umi says shine your light on the world,” is a call to action, urging listeners to use their voices and their talents to make a positive impact on the world. The song is a testament to the rapper’s ability to inspire and uplift through his music.

In 2000, Mos Def organized the Hip Hop For Respect project to speak out against police brutality.

9. ‘Peace in Liberia’ by Alpha Blondy (Liberia, 1992)

In 1992, Alpha Blondy released his political anthem "Peace in Liberia" in response to the civil war happening in the country at the time. 

The lyrics of the song demand an end to Liberia’s civil war, which had been raging for several years and had resulted in widespread violence and instability and claimed the lives of 250,000 people.

10. ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy (US, 1989)

"Fight the Power" by Public Enemy is one of the most iconic songs in music history. The song was produced as part of the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing. The song spoke to the social and psychological struggles experienced by the American youth, as well condemning racism and the lack of social progress, encouraging people to fight back.

The song also amplified the voices of marginalized Black communities who at the time were facing neglect, exploitation, and demonization due to discriminatory government policies and policing methods.

11. ‘A Luta Continua’ by Miriam Makeba (South Africa, 1989)

Miriam Makeba best known as “Mama Africa” was a South African musician and activist who created many songs protesting the apartheid system from “Soweto Blues” to “Beware, Verwoerd! (Ndodemnyama).” She was also known for several native songs in Xhosa. 

Makeba was exiled from South Africa in 1960 due to her stance against apartheid. During this time, she continued to use her platform to draw attention to the injustices of the regime around the world. 

In 1989, Makeba released what would become a liberation song across the continent: “A Luta Continua.” The title of the song, which translates into English as “the struggle continues” spoke out against the injustices of apartheid and called for an end to oppression and inequality. The song also spoke of the liberation of other African countries fighting for independence such as Mozambique.

12. ‘Get Up Stand Up’ by Bob Marley & Peter Tosh (Jamaica, 1973)

In 1973, Bob Marley and fellow Wailers band member Peter Tosh wrote what would become one of the ultimate protest songs: ‘Get Up, Stand Up’. 

Marley was influenced by a trip to Haiti where he witnessed extreme poverty. The reggae hit, which would become one of Marley’s most enduring numbers, argues that instead of waiting for gold and happiness in heaven, the poor should demand better treatment while alive on Earth. 

It's no wonder this song has been a lasting protest anthem with powerful lyrics such as: “You can fool some people sometimes / But you couldn't fool all the people all the time / And now we see the light / You stand up for your rights!” 

13. ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke (US, 1964)

In 1964, singer Sam Cooke released what would become an anthem for the civil rights movement, “A change is gonna come.”

Cooke was inspired to write this song after a trip he took to Louisiana with his family, where they were turned away from a whites-only Holiday Inn, despite having a reservation

The song highlights Cooke’s personal experience with racism and segregation in the US during the 1960s, as well as pointing to the injustices faced by African Americans and the fight for racial equality.  

Moreover, the legacy of the song has stretched far and wide and has been covered by several artists including Ottis Redding, Patti Labelle, Aretha Franklin, Lizzo, and Beyoncé in order to highlight not just racism, but other important injustices within society such as the gender inequality, and as a song of hope for the future.

Global Citizen Life

Demand Equity

13 Social Justice Anthems That Show We Need Music More Than Ever

By Fadeke Banjo