Musician Activists: Singing Songs of Protest

In honor of Bono’s birthday, we celebrate his commitment to activism and highlight four other politically outspoken musicians.
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Catherine McHugh
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In honor of Bono’s birthday, we celebrate his commitment to activism and highlight four other politically outspoken musicians.
Bono Photo By Web Summit via Wikimedia Commons

Musician and activist Bono celebrates his 56th birthday today. (Photo: Web Summit via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s easy to be cynical about activist rock stars and it can be a bit of drag to shell out a lot of money for a concert only to be forced to listen to a lecture instead of your favorite pop songs. Still, it’s undeniable that music has given voice to some of history’s most significant causes. So, in honor of Bono’s birthday, here’s a look at five socially like-minded musicians who have used their microphones as megaphones in the hopes of making the world a better place.  

Bono

“Am I bugging you? I don’t mean to bug ya,” Bono famously asks the live crowd that is being filmed for the band’s 1988 film, Rattle and Hum during their performance of "Silver and Gold." Written for Steven Van Zandt’s Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid album to draw attention to the repressive policies of the South African government, Bono dares the audience to care about something that doesn't directly affect them. 

Having been both heralded and derided for being pop music's global ambassador does not seem to have fazed Bono in the least. Over the past 35 years, U2’s front man has helped raise awareness of social causes ranging from world hunger and AIDS to Third-World debt relief. He has been granted a knighthood and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and continues to work with prominent world leaders on a wide variety of humanitarian causes. 

Freddie Mercury: Charitable Champions (Of The World): Bono (from left), Paul McCartney and Freddie Mercury perform together at the Live Aid Concert—a concerted effort to help end hunger in Ethiopia—on July 13, 1985, at London's Wembley Stadium.  (Photo by Steve Rapport/Photoshot/Getty Images.)

(From left) Bono, Paul McCartney and Freddie Mercury perform together at the Live Aid Concert on July 13, 1985, at London's Wembley Stadium. (Photo by Steve Rapport/Photoshot/Getty Images.)

In 2002, he stood alongside President Bush during his White House lawn speech about committing U.S. aid to Africa. Bono also criticized world leaders who were late to that cause. In 2004, along with 11 major humanitarian groups advocating for providing medical aid and food to underprivileged nation, he cofounded the ONE campaign. 

In 2005, Bono and Band Aid/Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof teamed up to present the Live 8 concerts to call attention to the G8 Conference and summit that year in Scotland. Bono has won numerous accolades for his humanitarian work, including being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Joan Baez 

Woodstock Performers: Folk singer and anti-war activist Joan Baez, who was pregnant at the time, was the last act to take the stage on the first day of Woodstock. It was 1 a.m. and she wished everyone a 'good morning' to begin her set. (Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images)

Joan Baez performing at Woodstock. (Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images)

American folk singer, political activist and freedom fighter Joan Baez has spent her nearly 60-year music career singing songs of protest and justice. She has fought for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., sung with Bob Dylan and even appeared on stage with Taylor Swift.

Joan Baez first appeared at the Newport folk festival in 1959, releasing her self-titled debut album a year later. The singer was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, and took part in the historic walk from Montgomery to Selma highlighting racial injustice in the American south. Alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Baez led a group of children to their newly integrated school in Grenada, Mississippi in 1966. 

Martin Luther King Jr. Photo Gallery: King leads a group of African-American children to their newly integrated school in Grenada, Mississippi, escorted by folk singer Joan Baez and two aides. (Photo:  Bettmann/CORBIS)

Baez and Martin Luther King Jr. lead a group of African-American children to their newly integrated school in Grenada, Mississippi. (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS)

An active participant in the 1960s protest movement, Baez made free concert appearances for UNESCO, civil rights organizations, and anti-Vietnam War rallies. In 1964, she refused to pay federal taxes that went toward war expenses, and she was jailed twice in 1967. 

Throughout the years, she remained deeply committed to social and political causes, lending her voice to many concerts for a variety of causes. In 2015, Amnesty International awarded Baez with its highest honor, the ambassador for conscience award, in 2015. Patti Smith presented the award, saying: “If the 16th century had Joan of Arc, we have Joan Baez.”

Baez remains a popular performer. By touring with younger musicians throughout the world and staying politically engaged, she reached new audiences who are drawn to her sense of commitment and unmistakable voice. 

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder Photo

Stevie Wonder in 2007. (Photo: s_bukley/Shutterstock.com)

Stevie Wonder has always blended his musical genius with social activism. He has pleaded for an end to racism, promoted equality for those with disabilities and in recent years, advocated gun control. 

Wonder’s efforts to get a national holiday established for Martin Luther King Jr., arguably helped make that dream a reality. On April 8, 1968, Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigam, introduced legislation for a federal holiday, but the holiday didn't become a reality until more than a decade later.  

President Jimmy Carter called on Congress to vote on the King Holiday Bill and it was defeated by five votes in the House in November of 1979. 

Following the defeat of the bill, Stevie Wonder released “Happy Birthday,” in support of enacting the holiday near the King’s January 15 birthday, featuring these lyrics: 

“I just never understood

How a man who died for good

Could not have a day that would

Be set aside for his recognition.”

The song became a hit, and Wonder worked with Coretta Scott King to gain support for the national holiday. By 1982, they delivered a petition with 6 million signatures in favor of the holiday to the Speaker of the House. On November 3, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill marking the third Monday of every January, as Martin Luther King, Jr., day, and in January 1986, the first national Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday was observed. 

Coretta Scott King: Musician Stevie Wonder poses with Coretta Scott King while attending the special program honoring King's late husband, entitled 'Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Celebration of Life,' on January 8, 1984. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Stevie Wonder poses with Coretta Scott King while attending the special program honoring King's late husband, entitled 'Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Celebration of Life,' on January 8, 1984. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

While touring in 2014, Wonder told a sold-out audience at Madison Square Garden: "I challenge America, I challenge the world, to let hatred go, to let racism go. That is the only way we will win as a nation and the world." 

He also invited the family of one of the 26 victims killed by a gunman in the Sandy Hook tragedy of 2012 and noted: “The only thing that guns do is make the gun manufacturers rich and the mortuaries richer," he said. On a final note, he called for the creation of better services for disabled and challenged residents in New York City. 

Nina Simone

African-American Expats : Classical pianist and singer Nina Simone revolutionized American  jazz.  In search of a more racially equitable music scene and culture -  and to  avoid unpaid taxes - Simone traveled to Liberia, Switzerland,  and  Barbados before settling in the South of France in 1992. She lived  in  Aix-en-Provence until her death in 2003. (Photo: Redferns)

Nina Simone revolutionized American jazz and became a voice of the civil rights movement. (Photo: Redferns)

During the 1960s, Nina Simone did not shy away from using her music as a channel for social change. She became known as the voice of the civil rights movement with songs such as, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," "Brown Baby," "Four Women," "Strange Fruit," and "Backlash Blues," which she wrote with writer Langston Hughes. Her original "Mississippi Goddam," a visceral response to the 1963 killings of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and four girls in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, was banned in the South.

In fact, she sacrificed her career for her activism. Had it not been for her outspokenness and her principles, she might have been as famous as Aretha Franklin or Diana Ross. As it was, though, radio stations refused to play her music and many venues were hesitant to book her. They feared she would speak her mind on stage and lash out against injustice and discrimination.

Simone's music is as relevant as it was when she first turned her music into a vehicle for activism. "I tell you what freedom is to me: no fear," Simone said many times. Though she passed away in 2003, she remains an inspirational embodiment of that freedom today.

Eddie Vedder

Eddie Vedder by Vazzz via Wikimedia Commons

Eddie Vedder onstage with Pearl Jam in 2007. (Photo: vazzz  [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Born out of the Seattle grunge scene in the early 1990s, Pearl Jam has taken up causes from health care to antitrust, even testifying before Congress in 1994 for a Justice Department probe into Ticketmaster’s service charges, which inflated the cost of tickets to their concerts. They have collectively continued their activism over the years, and in 2015, the band performed as part of the Global Citizen Festival.

A significant section of the band’s official website is devoted to activism. The word is a prominent link on its top banner. It defines activism (The work to achieve political or social change) and, then, PJ Activism (the collective work of the band and fans to achieve political or social change).

As the band’s front man, Eddie Vedder has remarked that most of the band members were introduced to activism through listening to punk rock music and growing up on acts such as Peter Gabriel and Sting who helped to bring Amnesty International’s work into the spotlight.

During a September 2015 interview with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Vedder said: “You find yourself in a situation where you can use your music to perhaps affect change. Nowadays, lately, we’ve gotten better at it or we learned along the road that you can actually make tangible change and doing things like making your touring carbon neutral, we can free innocent men from prison and raise money for diseases, you can build skate parks—you know, tangible things, and that’s huge.”

Last month, the band joined other artists such as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band by cancelling its April 20 concert in Raleigh, North Carolina to protest the state’s HB2 legislation, which targets the basic rights of transgender people and strips many nondiscrimination protections from the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

In a printed statement, the band called the law “… a despicable piece of legislation that encourages discrimination against an entire group of American citizens. The practical implications are expansive and its negative impact upon basic human rights is profound. We want America to be a place where no one can be turned away from a business because of who they love or fired from their job for who they are.”