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Tanya Tagaq, Beyoncé, Solange, more: the most powerful protest songs of 2016

Andrea Warner

Many of us know firsthand just how daunting, dangerous and terribly bleak it’s been in 2016. There are almost 20,000 results for GIFs of garbage fires on Giphy alone, and the instructional video about making your own dumpster fire ornament is a good distraction, at least fleetingly.

Real catharsis comes through change — the kind that we get with progress and equality, an action that results from decolonization, tearing down the patriarchy and significant challenges to white supremacy. It’s all the better if we can embark on a path to real and meaningful change with a kickass soundtrack.

CBC Music has put together a playlist of some of our favourite protest and resistance tracks from 2016. From Beyoncé and Tanya Tagaq to A Tribe Called Red and Solange, press play and rise up in song.

[Editor's note: some songs contain strong language.]

A Tribe Called Red feat. Saul Williams, Chippewa Travellers, ‘The Virus’

“We are not a conquered people,” Saul Williams defiantly proclaims on “The Virus,” one of the standout tracks from A Tribe Called Red’s standout album, We are the Halluci Nation. It’s a phrase that’s unfortunately poignant in times like these, in which the Standing Rock Sioux First Nations in North Dakota are forced to physically stand in the path of an oil company threatening their human right to clean water (a battle that, for now, seems to have been won). “The Virus” is one-part polemic against the past 500 years of colonialism, but also one-part hope for the future. You couldn’t ask for a stronger anthem and rallying cry for right now.

— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)

Solange, ‘Mad’

If you haven’t been paying attention, “Mad” could have just passed you by as another song on A Seat at the Table. But if you’re aware and informed, you recognize the act of resistance in this song as Solange breaks down the dangerous and hurtful myth of the "angry Black woman," which wrongly suggests that anger is a cultural trait as opposed to a legitimate reaction to an effed-up set of circumstances. It’s never those; it’s always them. Solange rejects this notion as she makes it plain in the pre-chorus that she has "a lot to be mad about" while allowing herself to do just that — be mad, be mad, be mad. No apologies.

— Judith Lynch (@CBCJudith)

Beyoncé, 'Formation'

"What happened after New Orleans?" Beyoncé's voice doesn't even open her surprise track, dropped the day before she slayed during February's Super Bowl halftime show. Instead we hear Messy Mya, the YouTube celebrity/comedian from NOLA who was shot and killed in November 2010. While he asks the question, Bey crouches on top of a cop car that's submerged in water in what looks like the Lower 9th Ward, staring, straight-faced, into the camera. Not even two months into 2016, and we knew this Bey was different — and that a lot of people needed to take a long, overdue seat.

With "Formation" — and later Lemonade — Beyoncé changed the fabric of music as we knew it, giving voice to her personal and political sides in a way we'd never seen — and desperately needed.

— Holly Gordon (@hollygowritely)

Noi!se, 'The Real Enemy'

Those not familiar with Tacoma, Wash., punk band Noi!se, should know right off the start that this band is fronted by bassist Matt Henson, a master sergeant in the U.S. Army. When it comes to writing songs about taking action, resisting and protesting, Noi!se is on the frontlines of today's punk movement. The title track from the band's new album features another punk rock warrior, Al Barr, vocalist for Boston's Dropkick Murphys. This is a powerful, poignant song about living with fear and recognizing the real enemy.

— Mary-Anne Korosi

Kyle Craft, ‘Before the Wall’

"Before the Wall" is not subtle. It is not circumspect. It is as blunt an instrument as "This Land is Your Land" or "We Shall Overcome." The best verse goes like this: "If the wall it goes up and your Jesus comes back/ and he knocks on the door will you stand to attack?/ If he don’t have his papers and he don’t have much cash/ would you take him in, jail him, or just send him back?" This is an old-school, hard-left, folky protest song for an era with social concerns every bit as substantial as the '40s or the '60s. And by way of comparison, we can easily see the huge strides that we absolutely have not made: "There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me/ the sign was painted, said 'private property.'/ But on the backside, it didn't say nothing/ this land was made for you and me."

— Matthew Parsons (@MJRParsons)

A Tribe Called Quest, ‘We the People’

A Tribe Called Quest was a tough act to miss. The group followed the release of its final album, We Got it From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service, with an appearance on Saturday Night Live on Nov. 12, where they performed the track “We the People.” This track bumps pretty hard, pushing toward digital distortion; kinda like a call to the masses through a megaphone. The tune has its finger on the pulse of the developed world. Featuring lyrics about the disenfranchised, gentrification, xenophobia and a world where, in Q-Tip’s words, “guilty pleasures take the edge off reality.”

I can't help but get a little emotional upon hearing Phife Dawg (R.I.P.) dropping bars like: “Dreamin’ on a world that’s equal for women with no division/ boy I tell ya that’s vision.” Q-Tip would never have allowed this album to drop unless it was fire. It is.

— Angeline Tetteh-Wayoe (@MissAngelineTW)

DJ Shub feat. Northern Cree Singers, ‘Indomitable’

In times of profound darkness, I'm grateful for a song like "Indomitable" and its accompanying video, which is both a celebration of Indigenous culture, community and people, and an invitation to bear witness. The bouncing, driving beat never overtakes the hollow pounding of the drum, but then it all drops out to showcase a buoyant, defiant and gorgeous chorus from the Northern Cree Singers: "We've got our friends, we got them, we'll be all right."

— Andrea Warner (@_AndreaWarner)

Common, ‘A Letter to the Free’

In October, Netflix released The 13th, a documentary by Ava DuVernay that looks at the impact of a single line in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees Americans freedom from slavery or indentured servitude "except as punishment for a crime." It exposes with great alacrity and clarity the impact this line has had on the lives of Americans with a certain degree of melanin. Rapper Common wrote a song for that film, entitled “A Letter to the Free,” that distills the notion even further. The song packs a punch at the end of the film — a film that is altogether unbothered by our feelings, as it speaks a truth that needs to be heard. There are no "on the other hand" moments, here; it's a "this is how it is" kind of film.

— Judith Lynch (@CBCJudith)

Rae Spoon, 'I Hear Them Calling'

In response to some transphobic laws regulating the use of bathrooms, Rae Spoon and Chelsea McMullan, who collaborated on the remarkable documentary musical My Prairie Home, released a buoyant and brilliant new music video in support of gender inclusivity for Spoon's song "I Hear Them Calling." There's real magic in this video, which features 23 LGBTQ youth and allies who made their own monster costumes, partying in an accessible, all-genders bathroom. There are a million emotions as Spoon sings, "I could stay underground, but I want to sing/ I want to live like this, I want to live like this/ I want to live like this all the time." — AW

Kesha, ‘Till it Happens to You’ (Lady Gaga cover)

While Kesha continues to fight her longtime producer and alleged abuser Dr. Luke, the pop star has slowly made her return to music over 2016. From live performances to the announcement of some upcoming tour dates on Diplo’s Mad Decent Block Party, Kesha is not letting her legal battles hold her back from taking the stage once again. Many were disappointed by her return on Zedd’s new version of “True Colors,” but the fact remains that Kesha has an incredible voice that deserves to be heard musically and otherwise.

At the Humane Society Gala in May, Kesha covered friend Lady Gaga’s Oscar-nominated song “Till it Happens to You,” a song about sexual assault on school campuses. The song’s message clearly means a lot to Kesha, who delivered an emotional rendition of the song, but ultimately pulls through with an astounding strength that shows us just how much of a warrior she is. Warning: you may ugly cry while watching this.

— Melody Lau (@melodylamb)

Tanya Tagaq, ‘Rape Me’ (Nirvana cover)

There is no cover available online, but you can order or stream the album here.

The entirety of Tanya Tagaq’s Retribution could find a place on this list, but one of the standouts is her subversive, provocative and deeply personal cover that concludes the album. “Rape Me” is a Nirvana cover that Tagaq’s altered in small but meaningful ways. She sings the first in-person verse repeatedly, swapping the word “rape” for “hate,” “kill” and “beat” each time. A slow, marching drum beat leads us to Tagaq’s sweetly sung lyrics, while she whispers “rape,” “kill,” “hate,” “beat” over and over in your ears. It’s a mind-numbing summing-up of what she has already spent an entire album saying: enough is enough. — HG