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The year in protest music: radical hope, resistance and rising up

Andrea Warner

It has been a year of opening eyes and ears, of toppling mythologies and industries, and asserting over and over the basic right to live in our bodies and in safety. To protect the land and preserve the Earth, and be free from oppression, tyranny, hatred and corruption.

Ultimately, the human default is hope: glorious, foolish, soul-saving hope. And at the centre of every protest song or activist anthem is, usually, a glimmer of that hope. A desire for change or challenging something that isn’t right, to fix what’s broken, or rally around a cause or find a community that’s ready to resist, rise up and heal together.

In Canada, there’s never been a shortage of protest and activist songs. This year particularly — in light of conversations around Canada 150, Canada 150-plus, reconciliation, decolonization and truly honouring the Indigenous people of this land — there was much on which to reflect. And there are the concerns artists here share with the rest of the world, including racist, gendered and sexual violence, and violence against LGBTQ people, land exploitation, environmental destruction, inequality and so much more.

It all came through, record after record, song after song. Canadian artists made some of the boldest and bravest protest and activist music of 2017.

Below are CBC Music’s favourite songs of resistance, advocacy and radical hope from this year.

Song: "The War Racket"
Artist: Buffy Sainte-Marie

“You twisters of language; you creeps of disguise,
Your disinformation; like worms in your eyes.
You privileged bankers; you gambler thieves.
You profit on war; there’s less money in peace.

“That’s how it’s done time after time,
Country after country, crime after crime.
You pretend it’s religion and there’s no one to blame,
for the dead and impoverished in your little patriot game.
Honey, that’s the war racket.”

Song: "Protest Song"
Artist: Broken Social Scene

“Just take it,
Just take it like you're strong.
You're just the latest in the long list of lost loves (loves),
Just leave it.
We all left where we are from,
We're just the latest in the longest rank and file that's ever to exist,
In the history of the protest song.”

Song: "I Give You Power"
Artist: Arcade Fire feat. Mavis Staples

“Who gives you power? (Power)
Where do you think it all comes from?
I give you power,
I can take it all away.”

Song: "Soldier"
Artist: IsKwé

“The rocking horse,
The gleaming sand,
The thirsty bird,
Who only drinks the colour black.
The harvests here,
We fight the land,
Will you see her again,
With that money in your hand,

Song: "Future Politics"
Artist: Austra

“I don't want to hear,
That it's all my fault.
The system won't help you when,
Your money runs out.

Realities beating,
A grave has been dug.
I'm looking for something
To rise up above.”

Song: "Scream"
Artist: Weaves feat. Tanya Tagaq

“I am sick to my stomach almost every day.
I'm singing to the choir 'cause my body can procreate.
We're obsessed with prosperity yet we don't have no homes.
I'm a child of commercials and body language and floating drones.

“I am excited yet I am scared by the prospect of damaging change.
I look to my elders,
I look to women and others,
Who feel our common pain,
Our common strain.

“Scream your name,
So get up on the table and scream your name.”

Song: "Blowhard Nation"
Artist: Stephen Fearing

“I don’t want to live in a blowhard nation,
With the king in a tinsely crown,
When the whole thing wobbles,
And the wheels come off,
Well you know what’s gonna go down.

“It’s the same sad story,
‘Bout the power and the glory,
And the big shots living uptown.
It’s the old rat race,
So get ready for the chase,
‘Cause the fat cats are gaining ground.”

Song: "I’m Afraid of Men"
Artist: Vivek Shraya

“In my house,
Don’t even turn the lights on,
'Cause I shine so bright.

“But when I open the door,
My glow starts to fade,
'Cause I'm afraid.

“My neck hurts from checking my shoulder,
My feet hurt from walking faster.
Are you hitting on me?
Are you hitting on me?
Or are you going to hit me?”

Song: "Still Here"
Artist: JB the First Lady

"Stolen locations, abuse of relations
150 celebrations
comment section hatin'
debatin' truth and reconcilliation
faded, divided and shaded
but we still here
we still here."

Song: "Mr. Evans"
Artist: Maestro Fresh Wes

“They start wars and then call us the savages.
Risk, manipulate our basic needs just to manage us.
Sell weapons to both sides, taking advantage.
And justify when we die as collateral damage.”

Song: "Freeze, Melt, Boil"
Artist: Quantum Tangle

“Take my bones out of this soil,
Break my back from all this toil.
Mix that water in with oil,
Stand and fight and make blood boil.”

Song: "Mama"
Artist: Nefe

“Gotta get up girl, put on your shoes.
Get up girl, I’ll see you through.
This world ain’t gonna stop,
So why should you?
Get up, get on with you.”

Song: "Gatekeeper"
Artist: Jessie Reyez

“Oh I'm the gatekeeper,
Spread your legs,
Open up,
You could be famous.
If you come up anywhere else, I'll erase you.
Drink up, bitch, we got champagne by the cases.
Don't you know? Don't you know?
We are the gatekeepers.”

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

More to explore:

Your 20 favourite stories this year

The 17 best Canadian albums of 2017

100 best Canadian songs of 2017