20 Of The Best Songs About Justice And Human Rights

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Today, we live in a world rife with actions to end oppression and other societal problems. One of the most effective tools to address the issues is music.

Can songs take a stand for justice? Yes, they can, as our list of 20 of the best songs about justice will show you. These songs have been essential in inspiring people to effect change.

Stick around as we present to you how these songs influenced the initiatives to mete out justice.

1. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” By Gil Scott-Heron

We’re starting the list with “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” a spoken word poem set to music. This song could be found in American musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron‘s album Pieces of a Man.

The song, an icon of the Black Power movement, dives into struggles for justice. It does so by addressing the limitations of mass media in reporting on social and political change.

Scott-Heron’s moving lyrics encourage listeners to seek out alternative sources of information and take action. It has since become an anthem for social and political movements around the world.

2. “Before He Cheats” By Carrie Underwood

In 2005, American singer Carrie Underwood released the single “Before He Cheats.” The tune is a country-pop song from her album Some Hearts.

The song is narrated by a woman taking revenge on her unfaithful lover. While he’s “with a bleached-blond tramp,” she sets about keying the side of his car, ruining the leather seats, and smashing the headlights.

The song’s themes are not exactly political justice. But they certainly speak to the fantasy of bringing justice to being cheated on. The singer plays with the idea that perhaps, he’ll think twice before cheating again.

3. “Big Iron” By Marty Robbins

Released on the 1959 album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron” tells a story of justice in the setting of the American West.

The moving, exciting narrative sketches out a conflict between an outlaw, Texas Red, and a mysterious stranger. Texas Red has been living in town for a while now, having killed 20 men. This gave him power and fearlessness.

But he’s about to meet his match in the form of an Arizona Ranger with a large gun. He arrives in town seeking to take the brigand – dead or alive. Texas Red proves to be no match for the ranger.

4. “Man In Black” By Johnny Cash

The legendary country singer Johnny Cash has also created one of the most moving songs about justice in history. “Man in Black” is a melancholic and bold statement on what it means to stand up for the downtrodden in an unjust world.

The lyrics narrate the singer’s commitment to wearing all-black clothes. He does so as his way to call for justice for the oppressed and marginalized. These people include the poor, the prisoner, the illiterate, the sick and old, and for the lost lives.

The song is a moving tribute to efforts for justice. It sheds light on what it means to sacrifice easy comforts to make a stand.

5. “Fight The Power” By Public Enemy

The most famous song by the legendary rap group Public Enemy is “Fight the Power.” The track was released in 1989 and re-released on their 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet.

“Fight the powers that be” is a line that summarizes what the entire song is about. It is a rallying cry against oppression and racism. The singer encourages listeners with a simple charge to fight back against injustice.

The song’s use of politically charged lyrics has made it an enduring anthem of the hip-hop and social justice movements.

6. “Testify” By Rage Against The Machine

Continuing on our trip into late-twentieth-century protest music, we come to “Testify.” It’s a rap-metal song by Rage Against the Machine from their 1999 album The Battle of Los Angeles.

The song denounces the corruption and oppression that lace through society. Particularly, the sense of self-deception permeates everyday life. It urges us to “testify” because “it’s right outside your door.”

When we experience repression, we need to speak out as a way to bring about greater justice. Ultimately, like many of the band’s songs, “Testify” calls for resistance and revolution.

7. “Strange Fruit” By Billie Holiday

From angry protest songs to melancholic musings, we come to the next phase of our list. Billie Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” for the first time in 1939 with hesitation. And for good reason.

The song is a haunting ballad that protests the lynching of black people in the United States. However, rather than depict these horrors directly, the minimalist lyrics paint a horrific picture of a black person’s murder.

The song’s stark imagery has made it a landmark in the history of protest music. And its striking depiction of injustice speaks to the present need for racial justice.

8. “Goodbye Earl” By The Chicks

Moving on to a more domestic form of justice, we come to The Chicks’ 1999 song “Goodbye Earl,” released on the album Fly.

The song tells the story of two friends, Mary Anne and Wanda, who are inseparable during their high school days. Life takes them in separate ways, with Wanda staying in town and marrying the despicable abuser Earl.

After Earl puts Wanda in the hospital, Mary Anne comes to her friend’s side. They conspire to put justice into their hands and murder Earl. Following his “disappearance,” the women live peaceful lives.

9. “No Body, No Crime” By Taylor Swift Ft. HAIM

The next item on our list is another domestic justice story. Taylor Swift’s “No Body, No Crime,” which features the all-sibling band HAIM, was released on the album evermore to immense success.

In the song, the singer talks about her friendship with a woman named Este, who suspects her husband of infidelity. The problem is, she can’t prove anything. Este eventually disappears, leaving a trail of clues behind her.

The song’s narrator, one of the woman’s friends, takes revenge on her behalf. She murders Este’s husband, pinning the mistress for the crime. People believe the mistress did it, while the mistress believes the narrator did it.

10. “I Won’t Back Down” By Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

The next entry on this list is “I Won’t Back Down,” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers‘ 1989 album Full Moon Fever.

A collaboration with legendary Beatle George Harrison, “I Won’t Back Down” is a perfect anthem for any challenging struggle for justice. The song expresses an indefatigable sense of resilience and determination in the face of adversity, encouraging listeners to persevere in the face of difficulty.

The song’s catchy melody and uplifting lyrics have made it a popular anthem for sports teams, political campaigns, motivational speeches, and more. Its commitment to personal integrity makes it an ideal justice tune.

11. “John Brown’s Body” By Peter Seeger

The most historical song on this list is “John Brown’s Body,” here performed by Peter Seeger. It is also one of the few to have neither a singular performing artist nor an album. The song is a traditional American folk song that dates back to the Civil War era.

“John Brown’s Body” commemorates the incredible life of abolitionist John Brown. He raided Harpers Ferry, Virginia, along with 19 men. His subsequent execution inspired abolitionist sentiment nationwide.

The song’s simple melody and uplifting lyrics have made it a favorite of protest movements and civil rights activists.

12. “Blowin’ In The Wind” By Bob Dylan

Keeping in the vein of folk music, we come to Bob Dylan’s seminal hit “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

The song’s structure is relatively simple. The narrator asks a series of rhetorical questions about human identity, war, peace, and social justice. He wonders aloud how many times humanity will need to err before we spurn war.

The chorus poses a mournful, ironic answer. The answer is either right in front of our noses or inescapably mysterious, blowing away in the wind.

Politically and historically, the song reflects the anxieties and hopes of the 1960s. But its timeless message and poetic lyrics have made it a classic of the protest and folk music genres.

13. “Poetic Justice” By Kendrick Lamar

The next song on our list sheds light on an entirely different form of justice. “Poetic Justice” is a work by American rapper Kendrick Lamar.

This song with “justice” in the title centers on the narrator’s relationship with the recurring character Sherane. It addresses the ethical challenges of their relationship and, indeed, his very act of placing her story in a song.

In the chorus, the singer plays on the idea of poetic justice where one is rewarded or punished based on his actions. Naturally, he longs to be rewarded with Sherane. He believes this is just right considering what he did to get her love.

14. “We Shall Overcome”

Like the earlier “John Brown’s Body,” “We Shall Overcome” does not have any singular writer or creator. It has been in the American canon for over a century. But the song became immensely famous during the Civil Rights movement.

Its powerful message, driven by themes of hope, unity, and resilience, made it especially potent during the agonizing struggle for racial justice in the 1960s.

The song’s lyrics emphasize the solidarity between those in the struggle. They remind each freedom fighter that they will never be alone in the work of justice.

15. “Redemption Song” By Bob Marley

The immensely famous “Redemption Song” marks a landmark musical moment in racial justice history. Bob Marley used the tune as the final track on the 1980 album Uprising.

In the lyrics, the singer urges listeners to “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery.” To free themselves from the shackles of indoctrination to join the fight for collective liberation.

Movingly, the chorus sees Marley conceding that all he can offer to the world is a song to inspire liberation. Thus, he encourages his listeners not only to sing the song but to put those words into action.

16. “Justice” By Ziggy Marley

Up next is a song with “justice” in the lyrics. “Justice” comes from Bob Marley’s singer-songwriter son, Ziggy Marley. The song came from his 1989 album One Bright Day.

In the lyrics, the singer directly calls for justice. It’s been gone for a long time, like a good friend he hasn’t seen in a while. He wonders why it’s taking so long for justice to be enacted.

Just when it’s needed the most, justice can’t be found. Innocents die and oppression is everywhere. At the end of the song, the singer implores that justice does not desert him.

17. “For What It’s Worth” By Buffalo Springfield

Our next song is “For What It’s Worth.” Though recorded as a single, it appeared on Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 self-titled album.

The folk-rock tune was written as an anti-war song. The singer calls for the war to stop as it takes a toll on the youth. However, the song also reflects the tensions of the 1960s, particularly about social change and political unrest.

It makes sense, given that it was written and released during the 1967 Los Angeles riots. The song’s memorable lyrics, particularly the catchy chorus, have made it a classic and a legendary song for justice protests.

18. “Justice” By Whiz Khalifa, Bob Marley And The Wailers, And Nakkia Gold

Next, we have a song that mentions “justice” in the most straightforward way. “Justice” by Whiz Khalifa, Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Nakkia Gold was released in 2021.

From the beginning until the end, the singers are calling for everyone to “stand up for your rights.” Because time and time again, there will be people who will push us down. It isn’t enough to stand back up, though. People need to fight back.

The song reflects the idea that if there is no justice, there won’t be any peace. But it won’t be long now before we will see significant change. That’s because people are becoming more courageous in standing up for their rights.

19. “A Change Is Gonna Come” By Sam Cooke

From the album Ain’t That the Good News, Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come is a powerful statement on social justice.

The song was inspired by a certain event involving Cooke and company. They were refused admittance at a whites-only motel in Louisiana. Later that night, they were also arrested, apparently for disturbing the peace. The event angered the African-American communities.

One can only imagine how traumatizing to be treated that way. But Cooke didn’t lose hope. Change may be overdue but he knew it will come eventually.

20. “Exigimos” By Doctor Krápula

The final song on this list takes us to another musical milieu entirely. That of Latin American eco-punk band Doctor Krápula. Their 2012 song “Exigimos” (meaning “We rise”), is one of the band’s most poignant statements on political justice.

The powerful, high-energy song paints a wide target for its adversaries. It aims at the corrupt and oppressive political systems in Latin America and throughout the world.

Uniquely, the song also emphasizes the importance of environmental justice in these concerns. It calls for justice for the earth, mountains, and sky in its memorable and moving chorus.

Summing Up Our List Of Justice Songs

We hope that the songs above are enough to show just how essential justice is. Without it, peace will not abound. Without it, there will always be a divide between people of different races, skin colors, and principles.

In a way, our list also showed what it took for us to be where we are now. The voices of people in the past have finally been heard. Actions have been taken. And people are more aware of what’s going on around them.

Just like Sam Cooke’s message in his song, it’s been a long time coming. But change has come. We can only wish we are ready to embrace it.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.