From Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind” to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” musicians have a long history of incorporating protest and social issues into their songs. And just like in 1963 and 1989, 2015 was no different.
Hip-hop artists rapped about ending police brutality and advocated for better treatment for refugees. Singers lent their voices to victims of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Other musicians contemplated free health care and marriage equality.
As seen in the music videos below, the artists used different visual tactics—stark black-and-white, cheery animation, and even an epic dance party—but each encouraged fans to challenge the status quo.
1. Police Brutality
Several artists—from Pussy Riot, to Prince, Usher to Janelle Monáe—released music this year in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, with songs calling for justice for the black men and women who have died at the hands of police officers.
In rap duo Run the Jewels’ video for “Close Your Eyes (and Count to F--k),” a white cop and a black teen violently struggle in a fight without a clear instigator. The video does not vilify the officer or the teen but shows a complicated struggle where both trade off between the aggressor and the victim. “They’re not stereotypes. They’re people—complex, real people, and, as such, the power had to shift between them at certain points throughout the story,” the video’s director, A.G. Rojas, told Pitchfork. “Our goal was to highlight the futility of the violence, not celebrate it.”
2. Refugee Crisis
As European countries have tightened their restrictions on letting in asylum seekers and U.S. politicians are calling for religion tests for refugees, rapper M.I.A.’s tune “Borders” calls for a more welcoming approach. The video visualizes the dangerous challenges asylum seekers face when fleeing war-torn countries—from climbing barbed-wire fences to treacherous boat rides—while also showing chaos, as people wander in both directions, stuck without any place to call home.
3. Campus Sexual Assault
With nearly one in four women experiencing sexual assault while earning their undergraduate degree, activists across the nation have been working to hold colleges accountable for protecting female students. Lady Gaga added her voice to calls for affirmative consent policies while revealing her own experiences of abuse. The video for “Til It Happens to You” shows what happens when female students are not protected. The video tells the fictional story of four college students who experience different forms of sexual assault, detailing not just the trauma of the attacks but also the aftermath.
4. Violence Against Women
Every nine seconds, a woman is assaulted or beaten, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Grammy winner Melanie Fiona’s video for “I Tried” showcases how difficult it can be to leave an abusive relationship. Caged in a glass box, the bruised singer pounds against glass walls that will not break. “I hope this visual sparks emotion, thought, dialogue, reflection, and ultimately, positive change,” she said of the video.
5. Hope for the Holidays
Just in time for the holidays, Macy Gray dropped her version of “All I Want for Christmas.” Instead of crooning “you, baby,” Gray wants free health care, better gun control, and a commitment to curb global warming. Gray points out all that is lacking but ends the animated clip with a hopeful spin for future generations: Voices of kids proclaim that all they want for Christmas are homes for the homeless and world peace.
6. Love Wins
Just weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Jennifer Hudson—with some help from the Human Rights Campaign—shared the video for her song “I Still Love You.” The video begins with a gay man asking his father to attend his wedding, reminding his dad that even though it’s been a while, he still loves him. The sweet clip, which features a diverse group of LGBT wedding-goers, ends with love triumphing over all—not to mention a pretty rad dance party.