Music’s complicated history is so often immersed in the social and political struggles of the day. Siobhan Mearon looks at how today’s artists are following the tradition.
PEOPLE look to music for a way to escape, for comfort, for entertainment. So what happens when the music only reminds them of what is happening in the world? Looking back on important musical events, it is apparent that many of them can be defined by the political environment of the time.
Protest anthems have existed as long as people have had reason to protest, as long as the world has angered them enough to express their thoughts through music. It can be a song that gives hope to people suffering, or a song that radicalises them and opens their eyes to the suffering, but it is always important.
The 1960s witnessed a backlash to conservatism, with the folk movement creating a philosophy around left-wing politics, and the hippie counterculture offering an alternative to growing commercialism. Bob Dylan released ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, an anti-war song that still holds resonance today. Woodstock became a symbol of love and peace, and the artists that played there preached these same values.
Punk in the 1970s was another movement that used music to express anger, particularly at Thatcher’s regime and the economical struggles in the UK. The Clash delivered social commentary alongside their rebellious, tough sound, while the Sex Pistols encouraged anarchy in songs that aimed to shock the public out of conformity.
Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On? in 1971, a world-weary look at the struggles that plagued the United States in the wake of the Vietnam War. The album is told from the perspective of a returned veteran and touches on issues of racism, global warming, war and poverty. It is not so much a rallying cry but a simple question about the state the world is in.
Issues of racism and social poverty were at the heart of the hip-hop movement in the Bronx in the 1980s. DJs like Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa pioneered a new style of music that gave young people in the US a way to express their frustrations, while creating art. Hip-hop grew and developed, but the racial and social issues at its heart remained, and were even amplified with political rap from the likes of Public Enemy.
Today, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and others are leading the way, demanding people take notice by basing their music around issues they care about. Lamar’s song ‘Alright’ has become an anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement: a modern day protest song.
“The anti-Trump message was further cemented with the release of ‘We Got The Power’, another song that promotes unity in a time when we maybe need it the most.”
In the wake of the US election, Arcade Fire released ‘I Give You Power’, featuring Mavis Staples. The song is a plea to all that it is even more important to stick together now. On the same day, Gorillaz released the first song from their new album, ‘Hallelujah Money’, featuring Benjamin Clementine, which attacks materialism and capitalism, and also the celebrity culture that resulted in the election of Donald Trump. The anti-Trump message was further cemented with the release of ‘We Got The Power’, another song that promotes unity in a time when we maybe need it the most.
Anohni’s 2016 album, Hopelessness, is a powerful and heart-breaking take on social issues, begging us not to be complicit, but take responsibility for what is happening in the world. ‘Drone Bomb Me’ is a love song written from the point-of-view of a young girl in the Middle East who has lost her family in the bombings and wishes to be next. Anohni’s voice effortlessly sings over dark electronic beats, but the upbeat tempo is constantly juxtaposed with devastating lyrics.
“Art is meant to be radical.”
Another track, ‘4 Degrees’, takes on climate change in a way that forces the listener to hold themselves accountable. The album feels radical in its refusal to sugar coat these issues, but art is meant to be radical, and Anohni is leading the way for music to force the listener to stop and think.
Hip-hop and rap, though, are always at the forefront when it comes to political music and protest anthems. A Tribe Called Quest released We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service also in 2016, and, again, the album reflects the tumultuous state of the US in recent years, and specifically during the presidential campaign. The single ‘We the People…’, emphasises unity and togetherness, but does so while explicitly calling out racism, religious discrimination and homophobia.
“It seems that protest music is needed now more than ever.”
While politics has always had its place in music, it seems that protest music is needed now more than ever. High-profile stars are becoming more politically charged in their songs and videos, with Beyoncé highlighting feminism and Black Lives Matter in both her videos and her on-stage appearances. Political statements in music are not just relegated to a certain genre or movement anymore, it is universal for the first time. This could very well revolutionise the way music is produced.
Artists have never shied away from making political statements with their music, but more often than not, it is the political atmosphere and struggles in the world that influence people to create this kind of music. So, while the news today may be disheartening, it is important that artists like these are still making music that matters, creating platforms for protest and change.