Music often has something to say about the world we live in. Sometimes it simply reflects that world, good and bad, but sometimes it goes further, commenting on it and, on occasions, trying to be part of changing things and actively engaging with movements and society at large.
A high point of this was during the civil rights movement in the US during the 1960s when artists consciously wrote songs, such as Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, that encapsulated the struggles and hopes of the times, or when the Staple Singers toured with Martin Luther King to help motivate and inspire thousands.
Another high point is when Jimi Hendrix played The Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock. Without a single word he subverted the ideas of nation and patriotism in a glorious rage against the ills of the world. Nina Simone consistently sang furiously and beautifully against how black people were treated in America, and no piece on political music can ignore Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece, What’s Going On. In later years the emergence of hip hop gave a voice to black America through artists Public Enemy, Tupac and many more.
Over here you only have to read the newly published Reminiscences of RAR to see how important music was to building a united campaign against the Nazis and the impact it had on those involved. Artists Against Apartheid too was an important part of bringing a political message to tens of thousands across the world.
There have also been less successful attempts to use music for political gain — witness Labour’s Red Wedge tour of the 1980s, or Tony Blair trying to win “youth” over with Cool Britannia. Notably, though, they were both when the mainstream political class tried to co-opt music for its own ends.
For a while music has seemed to be apolitical. Yes, there have always been some artists making political songs, but they have tended to be niche and often a little bit worthy. However, the last couple of years have seen a re-emergence of socially engaged music in the mainstream.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the US has had no small part in this, from Prince’s Baltimore to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. Black Messiah had an album cover referencing the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” slogan of BLM and liner notes saying “It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen”.
Beyonce and Jay-Z have been behind-the-scenes supporters of BLM, paying bail and legal fees for protesters, but Beyonce’s performance at the 2016 Superbowl made a huge public statement, albeit with her dancers more Panther-chic than policing the police. Her album Lemonade released a few weeks was her most political by far. But watch the videos while listening as they make as much of a statement as the lyrics.
The same is true of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly album that had a lyrical and visual impact; and he also chose to make a statement with his Grammy ceremony performance of The Blacker The Berry, where he appeared bruised and in a chain gang. His song Alright is frequently heard on the BLM protests.
Not to be overshadowed by her sister, Solange Knowles’s album A Seat At The Table consciously tackles racism in a lovely, loopy, neo-soul style. There are a swathe of other albums — from Michael Kiwanuka’s Love And Hate, Common’s Black America Again, A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service to the Drive-By Truckers’ American Band, Noname’s Telefone, Anohni’s Hopelessness and Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool — that all either openly or obliquely comment upon a society divided by class and race.
Skepta winning the Mercury Prize has put Grime back into the mainstream here. Since its emergence at the turn of the century, Grime has mostly been underground, only hitting headlines when the police closed down gigs amid claims there would be violence if they went ahead. Grime MC Novelist’s Street Politician opened with David Cameron promising that “keeping people safe is the first duty of government” but Novelist makes it obvious he thinks some people are kept safer by the Tories than others.
Kano’s 2016 album, Made In The Manor, gives a vivid slice of life for young black men in London with tracks such as Made In England and T-Shirt Weather In The Manor. As with many Grime tracks, the videos are located in inner city estates to a swirling backdrop of police sirens and harassment. Indeed, Skepta’s launch of Shutdown took place in a car park in Shoreditch, East London and was filmed at the Barbican, scene of one of the more infamous police “shutdowns” of a gig.
At the moment though, a lot of Grime is political in that it expresses a rage at the racism and injustice of society, like much of the output from the US. I’d be the first to say that not all great music has to be political, and not all political music is great. But every so often there comes a moment when music can both sum up what is wrong with the world, offer hope, and be part of a solution.
I don’t think the current output is quite there, but then neither are our movements. However, the increasingly political output by artists both mainstream and underground can only be a good thing and should be welcomed and enjoyed.