music and politics: we’re not finished yet

Ellen Peirson-Hagger /
Jul 24, 2016 / Opinion

Talk at the moment is on the number of things that can change in just one hour in British politics. We are mourning those who have died at the hands of so-called ISIS or Daesh terrorists.

We are wondering how on earth to help those who have lost and fled their homes, communities and loved ones under the rule of tyrannical human-rights-abusing leaders, not to mention how to prevent the impending threat of the possibility of a US ruled by Donald Trump.

In light of the shocking results of the EU referendum, the recent atrocity in Nice, and ongoing acts of incredulous inhumanity the world over, we turn to the arts, a place of humanity, community and freedom. There is something undoubtedly human about artistic self-expression. Whatever government rules us, whichever international or European community we are, or are not, a part of, wherever we are on this Earth, we are still all humans – we have bodies with which to compose, play, sing and dance.

Music has long been a part of any political existence. In the early 1960s Pete Seeger and Joan Baez popularised ‘We Shall Overcome’, the rally-cry for the US Civil Rights Movement. In 1966 George Harrison’s ‘Taxman’ opened the Beatles’ Revolver, bemoaning and satirically attacking the high levels of tax under Harold Wilson’s government. In 1984 The Specials’ ‘Nelson Mandela’ rung out as an explicit protest song primarily calling for the release of the South African politician and soon heralded as an anthemic reminder of the need for liberty the world over.

A piece of music can so easily and with such humanity embody the passion and fervour of a political crusade. However twee a song may sound on one sole listen, if it can be sung at a protest or rally, it instils a power in performer and listener.

But in the present day these instances are all too few and far between. Instead, many modern musicians seem more comfortable tweeting about politics rather than writing chords to accompany their lyrics on a matter. The emphatic political debate which continues to resound off the walls of the echo chamber that is the internet is fantastic, particularly in an environment where we are so often told that young people are lazy and uninterested in the political sphere. Twitter campaigns such as #blacklivesmatter prove that young people are thinking about and speaking about wider issues. Yet it seems odd that so few use their art to convey political opinion, rather, choosing the fleeting form of a tweet with which to express their views.

Paloma Faith has attempted to reason this one out. In 2015, the East Londoner asked Owen Jones, political commentator and journalist, to go on tour with her. He took to the stage before her set to address the audience on social injustices, attempting to get them talking about politics more freely. Just after the EU referendum result last month, Jones interviewed the singer again, asking why so few musicians speak out about politics at all. She answered, “Musicians of our time currently want to remain ambiguous and use music as an escape.” To write songs protesting the problems of the modern world is instead to face problems straight on. It’s no escape, but an intimidating task to take on.

There are artists working in other media who are anything but intimidated at the prospect of facing up to threats. Last Sunday morning, one hundred women stood naked in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, as artist Spencer Tunick took photos for his installation “Everything She Says Means Everything”. This wasn’t any old wild artistic stunt: Tunick asked these women to undress against the Cleveland skyline on the day before the Republican National Convention, holding mirrors up at the sky as he told the women “This is for you and this is for our future. We will shine your light and power onto the RNC. We’re going to shine the light of women into this arena.”

Whatever each individual woman’s motives for undressing and coming together in this liberating manner – many of the women saw their taking part as individual acts of empowerment – Tunick’s installation had intentions of standing as an artistic protest against Donald Trump’s calamitous opinions on gender equality and women’s rights.

Clearly areas of visual art are saying something about the politics of our time. But what about music? Whilst it may not seem as explicitly political, this is not to say that there is no political music around today. It’s just that political artistic creation seems to take more guts.

In a society where many young people are angry, dismayed and far from contented with those in power, there are similarly musicians who are angry, dismayed and full of discontent. Heated political songs are being written. But the times have changed, and our loudest voices are no longer sat, strumming acoustic guitars as Joan Baez, Ewan MacColl or Bob Dylan did in the 1960s. The voices of Western popular music that need to be heard in 2016 are those facing prejudice, poverty and discrimination in urban areas and on ordinary streets. No wonder it is the genres of grime and rap – sounds of an urban, ordinary life, where the words spun can be full of the harsh truths of reality – which are leading the way for the political music of our generation.

Scottish hip-hop trio Young Fathers won the Mercury Prize in 2014 for their debut album Dead, a fiercely politically-charged album of brash clattering. Lead single ‘Get Up’ does more than just describe the mind-sets of three young black men living in an unjust society. Yes, it does include short accounts of personal difficulties – “Got no past, no future / Fumbling through the ether”. But vitally it demands its listener to “Come here and do the right thing”.  It is instructive. It encourages movement and revolution.

The characters that Kate Tempest – South East Londoner and poet, playwright, novelist and musician – weaves into all her works are ordinary people living difficult lives in the depths of poverty, drug-use, and the changing face of the ever-more gentrified London they grew up in. Tempest need not demand things of her audience as Young Fathers do. Instead, it is the relevance and down-to-earth nature of her story-telling that packs the punch.

In his review for The Guardian, Tim Jonze called Anohni’s May release, Hopelessness, “the most profound protest record in decades.” Antony Hegarty, formerly of Antony and the Johnsons, has written an album with track titles like ‘Drone Bomb Me’, ‘Execution’ and ‘Crisis’. There is no doubt that this is a protest album which requires acute attention and precise listening. Anohni’s no-nonsense recognition of the atrocities in our society is a boldness which so many of those sitting in the Houses of Parliament lack.

Politicism is intruding on the mainstream charts. Kendrick Lemar’s 2015 To Pimp a Butterfly remains one of the most critically acclaimed and publically well-received albums of the last few years. ‘Alright’ became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. In combination with its tightly-wrought instrumentation and seriously catchy riffs, it is the record’s political power – it’s explicitness in calling out racism in America, which so many others have shied away from doing – that has earned it so much respect. Beyonce’s Lemonade, released this April, draws upon issues of race and gender in American society. Now, more than ever, there is a lot to get political about, even if you’re working within the realms of so-called “pop”.

There is more to come. In the last month, gutsy North-Eastern songstress Nadine Shah has made reference to a third album of which “the current refugee crisis is the focal point.”

When will we not live in a world of political and social crises? When will we not live in a world where people must speak up for injustices? As one of the most powerful, emotive and communal modes of human expression, music must always be there to make us smile, cry and unite.

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Words by Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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