by Devon Armstrong
Over the last century, music of all genres has been used as a tool to protest, organise, inspire and raise awareness. From the original blues artists of the 1920s, such as Bessie Smith, African American culture has used music as an antidote to oppression, originally a response to slavery and later a backlash against inequality.
Activism in music has evolved over the last century into a multitude of genres influenced by black culture and its resilience to this oppression, such as the free jazz movement of the 1960s, funk, soul and most recently hip hop. From its origins in the 1980s with Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘The Message’, hip hop has criticised institutional racism and called out issues like police brutality, as well as expressing the anger of a young generation ghettoised in the Bronx.
What is it about music that allows it to transcend cultural barriers?
In the last half century, rock music has pioneered a plethora of genres, at the heart of which lies protest. The punk rock scene harnessed a sometimes violent energy in the music of icons like The Clash and The Sex Pistols to promote political agendas like socialism, anarchism or anti-Royalism. Even more mainstream rock artists like Bruce Springsteen have used their lyrics to protest things like war, Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ challenging the way America fails to look after its war veterans. In a similar vein, U2’s song Sunday Bloody Sunday criticises the brutality of war, particularly The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but what always strikes me about this song, is how timeless it is. With every year that passes, every conflict that takes lives by the hour, the song becomes more poignant. We realise its lyrics transcend not only geographical and cultural barriers, but time: ‘How long, how long must we sing this song?’
While the poignant lyrics of this song are a call to action against the injustices of war, sometimes lyrics aren’t what brings people together. I’ll never forget my experience as an angsty pop punk-loving 16-year-old at a Paramore concert in Milan, listening to the Italian fans around me singing along to the lyrics enthusiastically, sometimes pronouncing things totally wrong, and clearly having no understanding of what the words meant. But this is the power of music: to transcend language barriers and unite people through the emotion conveyed by melody.
Fundraising or awareness-raising events, vis a vis solo artists and bands, like 1985’s Live Aid use music as common ground, across a range of artists and genres, as a platform for inspiring the masses to protest or work for change. In the wake of a natural disaster, music provides a means of cohesion and solidarity against the suffering of humanity, and what better environment to charge the emotions of thousands of people simultaneously, than a live music concert? In 1969, at Woodstock festival Jimi Hendrix played a scathing cover of the US anthem ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ which became iconic in the festival’s history, and expressed the mind-set of a subculture at the end of the decade. Hendrix’s distortion of the traditional, conventional melody into a terrifying soundscape reminiscent of the horrors of war depicted the ugly reality emerging from behind the glossy American Dream which that generation had lost touch with. Indeed, Woodstock became an epicentre for alternative subcultures which hosted rebellion to certain ways of life and particular injustices.
A recent parallel incident is NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem at a 49ers game, in protest of the way black people are treated in America. Clearly music is every bit as powerful a means of protest as it was over 50 years ago.
But when we listen to the hit songs on the radio today, we might ask ourselves, have they lost this engagement with social issues?
Some would say that pop music has always had this somewhat superficial quality, so it is particularly impressive when popular artists use their platform of influence to speak out against particular issues, either through their music, or through more conventional forms of activism.
Undoubtedly, there are contemporary artists from Solange – who sings about feminist issues for women of colour – to Childish Gambino – who protests police brutality – and many contemporary hip hop artists like J Cole and Kendrick Lamar. Arcade Fire criticise capitalism and consumerist culture with their single ‘Everything Now’, and feminist punk band Pussy Riot have protested Putin’s oligarchy in Russia not only through writing protest music, but through guerrilla-style, uninvited performances in public spaces and even churches, to protest the oppression of women and minorities in Putin’s Russia.
Music stirs passion, makes you consider views other than your own and connects to people in an ineffably powerful way. It bridges cultural divides, and informs, enlightens and inspires. I believe it has the power to create meaningful change in the future, as much as it has done throughout history.
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