Protest Music and the Importance of Political Musicianship

Childish Gambino’s release of ‘This Is America’ in May 2018 was undoubtedly a moment that will go down in pop culture history.

The song’s unflinching portrayal of the dual issues of racial discrimination and gun violence in America marks it out as a vitally important work of social criticism- its music video even more so. Gambino adopts a stance similar to that of a Jim Crow caricature, dancing while simultaneously shooting numerous people in a reference to gun crimes, such as the 2015 Charleston church shooting. The video has been described by Rolling Stone as a “surreal, visceral statement about gun violence in America”, and, arguably, the song marks a new wave in protest music. ‘This Is America’ made history by winning both ‘Best Song’ and ‘Best Record’ at the 2019 Grammy’s. Are we currently witnessing a resurgence in the popularity of politically conscious mainstream music?

Music has a long history as an art form used by political activists, perhaps most famously as part of the American Civil Rights Movement throughout the 20th century. Music was often fundamentally used to invoke a sense of black racial pride, especially towards the end of the 1960s. The changing sounds of black music during the period embodied the revitalised sense of black empowerment; for example, soul music pioneered by artists such as Sam Cooke and Ray Charles in the late 1950s. They fused R&B, pop and country with gospel music that marked the sound as distinctly and proudly African-American. Black empowerment also manifested itself in music after particularly brutal acts of racial violence. The murder of four girls in a church bombing in Birmingham in September 1963 sent Nina Simone into a “rush of fury, hatred and determination” as she “suddenly realised what it was like to be black in America”. Shortly afterwards, Simone wrote her first civil rights song entitled ‘Mississippi Goddam’, so called because the state summed up for her the worst of white racism. Martin Luther King Jr. himself is quoted as saying that “the freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle…they give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours”.

As such, Gambino clearly inherits aspects of his preoccupation with the political from the past. However, he isn’t the only artist that utilises their platform as a successful mainstream artist to promote a political or social agenda. Janelle Monae’s ‘Dirty Computer’ was one of the most revered albums of 2018, a celebration of queerness, female power and black identity that drew inspiration from artists such as Prince. In particular, the final track ‘Americans’ is a standout in terms of its politicisation; the song combines church-like organ chords with neo-funk in an almost mocking tone. Monae sang: “Love me for who I am” in a protest against the injustices of Trump’s presidency. While Monae’s protest is one relating to personal identity, British bands such as The 1975 have adopted a slightly different approach when attempting to make their music more political. ‘Love It If We Made It’ is a portrayal of the world’s hostile social and political climate, with the band collecting tabloid headlines for a year in order to collate the song’s lyrics. As such, the track is more of an objective record of political events from 2016 to 2018 – it provides no judgement on the events addressed. The 1975 have often used their platform to address controversial issues, with frontman Matty Healy recently speaking out against Alabama’s abortion ban whilst performing at Hangout Music Festival in the state itself. All in all, this demonstrates that protest music still has a firm place in politics and culture and does not look to go away.