Should music be used for political ends?

Richard Birch contextualises the Rolling Stones' recent visit to Cuba


It appears to be the hip thing to do at the moment; to ‘do’ Cuba. After Pope Francis’ visit less than six months ago and Obama’s this same week, the Rolling Stones are the third in a fine line of notable visitors to the country. The British offering, if you will.

But there is a very big difference between the Rolling Stones and the other two visitors. Obama’s visit was indicative of a thawing of relations between two ideologically opposed countries. Meanwhile the appearance of the Pope is indicative of the re-emergence of Roman Catholicism which was long suppressed by the Communist regime. The old Catholics came out of the woodwork for the Pope’s visit in September, and even Raul Castro admitted he was so impressed by him that he was debating returning to the church. It is obvious, then, that these two visits were of paramount socio-political importance.

The Stones’ visit, however, put simply, should not be. They aren’t the leaders of the world’s most powerful religion or the world’s most powerful country. They’re just the ‘World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band’. This is the band that have 11 arrests between them. This is the band who got a song about heroin, slavery, S&M and oral sex to number one in 1971 (‘Brown Sugar’, in case you’re wondering). They burnt down Playboy Mansion, threatened to stab Donald Trump, hosted a free concert where four people died and four people were born… the list goes on.

Some expected the band to comment on the situation in Cuba – the lack of basic resources for the general population, the poor state of the hospitals and infrastructure and the continued violations of civil liberties. The opportunity was definitely there to make a statement. The question remains as to whether or not the Stones should have felt obliged to comment on such issues. To my mind, such politicisation is beyond the remit of the band. Only twice in their lengthy oeuvre do they support any clear political view. Why should they have had to start now? It would seem slightly odd for this famously debauched bunch of Bacchanalian revellers to start pontificating and preaching to the Cuban people about the need to change the political system.

Fundamentally, they are different from the Pope and the US President. They were there in Cuba to entertain. Indeed, the very fact that they put the concert on for free (knowing the population could not afford a Stones’ ticket under normal circumstances) made a statement larger than any they could have verbalised – that they wanted as many people as possible to be able to enjoy their music. Leave the politics to the world leaders – leave the rock and roll to the Rolling Stones.