2018 has been the year of political statements. From movements such as #MeToo to student protests against gun violence, a number of artists have turned to music in order to make their voices heard. American singer Halsey delivered a powerful poem about her experience of sexual abuse at the 2018 Women’s March, while at the Grammys 2018, Kesha’s emotionally-charged performance of Praying was striking in its context, highlighting continued sexism in the music industry. American Idiot by Green Day made a return to the UK charts in July, in time for President Trump’s widely-protested visit. Throughout these events and other political uncertainties, protestors have relied on music to make a comment on contemporary society.
This is, of course, nothing new in itself; art and politics have always been connected to some degree. Music exists within a particular social and historical context, and any attempt to grasp its meaning should reflect this. While some may hold the view of music as a transcendent or absolute art form, the fact is that music is an integral part of human culture and society. Plato illustrates this connection between music and politics in Book IV of the Republic, writing that ‘when the modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them’. Musical innovation can be used to subvert the established order, making it essential to any political movement. In this way, song is, and always has been vital to any protest movement, serving to bring unity and cohesion. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, songs ‘invigorate the movement in a most significant way’.
An immediate glance at the history of protest suggests that music was a powerful countercultural force, particularly from the 1960s onwards. John Lennon made significant contributions to the anti-war movement with songs such as ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ (1969) and ‘Imagine’ in 1971 (co-written by Yoko Ono) which, with its idealistic lyrics, hymn-like melody and simple chord progressions, came to be considered an anthem for world peace. ‘Revolution’ (1968) by the Beatles is another classic example of anti-war sentiment, inspired by protests against the Vietnam War. The repetitive nature of the lyrics is arguably a key feature of protest song, allowing it to be quickly learnt by a large group. Despite denying being a writer of protest music, Bob Dylan, was also associated with this anti-establishment stance, and influenced by the folk revival; civil rights protestors adopted many of his songs (such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Times They Are A Changin’) as anthems for the movement. It is easy to romanticise the history of protest song, perhaps there are issues in the genre’s subsequent commercialisation and its creation of ‘idols’ whose impact can be overstated. Nonetheless, it demonstrates the interplay between music, politics and culture has always been a part of our history.
In a very different way, hip hop artists have also dealt with political issues. Since ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, as well as the political rap of Public Enemy (see: ‘Fight the Power,’ which references James Brown), many artists have expressed their anger about societal injustices, racism, and poverty. More recently, the hip hop collective Somos Mujeres, Somos hip hop, featuring female rappers from across Latin America, has continued the trend of politically conscious rap; pushing back against a male-dominated industry, the group have used their music to protest against issues such as domestic violence, abortion, sexual abuse, and girls’ education.
So where will protest music go in 2019? Should artists be mixing politics with music anymore? Does protest music even matter?
While protest music, in the traditional sense, does not seem as prevalent as it was in previous decades, politically-focussed music remains a strong marker of identity, a voice for marginalised groups, and a powerful tool for communication. Social media has expanded the potential impact and reach of political songs, offering new opportunities to activists and musicians across the world. Discussing his recent EP, ‘Nina Cried Power,’ a compelling tribute to protest singers of the American civil-rights era, Hozier stated that ‘all music is political, no matter what’. Olly Alexander from Years & Years echoes that music has political meaning, and that ‘you’re either saying something or saying nothing’. With this in mind as we head into 2019 and the political events it will bring, we can only hope music will continue to say something, rather than nothing.