Music and Politics: An Introduction

MUSIC AND POLITICS: AN INTRODUCTION

January '16

Words by Lexy Morvaridi


This series looks at the relationship between music and politics. To begin, this piece acts as an introduction to some of the theories surrounding the way in which the two interact. It will be followed by a number of articles looking at this interaction between music, politics and social change in a variety of contexts.


Music has always acted as a vehicle for social change. From the depths of Joe Strummer’s gut to Fela Kuti’s political groove to the wobble in Billie Holliday’s voice on ‘Strange Fruit’, political music has always existed and shows no signs of disappearing. You might not hear it on Radio 1's ‘A playlist’, or topping the charts as it once did (see The Specials - Ghost Town), and if you look at today's poster boys for NME – overwhelmingly white, male, guitar-based indie outfits – then you won’t see music and politics interacting like it once did. What you will see, however, is idiots like Faris Badwan of The Horrors saying, “Politics doesn’t mean anything to me ... I don’t think you gain anything from voting”. (He goes on to compare voting for Celebrity Big Brother to the general election...) Yet despite this, today, political music is as relevant as it ever was; it just appears through different avenues and manifests itself in different ways. I'll explore how music can be political, how it has been, and how it continues to be so in a number of ways.

Before I jump into the deep end, I would like to say that political music may not be for everyone and yes, I am not a fan of overly preachy self-righteous speeches at gigs. But to those that choose to write it off or ignore it, your indifference offends me. We owe a lot to music. The increasingly inclusive society that we live in today, in the UK, owes a lot to music. Throughout history, and in particular the 20th and 21st centuries, it has played a fundamental role in progressive change, influencing everything from race to sexuality to class politics: The Specials were one of the first pop groups to feature both black and white members; Frankie Goes To Hollywood were one of the first openly gay acts to represent the gay community; and more recently, grime has acted as an avenue for a generation of people with their backs against the walls. Where these are just UK-specific examples, this series will also look the cultural context in places across the world, including political hip-hop in the Arab SpringPussy Riot’s imprisonment and the struggle of Malian musicians.

 

What is Political Music?

 

What do we mean when we say ‘political music’? It's important to recognise that political music can be defined in many ways. In this series, however, I am specifically referring to the relationship between music and social change – the ability of music to act as political agency for an individual or a group.  

Music has always served as a vehicle for expressing social and political discontent, as an outlet for those that are marginalised within society to make their voices heard.  As Joe Strummer famously said, “every generation has to work out its own way to sing the blues”. In this sense, music has the ability to bring people of different backgrounds together, through its capacity to deliver a shared, pleasurable experience. Is that not political in its inception?

 

"MUSIC HAS ALWAYS SERVED AS A VEHICLE FOR EXPRESSING SOCIAL AND POLITICAL DISCONTENT, AS AN OUTLET FOR THOSE THAT ARE MARGINALISED WITHIN SOCIETY TO MAKE THEIR VOICES HEARD." 

 

Music also serves a number of political purposes. It can be used to initiate action or inspire people to act, to support and further a political sentiment, or ultimately to bring about debate and change within society. What is important to understand is how it does so. It could be in the lyrical content of a song (“Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me”), in the context in which it is performed (see ‘We Shall Overcome’ performed by Joan Baez at the March On Washington), how it is disseminated (Minor Threat self-releasing on their own DIY label - Dischord), or even in the individual’s choice to buy a specific record because of what it stands for. By focusing on the conditions and the context that surround music alongside the form and content of the music itself, the different ways in which music has a political impact become apparent.

The political agency of music is not therefore limited to verbal expression or lyrical content.  If Justin Bieber played a DIY concert against Donald Trump’s ridiculous yet increasingly dangerous campaign to become President, though his music is not political, it would become political as he desperately tried to blow Donald Trump’s toupée off with his somewhat whiney pop tunes.


POLITICAL MUSIC: CONTEXT AND DELIVERY


The political agency of music thus varies in definition and nature, depending on its historical and social context. As discussed above, it is most certainly not limited to lyrical content. Here, we look at a number of examples of political and politicised music - some of which will be further discussed throughout the series.

In his critically acclaimed book, ‘Noise: The Political Economy of Music’, Jacques Attali asserts that music is prophetic in articulating the need for change within society. This is reflected throughout history, as political music has become an established vehicle for expressing the plight of the oppressed, or protesting against exploitation and power. The hip-hop community’s response to police brutality is testament to the idea of political music as a vehicle for protesting against exploitation and abuse. Lauren Hill’s ‘Black Rage’ was inspired by the shootings in Ferguson, for example.

Similarly, Run The Jewels performed an impassioned show in Ferguson the night the Michael Brown verdict was given. They drove straight into the riots and Killer Mike delivered an empowering emotional speech, that personally makes my hairs stand on end as I wish I was there in the mix when the bass drops...

Around the same time, the hip-hop community, including artists such as J. Cole, also took to Twitter and joined marches across the United States. Whilst this final example isn’t strictly ‘music’, it demonstrates the power of such artists on social media, and stands as a crucial, modern-day example of political engagement, the bringing together of people through music and musicians.  

In many cases the instrumentation itself can be the focus of protest, embodying a message in the form of people collectively enjoying rhythm. It is important therefore that analysis of political music does not focus only on lyrical content and overlook the importance how the music conveys protest and choice. John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ was a fully conceptualised live instrumental piece based on the flow of Martin Luther King Jnr’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and written in response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by the Ku Klux Klan. It's a fine example of political expression through the form of the music.

In the UK, the rave music of the 90s is another great example, in which instrumental music was given an arena for political expression. The government felt ‘threatened’ by the sudden rise in free parties, as people danced the night away on cheap narcotics to acid house and techno. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was brought in to prevent people enjoying the music and therefore the act of consuming the music was politicised, despite being mainly instrumental.

In other examples, political music can act as a direct form of education, influencing the listener in ways they did not intend or imagine. Given that the primary purpose of music is an aesthetic pleasurable experience, if someone listens to a political act such as Public Enemy for purely the enjoyment of the music, they may also learn about black struggle and race politics in American society through the lyrical content or the album artwork. FIGHT THE POWER.

In some contexts, songs or music are associated with political and social causes, even though they may not be specifically written to promote them. Essentially, they are appropriated by the cause, or associated to an event. A recent example is the 2011 student protests. Many of us remember those cold evenings kettled in by the police with a sound system blaring out ‘Pow’ by Lethal Bizzle, whilst Cameron and his chums sat in parliament pondering the power of UK Grime.

 
 

"We can look to many examples throughout history where music has acted as a voice or platform for those to exercise agency." 

 
 

Alternatively, music can act as a more general, explicit act of defiance aimed at encouraging the audience to question authority from a broader perspective. In this sense, it operates effectively as a political platform. We can look to many examples throughout history where music has acted as a voice or platform for those to exercise agency. As this series develops, I will be looking in more depth at specific examples such as the significance of funk and soul in the civil rights movement, Fela Kuti’s voice against the oppressive regime in Nigeria in the 1970s, and pop music and the anti-apartheid movement in the UK in the 1980s.

The political agency of music as an art form is a powerful one. The ability of music to move the listener’s passions powerfully enough to influence thought and action can be illustrated in a number of notable examples. In my personal experience, overtly political artists like Rage Against The Machine and The Clash educated me as young angry teen. Though not singing at the same time, they in part politicised me, and their tenacious delivery encouraged me to understand socio-political issues and act upon them. It is also the case that the celebrity status of musicians like these provides them with a platform to disseminate their political rhetoric to a wider audience than other art forms and in so doing, allows them to reach those already committed to a particular cause as well as those that are neutral, as noted by Anna Piotrowska. We have to be wary, however, about imbuing musicians with political credibility just because they are famous; many performers’ political opinions are only lent credence due to that person's widespread popularity, while the substance of these opinions often falls away under scrutiny (see Gary Numan, Dave Mustaine, Ted Nugent etc…)

 

Final Thoughts

 

Professor John Street has explained that it is the ability and way that music affects the emotions of individuals that makes it such a powerful weapon in political engagement. Ultimately, music creates a bond between the performer and the listener. It is this bond that proves to be instrumental in building support for a particular political cause or political belief. However, it must be noted that although music can be the catalyst for change, it doesn’t have to be explicitly political to do so. We’re not all about to occupy Downing Street because Billy Bragg sang a song about ‘them’ being bad.

Music can be used to legitimise or enforce the status quo, but the relationship between music and politics tends to be defined by the politics of resistance. As discussed, political agency can take a number of forms in music, and we as an audience can express our political agency through our own musical choices. So the next time a singer stands and preaches to you at a gig, understand that although the delivery might be a bit shit, the attempt is at least something. The power of music as a vehicle of political expression will never falter. Turn it up and join the struggle.



Further reading:

  • Attali Jacques, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, (University of Minnesota Press 1985)

  • Hay Colin, Why We Hate Politics, 2007, (Polity Press Cambridge)

  • Piotrowska, Anna G. ‘European Pop Music and the Notion of Protest Ed. Friedman Jonathan’, Routledge History of Social Protest in Popular Music, pp279-291, 2013, (Routledge New York)

  • Robert Rosenthal and Richard Flacks, Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements, 2012, (Paradigm Publishers USA)

  • Street, John. ‘Fight the Power’: The Politics of Music and the Music of Politics, Government and Opposition, (2003), 38: 113–130

  • The Future is Unwritten: Joe Strummer (extras), 2006 [DVD] Julien Temple. Britain: Film4