WORDS : HARRY HIGGINSON
Right now, protest seems to be the defining word of 2020. Perhaps a few weeks ago this idea would have seemed absurd, but with the murder of George Floyd, as well as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless other innocent Black people, the Black Lives Matter movement has surged back in to the spotlight. In response, the usual rallying cries of ‘All Lives Matter’, ‘Blue Lives Matter’, and concern for the damaging of statues of slave owners rise to meet a movement intent on ending police brutality and tackling the systems of injustice that constitute and perpetuate racial inequality. We are politically at a turning point: so what does music have to do with any of this?
much of modern music owes it’s existence to the voices and suffering of black people under slavery in the USA
It’s perhaps an obvious point to state that music has always been a fundamental part of protest, but the intertwining of these two kinds of performance runs deeper than the anti-establishment punk of the 70s and 80s. Historically speaking, much of modern music owes it’s existence to the voices and suffering of black people under slavery in the USA. The evolution of field hollers and slave spirituals – songs sung by African American slaves as they worked – laid the foundations of the Blues, later evolving into rock and jazz, and with those, spawning the subsequent subgenres of rap, rock, metal and pop we know today. Recognising and acknowledging the way music is rooted in historical context, especially the context of slavery, inequality and segregation, is incredibly important. More than anything, it perhaps begs some difficult questions about the underrepresentation of people of colour not only in rock music, but in the routine underrepresentation of people of colour at award events like the Grammys.
they embody a kind of commercialised, marketable form of rebellion that’s antithetical to the very idea of protest
Beyond acknowledging the way music as we know it today was born of protest and an act of solidarity in the face of oppression, music’s relationship to protest is a little complex. When thinking of ‘protest’ songs, you might have Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’, Kaiser Chiefs’ ‘I Predict a Riot’, or even Creedence Clearwater Revival’s anti-Vietnam war hit ‘Fortunate Son’ spring to mind. The trouble with these songs, and others in a similar vein, is their vagueness. Whilst each certainly has a political edge, the way it is delivered makes it almost an optional feature, rather than an integral part of the musical experience. These songs are not structured in a way that directly challenges the listener, with lyrics just imprecise enough that you don’t have to entirely buy into the song’s espoused beliefs to still enjoy the music. With the greatest of respect to these three songs, they embody a kind of commercialised, marketable form of rebellion that’s antithetical to the very idea of protest.
This is not a rule for all songs that get popular that just so happen to have deeply political themes. The recent confusion over the lyrics of Rage Against The Machine’s iconic ‘Killing in the Name’ that draws an unambiguous connection between the Ku Klux Klan and the American Police highlighted the extent to which a listener can flat out ignore the messaging of a song. Rage, amongst other bands, have often been criticised for their signing to a major record label, many alleging that the anti-capitalist message of records like The Battle of Los Angeles rings hollow when the huge amount of money behind the album is taken into account. This allegation of hypocrisy embodies a larger tension between music and a will to protest – that ultimately, art under capitalism is a commodity to be sold, and can’t really be seen as a pure form of protest, due to the sheer amount of money and incentive to make a profit involved in making it.
However…there’s an awful lot of protest going on right now, and in recent years, our lives have become increasingly politicised. As crises have reared their heads, so too has protest music. The titanic success of Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ and its accompanying music video transcended the idea that wealth or money somehow invalidated a political point, a symptom of a music scene and an audience no longer content with ignoring systemic racism and oppression. By making the murder of black people and the lynching of black bodies visible, Donald Glover wielded an accessible instrumental backing, and the money available to him, to construct an undeniably powerful work of protest art.
by performing, we can make ourselves heard, we can make those who are silent more visible, and we can gain a greater sense of the collective of people who can work with us towards making the world a better place
Not everyone has Glover’s money and resources, however, and they are by no means necessary to make protest music. Artists like NY Hardcore outfit Incendiary, and the sadly disbanded transgender-feminist punk outfit G.L.O.S.S., have effectively utilised raw, unbridled fury and intensity to put across equally important political statements. Music and lyrics, the energy and community of a live show, the very idea of saying what you want is not contingent on being hugely wealthy, and whilst writing a song and performing it may not seem like much, using music to vent emotions or portray your thoughts is as valid a form of protest as marching.
For artists that belong to minority groups, be that people of colour, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or those with disabilities, existing in itself is an act of protest. Simply being a part of a marginalised group in a society that structurally ignores their struggles and holds them down through social and material institutions of power and repression, is a political act. Performing music that reflects this struggle is an even greater act of defiance, and can act as a moment for a demonstration of solidarity, unity and collective strength in the face of oppression. Though modern music has long left behind much of it’s historical roots in slavery and protest, one thing has continued to be true: that by performing, we can make ourselves heard, we can make those who are silent more visible, and we can gain a greater sense of the collective of people who can work with us towards making the world a better place.