the i-D guide to activism in music videos

It is an artist’s duty to stand tall and represent issues close to their heart, and some of the most interesting and affecting attempts at activism in popular culture come from musicians and their music videos. Here are 10 examples of when the...

by Tom Ivin and i-D Team
23 March 2015, 12:15pm

M.I.A., Born Free 
The Suicide-sampling 2010 big hit comeback from London via Sri Lankan star's third album used the persecution of ginger people in this Romain Gavras directed clip, to highlight the arbitrary nature of war, and raise awareness about the people suffering in areas of the world less covered in the media. Born Free brings the brutality of war to the small screen in a violent, controversial and exhilarating film.

Michael Jackson, Earth Song
1995 saw Michael Jackson release a powerful track that followed in the King of Pop's canon of socio-politically aware pop songs, this time urging the world to care about their environment. The iconic clip was directed by photographer Nick Brandt, who exclusively shoots in Africa, and lends his life work to the conservation of the animals and landscape.

Pussy Riot, I Can't Breathe
The ever-anarchic Pussy Riot released a self-directed video for latest track I Can't Breathe as a tribute to Eric Garner, featuring a monologue of his final words read by punk icon Richard Hell. The video is a one-shot concept that sees the rebellious artists being buried alive, continuing to sing though their mouths and eyes are suffocated with dirt.

Anthony and the Johnsons, Cut The World
If there was ever a film that instructed viewers to stand up to the patriarchy, this is it. Willem Dafoe and Marina Abramović star in Nabil's theatrical, unsettling promo for Anthony and the Johnsons' Cut The World that made waves when released in 2012. The narrative involves a female protagonist with a quiet frustration leading to a devastating climax.

Sid Vicious, My Way
Julien Temple's clip from The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle for Vicous' chaotic cover of a Frank Sinatra classic is, as you'd expect, an anti-establishment, anti-royalist, anti-everything promo. This tongue-in-cheek video embodies everything the Sex Pistols stood for, ending with a bullet to the chest and two-fingers up at an elite, bourgeois audience.

John Lennon, Imagine
This minimalist video perfectly represents the lifestyle and message of lovers Lennon and Ono for his best selling solo single. Imagine offers an ethereal, peaceful call to arms,the shutters are opened and the light is let in. The promo forms part of an 81-minute film that was once called 'the most expensive home video ever'.

Rolling Stones, We Love You
Counterculture filmmaker Peter Whitehead directs the band in this video based on the trial of Oscar Wilde, and featuring the band as a cast of courtroom characters. Whilst not explicitly a protest song or activist video, the clip is still a bold move from the Stones, who went on to stand against publicly accepted notions of gender and sexuality, and in protest against their arrests for drug use, and as an anti-authoritarian call for resistance.

Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues
Director David Wilson positions a freshly shaven Andrew Garfield in the lead role of Arcade Fire's We Exist, a video about a struggle with gender identity. After a ritual dressing, and dream-like dance sequence (choreographed by Ryan Heffington), Garfield's character ends up on stage with the band during a live Coachella set, in trademark Arcade Fire make up mask. The film is a statement for LGBT and human rights, though caused controversy due to the involvement of a leading Hollywood actor playing a transwoman character.

Kanye West, All Day
After being teased at Paris Fashion Week by a fan-filmed clip from West's upcoming All Day video, directed by Academy Award and Turner Prize winning artist Steve McQueen, the supreme ruler of pop recently tweeted that instead, he wanted his Brits performance to be treated as the official video for All Day.

The performance gave the British music industry a wake up call, by presenting en masse their most talented underground artists, dressed in black hoodies and surrounded by flamethrowers. The setting, an echo of the 2011 London Riots, backing up an opinion addressed in West's interview with Zane Lowe: "I tweeted black lives matter, but all lives matter'.


Text Tom Ivin
Photography Igor Mukhin

music videos
the i-d guide to
generation z
Michael Jackson
John Lennon
Gen Z