now more than ever, we need voices in music to storm the show and contribute to the cause…
From the Arab Spring to Ukrainian strife, Punk prayers to angelic upstarts, Matthew Collin uncovers the the cultural flashpoints happening in pop music right now.
It was a sight to electrify the soul of any musician who ever hoped that their songs might achieve some kind of wider social resonance. When American activists demonstrating against police harassment marched through Cleveland, Ohio this summer, they weren't chanting the usual political slogans, but the words of Kendrick Lamar, the rapper who has become one of the most powerful articulators of contemporary black American discontent. Lamar's lyrics about struggling to hold it together in the face of desperate adversity had helped to energise real-life direct action on the streets.
The recent unrest in the US sparked by the deaths of black youths in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore has inspired something of a renaissance in socially-conscious hip hop and R&B, with Lamar's recent album To Pimp a Butterfly the most sonically adventurous of them all. As Lamar told the New York Times: "I want you to get angry - I want you to get happy. I want you to feel disgusted. I want you to feel uncomfortable."
The riots in Ferguson that followed the police killing of Michael Brown also encouraged rapper J. Cole to record Be Free, which mixed a chilling eyewitness account of the shooting with the mutinous invocation: "All we wanna do is break the chains off." Ferguson was the catalyst again for R&B star D'Angelo to rush-release his remarkable Black Messiah album, which he said was inspired by popular uprisings for change like the Arab Spring revolts and the Occupy demonstrations as well as the unrest in inner-city America. "What people call a riot, I call a rebellion," D'Angelo explained, echoing the words of Martin Luther King Jr: "Everybody knows the looting and burning is the voice of the unheard."
Veteran US hip hop writer Greg Tate has claimed that this is a landmark moment: "Thanks to D'Angelo's Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015 will be remembered as the year radical Black politics and for-real Black music resurged in tandem to converge on the nation's pop mainstream," he enthused in Rolling Stone.
Even Prince felt angry enough to fire off a rapid-reaction response to the unrest that gripped the US port city of Baltimore earlier this year. Baltimore, with its video showing the protests that erupted after the death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, was hardly the greatest protest song ever written, but it was a remarkable intervention from a star whose politics tend to remain within the sexual realm. Janelle Monáe went even further, joining a #BlackLivesMatter protest march in Philadelphia in August and chanting the names of victims of police brutality from the stage at her gig the next day. "Silence is our enemy. Sound is our weapon," Monáe declared.
Black American pop music hasn't been this overtly political since Barack Obama's first presidential run in 2008, when the prospect of the US electing its first non-white president inspired a gush of tributes. There was will.i.am's Yes We Can, with its lyrics assembled from an Obama speech, Young Jeezy's My President ('We ready for damn change so y'all let the man shine'), as well as musical homages from the likes of Jay Z and Common. But with the Obama era coming to its end, rappers have stopped looking to the White House and started to gaze into the darkness at the heart of America's cities.
Arab Spring to Ukrainian strife
It has become something of a journalistic cliché to ask, "where have all the protest songs gone?" - to mourn the loss of an imagined golden age of politically-informed pop that maybe peaked sometime during the Vietnam War era or around the time of punk rock, depending on which period the writer feels most nostalgic about. But as times change, so does the music that seeks to reflect them.
The atomisation of media and the demise of primetime communal TV-watching in the social networking/on-demand age has made it harder for any politically-charged song to instantly capture the imagination of a mass audience. But it can still happen, especially when the social media currents converge at the right place and time.
My new book about music and politics, Pop Grenade, opens with the story of El Général, a 21-year-old rapper from Tunisia who was still living at home with his parents when his songs about corruption, poverty, unemployment and police brutality became the internet-borne soundtrack for the uprising in his country in 2010. El Général was arrested, handcuffed to a chair and interrogated by the security police but got out in time to join the protests which ultimately overthrew Tunisia's authoritarian president. "Today in the Arab world, when you want to pass on a message, rap is the best way," he insisted.
In the days when Public Enemy were the fierce ruling dons of political rap, Chuck D described hip hop as "black people's CNN". As the hip hop writer turned Middle East cultural expert Malu Halasa explains in Pop Grenade: "It's about resistance and having a voice; these art forms have a power because ordinary people can pick them up and communicate their thoughts and their politics." One recent example is the viral hit by Indian rapper Sofia Ashraf, who hitched the beat from Nicki Minaj's Anaconda to her protest rap accusing chemical giant Unilever of poisoning her hometown with toxic waste.
But of course hip hop isn't always the voice of the progressives. During the armed conflict in Ukraine, several militiamen on the eastern battlefields have been recording agitprop raps hymning the cause of the Russian-backed separatist rebels, condemning Western liberal values and demanding a return to conservative morality.
The most unsettling rebel video clip, credited to a pro-Russian paramilitary unit called the Bryanka Brigade, features a bunch of menacing brigands holed up in a dingy rebel command post decorated with Orthodox Christian iconography. Glowing with hostility, they caress their AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers while one of them raps to the camera: "We don't need your NATO, we don't want gay parades for our children."
Punk prayers and angelic upstarts
As vehicles for political expression, hip hop and punk rock still seem to be the most popular genres across the world. Like hip hop, punk is an open-access format which doesn't necessarily require huge financial investment or years of striving to achieve technical excellence: you can just plug in, thrash and rant. Although punk may no longer have the power to shock in western Europe, in conservative Muslim societies like Indonesia or under the military dictatorship in Burma, it can still carry a potent anti-establishment charge.
The most spectacular illustration was the case of Pussy Riot, the feminist art-punk collective whose provocative performance of a Punk Prayer in a Moscow cathedral in 2012 led to two of its members being imprisoned in far-flung Russian prison colonies for insulting Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. When I interviewed them for Pop Grenade just after they were released from jail, they explained that they had been inspired by the feminist Riot Grrrl movement in the US, but also by second-wave British punk bands from the late 70s like the Angelic Upstarts, the Cockney Rejects and Sham 69.
Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova told me that she genuinely believed that British punk's expositions of police brutality and miscarriages of justice in the 70s had actually helped to make the country a better place by speaking truth to power: "I'm 100 per cent sure that this punk rock tradition played a very important role in developing civil society in Great Britain and it helped the country to get a non-corrupted and fairer police system," she insisted.
Political pop is at its best when it's as musically intrepid as it is lyrically inspiring, like Plan B's Ill Manors, written in response to the riots in London in 2011. With its clamorous scrapyard breakbeat and ripped-and-torn Shostakovich sample, Ill Manors managed to explore the kettled frustrations of a fucked-up and frustrated generation while channelling the nihilistic thrills of burning and looting.
But apart from various politically-informed rappers and grime MCs operating below the mainstream radar, there doesn't seem to have been the same upsurge in socially-conscious pop in the UK as there has in the US recently - although there are Sleaford Mods, those foul-mouthed, low-tech bards of the contemporary British political landscape of corporate hegemony, austerity economics and zero-hours contracts.
Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson hawks phlegm at any target that comes into range in a hilariously choleric outpouring of revulsion for the signs and symbols of Tory Britain, and his brutally vituperative lyrics seem to have found their moment. While pop culture has always needed its obstreperous outsiders and seditionary provocateurs, if they're going to make a serious impact, it's important for the time to be right.
Pop Grenade is published by Zero Books
Text Matthew Collin
Photography Ted Van Pelt