Music is forever political. And this decade we’re seeing an increasing number of songs addressing racism, violence and dissatisfaction.
Social media has allowed the mobilization of large groups, creating a new age of activism. Black Lives Matter is an American social movement that changed the 2010s. The all-digital, all-rally movement politicised popular artists, including apolitical pop superstar Arianna Grande.
This coupling of popular music and social justice was -for a while overlooked, replaced by boy bands and inoffensive hooks. It was the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of African American teen Trayvon Martin that started #BlackLivesMatter and, musicians are adding their voices.
Protest music has a long history, most major movements in American history have their own soundtrack. Creating a sense of community to inspire organisation for change.
Early forms of African American music came with slaves, to ease the toil that built a nation. Birthing genres of music to ease their struggling, send messages and painting pictures of a new free world.
If political turmoil exists, there will be songs about it, providing social commentary.
Barack Obama’s “post-racial” utopia is fizzling out in the shade of Donald Trump’s MAGA hat. Filling the nation with political uncertainty. And artists are releasing rallying calls (Beyoncé’s Freedom) and opening conversations (Macklemore’s White Privilege II) through their music.
Brother and sister, Ellisha and Steven Flagg released “I can’t Breathe” in 2016. Inspired by the harrowing phrase their brother, Eric Gardener, repeated 11 times before his death at the hands of NYPD officers. BLM uses the song as a cry against police brutality.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly provided a soundtrack to civil unrest in 2015. Exploring the deeply American ideal of freedom, the album discusses institutionalised racism and monetisation of black culture. “We gon be alright” a phrase from Lamar’s track Alright is a popular protest chant for the movement.
And the song’s impact isn’t only felt in America, the song provides aspiring British artist Ugo’s favourite social commentary. The 22-year-old believes art needs to be created out of your circumstance, and he feels obliged to get political in his future projects, especially as a “black man”.
Lamar’s collaboration with Beyoncé on Freedom is one of the most powerful protest songs over the past ten years. Featured on singer’s visual album Lemonade, the track builds on the political aspects of her song Formation– where she is videoed singing on top of a sinking police car in New Orleans.
The poignant political statement was made in its black and white video. Followed by short track Forward- that has a featuring the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown holding pictures of their dead sons (Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown) whose deaths started BLM.
Artist Solange had her biggest commercial success with politically charged album, A Seat At The Table, reaching number one on the Billboard chart. Exploring what it means to be black in America, ASATT’s intention is to help heal by confronting prejudice and traumas of witnessing the loss of black lives.
Childish Gabino’s This Is America single got the world talking, the accompanying music video was filled with haunting imagery. A nightmare disguised as a dream. Capturing feelings of helplessness.
The final scene sees Gambino attempting to outrun those chasing him to no avail. The sentiment of the song is realising the true reality, America is a place black people have learned to survive in the face of struggle- shirtless and afraid.
British artist Stormzy is one to watch, providing social commentary on current political discourse and championing black British culture.
As young black British people are feeling the consequences of increasing knife crime and gang violence, more honest stories on these topics are needed. And the Blue Story controversy highlighted why these types of stories shouldn’t be censored.
In his Brit Award winning debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, he explores issues of religion and masculiinity. And released an accompanying short film, giving life to scenarios conjured by songs on the album.
It’s a scene in a barber shop that stands out most. Emphasising its importance in the lives of young black men in helping create a sense of community- and providing a setting where black men can comfortably congregate, laugh, educate, cry and argue.
The Grime artist doesn’t shy away from social commentary on closing the 2018 Brit Awards freestyled his frustrations at Theresa May’s handling of the Grenfell Tower Disaster. And his single Vossi Bop he takes aim at Boris Johnson, “I could never die I’m Chuck Norris, fuck the government, fuck Boris.”
Aspiring artist Lorenzo Janez believes music to be the best way to express differing political views. The combination of modern-day streaming and social media has drastically changed the way music is listened to and distributed, giving birth to viral hits. The young musician believes it more important than ever to share social commentaries, as you are able to reach large audiences.
Janez favourite political song is D: Ream’s Things can only get better, the successful Labour theme “sent a strong message” and is something that the musician would like to achieve in his own music. Listen to his latest track, @ Chuu:
Stormzy is set to release his highly anticipated album Heavy is the Head on December 13.
Words by Rosa Yates