Politics and music have always existed hand-in-hand.
We must be living in a simulation. Is it possible that the President of the United States is a reality TV star who is working with Kanye West to free A$AP Rocky from a Swedish prison? Are the youth really turning to Cardi B for a political awakening? Well, we’ve actually been driving to this complete collision for a long time. Music has been crossing over into politics for decades, but don’t worry, while mapping out the route to the intersection of music and politics, we’ll be taking an anomalous– yet welcome, detour around Kanye-Trump and (hopefully) any other banal, Twitter-typed, off-the-mic interactions with the goal to look purely at the music, and its relation to politics. Yes, hearing artists (or a writer at HotNewHipHop) ramble on about their political opinions, especially when they are blatantly uninformed on the topic, is unquestionably annoying. It’s fair for you to feel that anyone’s opinion on politics who exists outside of its realm of expertise is an unwelcome insult to the ears; however, there were, and are times when this connection is a truly beneficial relationship and not a trite gimmick (we get it: Donald Trump is terrible).
The year is 1970 and Joni Mitchell is looking out onto the Hawaiian landscape from her hotel window. Perhaps, she is daydreaming about apricating on the remarkable, uniquely colored beaches or hiking up one of the mountains in the distance; regardless, her train of thought changes as her eyes drift over to a nearby parking lot. It’s this curt interruption by American infrastructure that inspires her to pen one of the most beautiful, politically charged tracks of the decade. “Big Yellow Taxi” opened the eyes of countless Americans to environmental issues such as the dangers of DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and it’s widespread use as a pesticide:
Hey farmer farmer
Put away the DDT
I don’t care about spots on my apples
Leave me the birds and the bees
Even here, why does this information come from a folk singer? Why not an actual environmental scientist? The answer is simple: audience. Scientists don’t have the reach of one of the biggest musicians in the country. Yes, Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring in 1962 expressing concern over the dangers of DDT, and is often credited with starting the environmental movement; but, it took until the early 1970s (after the release of “Big Yellow Taxi”) for enough of the public to truly understand the issues with DDT and successfully pressure the government into banning the pesticide. Scientists had known about the issue and worked towards its ban for nearly ten years but it was the popularization in the mainstream that was the final tipping point.
In addition, consider the following passage from the book Merchants of Doubt:
Until recently, most scientists have not been particularly anxious to take the time to communicate broadly. They consider their “real” work to be the production of knowledge, not its dissemination, and they often view these two activities as mutually exclusive. Some even sneer at colleagues who communicate to broader audiences, dismissing them as “popularizers.”
This mindset leaves the publicization of important scientific issues into the hands of others. Sure, singer/songwriter may not be your number two choice, but in this case, at least, it was effective. Turning back to Cardi B, a knowledgable fan might find her recent Instagram post to be yet another unnecessary addition to the oversaturated market of politically active celebrities, but take a look at her audience. She has over forty-eight million followers. If her surface-level plea for fans to “…get more familiar with our candidates,” and “Take a little bit of our time and open our eyes on what’s going on in this country and how we can change it,” even causes a small percentage of her fans to pay attention to this election, it’s worth the minor irritation.
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“The truth, the whole truth, and nothin’ but the truth” was sworn to be told by Ice Cube, and subsequently the rest of N.W.A. on the second track into their debut studio album, Straight Outta Compton. The song, “Fuck tha Police,” is brutal, telling look into tensions between the African-American community and law enforcement. There’s a handful of lyrics that particularly stand out, such as:
Smoke any motherfucker that sweats me
Or any asshole that threatens me
I’m a sniper with a hell of a scope
Taking out a cop or two, they can’t cope with me
A young nigga got it bad ‘cause I’m brown
And not the other color, so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
The lyrics were so brash, so brazen that the FBI mailed a vaguely threatening letter to Ruthless. Straight Outta Compton was a true window into the mindset of inner-city youth in Los Angeles. It pulled the curtain on the LAPD and revealed a corrupt organization coated in police brutality and racial profiling.
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Rather than result in immediate changes, the group brought the issues into the mainstream and began an awareness for issues that are still prominent today. The event sparked a slow-burning fuse that would completely explode four years later during the infamous LA Riots.
In the 1970s, Jamaica’s ghettos were divided by gang warfare and ravaged by gun violence. The political spectrum wasn’t fairing much better. Political parties and gangs were heavily intertwined. Disputes between the Jamaican Labor Party and the People’s National Party often bled into gang violence. Parties would enlist gangs to intimidate voters, a strategy that often resulted in murder. Michael Manley, PNP affiliate, prime minister, and democratic socialist, was engaged in a fierce rivalry with the more conservative Edward Seaga and the JLP. The kettle grew hotter and hotter each year as more people were murdered but, in an attempt to stop it from reaching a full boil, in 1978, Bob Marley headlined the One Love Peace Concert.
The idea was birthed in a Jamaican jail cell shared by one member of the JLP and one member of the PNP. Both Claudius ‘Claudie’ Massop (JLP) and Aston ‘Bucky’ Marshall (PNP) longed to end the violence between factions and decided music would be the best way. After his release, Massop flew to London to explain his idea to Bob Marley.
In April, the largest politically charged Reggae concert ever was held. By the end of the event, both Manley and Seaga climbed the stage to join hand in hand with Bob Marley, symbolizing an apparent truce between the two sides. While violence in the country didn’t end, the event was the first step towards peace in Jamaica.
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To this day, brilliant politically charged records are still being released; take To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar for example. Every single aspect of the album speaks to its major themes of political unrest, societal injustice, systemic oppression of the African American community, isolation, fame, etc. From the soulful, funkadelic, immaculately produced beats to carefully crafted lyrics, Kendrick marinates the entire sound into its message. Each track flows into the next through a sluice in the form of a narrative poem Kendrick continuously builds upon. With police brutality being a major, hot button issue of the time, impactful lyrics like those found on “Alright,” hit hard.
When you know, we been hurt, been down before, n***a
When my pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, where do we go, n***a?
And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, n***a
I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright
These words would take on a life of their own as protest anthems for the Black Lives Matter movement. They could be heard connecting hundreds of protesters after the murder of Tamir Rice as they were chanted in unison. The political wit displayed by Kendrick even landed him an audience with President Obama, who remarked “How Much a Dollar Cost” was his favorite track of 2015. Kendrick’s attempts to shine a light on the issues of his society are a success.
None of this would be possible if his emphasis on theme detracted from the pure quality of the music. He doesn’t sit back and tell the listener what’s wrong, but he goes down to the ground level and gets inside the head of those affected by the topic of the song. This delivery method has been a staple of Kendrick’s rap style for years. On “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst,” off his record good kid, m.A.A.d city, he raps from the perspective of a prostitute and the brother of a murder victim. This strategy is eye-opening and far more emotionally latching than throwing out numbers or baseless opinions. He also trojan-horses these ideas inside entrancing flows over catchy beats. The results are that Kendrick Lamar is one of the most politically influential rappers alive today.
Throughout modern history, music has found its way to weave itself through the world of politics. Often, this collaboration can be laughed off as forced, corny or annoying, but in many cases, the power music has had to shape our politics and galvanize action is undeniable. For every Tom MacDonald, there’s a Kendrick Lamar somewhere. Perhaps, Kanye West’s strange relationship with Donald Trump is taking things too far, but when artists find a way to implement a political message into their work in an emotional, authentic way, it can result in the best music.