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'The Times They Are A-Changing' - Pop Music And Protest

Alex Thompson looks at the history of politics and protest in pop music and explores its recent renaissance

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Image Credit: BBC Music

The crossover between music and politics is nothing new. Ever since the days of Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye, pop music has been intertwined with political conscience as angst, anxieties and anger have manifested themselves in the form of protest songs. Over the past few years, however, it’s seen something of a renaissance as thorny issues such as Trump, Brexit, climate crisis and immigration have dominated musical discourse. A climate of discontent has birthed a new wave of punkish energy and anti-establishment sentiment, fuelling many artists to take to the mic with one goal in mind - rebellion.
While I could go back further, I’m going to choose to start this article in the 30s and 40s with the godfather of political pop, Woody Guthrie. Championing the rights of the working class and with a guitar stencilled with “this machine kills facsists”, Guthrie used his unique brand of folk music to critique capitalism and fascism in the US.His songs may be over 70 years old but they feel just as relevant and cutting as they would have on release. His music was raw and unfiltered, an angry man with a cheap guitar and some strong opinions.
Around the same time, Billie Holliday left Columbia Records. The label had refused to record her latest single, a powerful and timeless song that would go on to define protest songs as we know them today. She joined Commodore Records and released the song which went on to sell over a million copies. ‘Strange Fruit’ took the protest song and turned it into something accessible, powerful and utterly compelling. It was later rerecorded and made legendary by Nina Simone.
The following decades birthed a new model of political music, taking the blueprints laid down by Billie Holliday and Woody Guthrie and turning it into something revolutionary. Sam Cooke’s iconic ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ became synonymous with the civil rights movement. Released the same day as the notorious protest in Selma, Alabama, the song was initially written as a response to the ‘Bloody Sunday’ confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Cooke was spurned to record the song after hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin In The Wind’. By this point, Dylan himself had already carved himself a niche in the industry, carrying on the political folk movement kick-started by Guthrie and updating it for a 60s audience. Songs like ‘The Times They Are A Changing’, ‘The Ballad Of Emmet Till’ and ‘Hurricane’ brought pressing political issues to the public consciousness and helped rally new generation of young people.
The Vietnam war was a major catalyst for protest songs in the 1960s and 70s. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’ is probably the most recognisable of the bunch, having been used in literally every single Vietnam film. There was also ‘Ohio’ from Crosby, Stills And Nash, a powerful song protesting the students shot dead by police at Kent State University whilst protesting the war. Other songs are less obvious in their anti-war sentiments. The Rolling Stones ‘Gimme Shelter’, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ all carried the political undercurrent of revolution and protest, a direct response to America’s involvement in Vietnam. Perhaps the greatest protest song to come out of this era, however, was Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’, a track that blends soulful jazz influences and dark aesthetic of 60s RnB with lyrics that tackle everything from Vietnam to US politics, poverty and crime. It’s a track that defines an era of confusion and struggle, a true rallying cry to a disenfranchised nation.
As the 70s rumbled onward, punk replaced rock as the new counter-culture. Where previously the sounds of folk, blues and soul had been the most powerful vessel for politics, punk became an easy way to spread an urgent message. Everything about its sound catered to protest, the aggressive lyrics, the raw and fuzzy DIY production, even the album covers looked angry. One of the most influential bands spawned by this era was the Dead Kennedy’s, a band so provocative in their style and content that their albums became infamous. ‘California Uber Alles’, ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ and ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ are dark and grimy punk tracks, rough and unfinished in all the right ways and with enough edge to take your face off. Critique war, capitalism and the American dream with biting satire and social commentary, the Dead Kennedy’s took the protest song to a new level of aggression and satire.
As with everything in the 80s, music became big, bold and a little bit over the top. It was an era of overexuberance and one of the few genres to escape unscathed was the protest song. In Thatcher’s Britain, music became a unifier for the working classes in a divided country and took on a new role as important social commentary. While the reverb soaked guitar and hum-drum lyricism of Billy Bragg’s ‘A New England’ made it an instant cult hit, the content focusing on class struggles and bleak industrial imagery made it timeless. Meanwhile Morrisey (before he went a bit racist) was churning out equally political lyrics as The Smiths went from small indie band to superstars. Combining socialism, patriotism, veganism and probably some other -isms, The Smiths music managed to remain political without sacrificing its pop sensibilities. When David Cameron said The Queen Is Dead was one of his favourite albums, I think he might have missed the point.
U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is another timeless example of a protest song from the 80s. Written during a tumultuous period in Northern Ireland,the Troubles, Bono’s lyrics are stark and austere, echoing a bleak period during the conflict between the IRA and British Forces. Their album War continues this idea, drawing on pacifist ideology to create some of the decades most memorable tracks.
While indie music remained a powerful tool for discussing class, a new wave of punk music would come to define feminism in modern music. The Riot Grrrl movement of the late 80s and early 90s took the framework of punk and grunge, injected it with feminist politics and repackaged it into something revolutionary. Bands like Bikini Kill dominated the punk scene with their unique brand of fierce and fuzzy guitar music that set out to overturn the male orientated model of rock that had previously dominated the industry. The politics are cutting, the riffs are sludgy and the whole thing is coated with a grime and grit that’s undeniably cool.
The 80s also saw the rise of hip hop, a genre which would become deeply intertwined with politics and culture. Even in the early days of rap music, MCs were using their platform to express their political agenda and tackle issues of race and class. Public Enemy were one of the most prominent of the era, their politics taking inspiration from the civil rights activists Malcom X and Louis Farrakhan. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was released in 1988, a stunning second album with a strong social conscience. Rolling Stone magazine described the project as ‘Loud, obnoxious, funky, avant-garde, political and uncompromising’. The single ‘Fight The Power’ soared to popularity after being used by director Spike Lee in the soundtrack to his incredible 1989 film Do The Right Thing.
Hip Hop’s real explosion into the world of protest and politics and the mainstream came a few years later with the release of NWA’s game-changing album Straight Outta Compton, mostly due to the explosion of publicity that surrounded the now notorious single ‘Fuck Tha Police’. Spurned by the group’s experience of prejudice and police brutality in their neighbourhood, the song tells a narrative of Compton youths being the victims of beatings and racism from the LAPD. As NWA’s fame skyrocketed, the group began a nationwide tour and were threatened with legal action and arrest by the Detroit Police Department if they performed the song. The mad lads did it anyway and become one of the most influential rap groups in history.
By this point, both rap and rock had shown themselves as perfect canvases for politics, protest songs came thick and fast from both genres during the 90s. Despite this there had been limited success in combining the two. This all changed in 1992 with the release of Rage Against The Machine’s shocking and electrifying self-titled debut. Growing up with a Mexican revolutionary for a grandfather and a University professor for a mother, frontman Zack De La Rocha had strong political views from an early age. This angst and ideology combined with the wailing guitar melodies of Tom Morello and tight drumming gave the album a punky hip hop aesthetic that made it one of the most recognisable of the decade.
A new millennium brought new crises and a host of new protest songs. Unfortunately most of them weren’t very good.
They lacked the punch, drive and energy that made the previous century’s political music so electrifying, there was nothing with the barb of Dead Kennedys, the pop sensibilities of Marvin Gaye or the powerful resistance of NWA. A quick Google shows pretty sparse pickings of fairly unmemorable songs critiquing Bush, the Iraq war and American politics post 9/11. Weirdly the best offering came from The Black Eyed Peas. To be honest, ‘Where Is The Love?’ is a banger. There was the well-intentioned if slightly dated cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ featuring the likes of Bono, Nas, Christina Aguilera, J Lo, Missy Eliot and Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst. It has aged about as well as you’d expect. Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ also counts for some reason, not that it’s particularly political or particularly ground-breaking. Other pop punk acts such as System Of A Down also had a go at trying to be political with what I would describe as fairly limited success.
The period post 2010 saw more success in political music; mainstream rap and hip hop acts gravitating towards more socially conscious lyrics as the bling era began to wane. The return of legendary hip hop collective, A Tribe Called Quest marked a new era for the group, their first overtly political album (We Got It From Here...) that took their early jazz rap style and combined it with contemporary politics and social issues. It was more mature in its style and more aggressive in its politics, a hip hop album tailor made from the Trump era. Other artsists were less subtle and nuanced in their critiques such as YG and Nipsey Hussle who dropped the single ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ in late 2018. It’s an unapolegtically furious banger with all the anger of NWA and the president in it’s cross-hairs. Other brilliant examples of political hip hop over the past few years include Jay Z’s ‘The Story Of OJ’ and literally anything Killer Mike and Run The Jewels have released.
Arguably the king of the modern protest song, Kendrick Lamar remains endlessly political whilst retaining a pop edge and distinct style. His 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly is a perfect example of this, blending dense and hard-hitting lyricism with jazz, hip hop and spoken word. Songs like ‘King Kunta’ address the history of slavery and oppression in the USA, other cuts like ‘The Blacker The Berry’ tackle race relations in modern day America. ‘Alright’ is another powerful song with a message of optimism in a bleak political climate, an unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. His contributions to the soundtrack for Black Panther further this idea of Kendrick as a significant figure in the fight against racism and prejudice in America.
And of course, how can you discuss hip hop and politics without mentioning Childish Gambino’s game-changing song and video for ‘This America’, a track so dense in reference and imagery that it left the internet picking through the video for references and clues to its deeper messages. Tackling gun violence, consumerism, police brutality and race relations, it’s a project packed with politics but still managing to be a catchy and accessible piece of pop-rap.
Across the pond, London MC and poet Kate Tempest released the incredible Europe Is Lost in 2017. Tackling issues ranging from Brexit, immigration, the class system and the NHS, Tempest delivers beautifully dense and complex imagery and impeccable bars over sparse and simple beats. It’s protest poetry meets hip hop and it’s endlessly compelling. In stark contrast, Nottingham hip hop duo Sleaford Mods took overwhelming Brexit Britain despair and combined it with unique blend of punk and hip hop, creating their latest album Eton Alive, their most politically conscious (and most aggressive) work to date.
2019 has seen an explosion of political albums and protest songs, tackling a whole host of controversies and issues that plague our current political climate. Early last month rapper and anarchist Slowthai took to the stage at the Mercury Prize Awards carrying a facsimile of Boris Johnson’s severed head, donning a ‘Fuck Boris’ t-shirt and taking the opportunity to call out the current Prime Minister for his inaction over Brexit. The act shocked social media, provoking outrage and anger from the public despite the rapper’s insistence that he was not using the platform to insight violence. His album Nothing Great About Britain was one of 2019’s biggest debuts, a stark and uncompromising attack on the establishment done with incredible skill and polish. The title track details a country in crisis, an utterly bleak depiction of Brexit Britain and the panic and paranoia of recent years. He also calls the Queen a "c*nt" which is certainly a bold move.
He’s not alone in his feelings.“Fuck the government and fuck Boris” chants Stormzy on his explosive single ‘Vossi Bop’. While it may be his boldest statement yet, the aggressive politics are nothing new. A vocal critic of the conservative party, a champion of multiculturalism and activist, Stormzy has always used his music to challenge the establishment and discuss his experiences of race and class growing up in London. Now he’s one of the UK’s biggest superstars and his message is a rallying cry to millions of young people across the country. Clad in a Union Flag stab vest (courtesy of artist Banksy), his Glastonbury performance was protest pop at it’s finest. Dubbed as the ‘banner of a divided and frightened nation’, the set was a bold statement about knife crime in the UK, with one critic suggesting that Sormzy was highlighting the uncomfortable reality of "young black men living in a war zone". It was bold, powerful and inspiring - a hell of a lot more effective than slogans in chicken boxes.
It’s not just rap that has been tackling these issues. Bristol based punk band Idles are channelling Brexit Britain angst into track after track of political angst and guitar grit. The band’s debut Brutalism was a rage-fuelled attack on the establishment, their critically acclaimed follow-up Joy As An Act Of Resistance takes this further, taking shots at Brexit, Boris and the ever increasing price of bacon baps. It’s an electrifying record that touches on feminism, toxic masculinity and a host of other issues in a series of well crafted and hilarious lyrics and punchlines that echo the great protest rock of the 80s and 90s.
In a similar vein, Streatham MC Dave’s stunning Psychodrama had broader social issues in its cross-hairs. Tracks like ‘Black’ and ‘Psycho’ are hard hitting cuts that detail the underlying racial prejudices in the British class system, post-colonialism and our current media age. Then there’s ‘Lesley’,  a track examining the life of a woman in an abusive relationship and weaves in and out of perspectives across it’s hefty 11 minute run time. Mercury award winning and critically acclaimed, it’s one of the year’s most talked about issues and rightly so. It’s a landmark album for British Hip Hop, dense in politics and steeped in social conscious.
Protest music has a long and rich history, one that stretches back decades and that is just as important an art form today as it was almost a century ago. It’s a medium that is constantly evolving and changing, expanding on the groundwork of its predecessors and drawing attention to the most pressing contemporary issues. In an age of political turmoil where everything is in flux, only one thing is certain:
We’re bound to get some good music out of it.

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