Protest Music is Alive and Kicking
Believe it or not, there were also people who spoke out against the atrocities they saw being committed in America. People like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell, and bands like Credence Clearwater Revival protested what they thought needed to be changed through their music. Festivals and concerts brought musicians and people together and served to raise social and political awareness and dialogue. This was a time of rallies, demonstrations, sit-ins, walkouts, and protests of every kind, and the music reflected the spirit of the time.
Remember "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"? "Ohio"? Songs of social and political protest such as these are gone, dead. What do we have now? Ho's in different area codes and what Britney wore to the MTV Music Video Awards.
Sadly, many people believe that this is true. They have given up on protest music and have been sucked into our bubble-gum-and-sex pop culture. It would be obvious to assume that protest music is dead by just looking at that pop culture. America has become a nation more concerned with appearances than substance. We want the glitter of 'N Sync and the neatly produced grunge of Blink 182 -- as long as it's clean, non-threatening, and wholesome.
Well, wake up! Not everything is clean, non-threatening, and wholesome in this world, and there are musicians out there who are still fighting the good fight. They are fighting for what they believe in, against what they think is wrong, and they are fighting to be heard through the blind, or in this case deaf, patriotism of Americans.
Breaking the September 11-Induced Patriotism Blues
These days, when the word "unpatriotic" is hurled at you just for not having an American flag on the back of your SUV, it may seem like no one is speaking out against the government. This is simply not true. Many musical artists, in fact, are carrying on in the folksy, rootsy, revolutionary tradition of the 60s.
Check out Bright Eyes' new album, LIFTED; or, The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. Not only is our scholastic education system criticized (a system that rewards one for simply memorizing facts and not understanding the theory or events that surround those facts), but the reaction of our government to the events of September 11 is seriously slammed. A picture is painted of "the cowboy president/So loud behind the bullhorn/So proud they can't admit when they have made a mistake," a president whose "approval rating is high/So someone is going to die."
The mainstream news stations -- ABC, NBC and, CBS -- also take a beating, when Conor Oberst, lead singer/songwriter of Bright Eyes, asks, do "they give us fact or fiction?" His answer: "I guess an even split." He goes on to say that they treat each "new act of war as tonight's entertainment." All valid points about how the media leads us to believe what the government wants us to believe, articulated well in an ironically upbeat song.
Ani has been screaming her little lungs out and folking us up since 1989. Her songs and poems reflect political, social, and sexual injustices through beautiful music and lyrics. She founded her own record label, Righteous Babe Records, to escape the greed of the major labels.
She has always been vocal and active in defending and standing up for what she believes in. In one of her most recent poems, "Self Evident," which begins with a frightening account of the events of the morning of September 11 -- calling it "the day that america/fell to its knees/after strutting around for a century/without saying thank you or please" - she asserts her protest by saying, "you can keep the pentagon/keep the propaganda/keep each and every tv/that's been trying to convince me/to participate/in some prep school punk's plan to perpetuate retribution." The poem goes on to offer a toast to the people of Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, and El Salvador, those on death row, and doctors who provide women with a choice. The truths in this poem that we hold to be self evident are: "#1 george w. bush is not president/#2 america is not a true democracy/#3 the media is not fooling me."
Ani is also involved with Not In My Name, a group that protests against a war with Iraq. Her 2001 studio album, Revelling/Reckoning, is two CDs full of love, angst, and every emotion in between. She sings about race barriers, multinational corporations, capitalism, and right-wing politics.
Ani's latest studio album is called Evolve. This album comments on, among other things, the war on drugs: Ani sings, "Some arrogant government can't/By any stretch of the imagination/Outlaw a plant!" This is one of the folk singer's most mature works and is highly recommended.
"As long as we're alive, punk's not dead yet!"
Ok, that quote may have come from a song by The Pist, and, yeah, maybe they are no longer together as a band, but that certainly does not mean that punk is dead. It is, in fact, alive and kicking, and no, it is not being kept alive by the likes of Sum 41. True punk today is political punk, socially aware punk, punk with a message ... real, hardcore punk. This is a sound aptly suited for protest in these modern times, when the Pentagon proudly boasts of its ability to launch a furious 3,000-missiles-in-48-hours assault on Baghdad.
Anti-Flag has never let us down when it comes to pointing out the ills of American politics and society, and they pulled through better than ever on Mobilize. "9-11 for Peace" is yet another artistic statement written in direct response to September 11. It calls for peace, no more killing, and no more dying in a revenge-hungry world. The famous "I Have a Dream" speech, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is played in the middle of the song and gives it even more urgency and depth. Also on this album is "Mumia's Song," written to raise awareness of the plight of political prisoners by focusing on Mumia Abu Jamal, who is in a Pennsylvania penitentiary for the murder of a cop that several eye-witnesses, who were not allowed to testify in court, exonerated him of. A step by step guide to creating an enemy is presented in "Anotomy of Your Enemy," and the right to choose one's own sexual orientation and not receive crap about it is the subject of "Right to Choose." The liner notes of Mobilize also hook you up with a big old bunch of underground and progressive media web sites.
The following is a selective list of who's protesting from across the musical spectrum:
Punk is far from dead for Toxic Narcotic, who have been together making music since the late 1980s. They recently put out a new album titled We're All Doomed. It's great that a band can be together for so long and still write hard, loud, and -- most importantly -- interesting protest music. They write about the apathy of the masses, overpopulation, and senseless deaths. The members of Toxic Narcotic make it perfectly clear that they are happy about none of this. They express this unhappiness in their song "Asshole," with includes the lyrics, "It's not always what you do, but sometimes what you don't/Everyone is guilty, that's my philosophy/The ignorant and unaware in glee and apathy."
Change is a Sound is the debut full-length album from Strike Anywhere, one of the best punk bands around. Their music and vocals are loud and angry, but they blend it with honest, amazingly written lyrics and gorgeous melodies. They write about things like corruption in the police and war, but the coolest thing about these guys is how they motivate people. Their songs are a call to action. They want change, and they want us all to help them get it. This is a hardworking and passionate group of men with an amazing talent for songwriting who are putting that talent to wonderful use. The vocals are wicked. There are simply not enough good things to say about Strike Anywhere. One album not enough for you? Look for their EP, Chorus of One.
Raise Your Voice To The Beat
Originally started as party music made by people trying to escape their everyday lives in the slums of the Bronx in 80s, Hip-hop has become one of the most politically active musical genres out there today. The term "hip-hop culture" has become synonymous with a growing, youthful political movement that uses the hip-hop lifestyle as a blueprint for change. It is the sound of the oppressed urban masses raising their voices poetically and rhythmically; and that voice has often been used, to great effect, to protest the many ills of society.
In many ways, political hip-hop started in 1988 when Public Enemy released It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. On "Don't Believe the Hype," PE front man Chuck D raps about the way the media often portrays Black people: "The minute they see me, fear me/I'm the epitome -- a public enemy/Used, abused without clues/I refused to blow a fuse/They even had it on the news/Don't believe the hype." Another track from that album, "Party For Your Right To Fight," makes it clear exactly what Chuck D and crew wanted, and who they wanted it from: "Power, equality/And we're out to get it/I know some of you ain't wid it/This party started right in '66/With a pro-Black radical mix/Then at the hour of twelve/Some force cut the power/And emerged from hell/It was your so-called government/That made this occur/Like the grafted devils they were."
Several albums followed, each one as controversial as the one before it. Fear of A Black Planet (1990) includes songs called "911 is a Joke" and "Burn Hollywood Burn." Chuck D, the most politically active member of the group, has been a constant advocate for peace and justice, speaking against the imprisonment of Mumia Abu Jamal, Bush's war on Iraq, and a myriad of other issues. The group released Revolverlution in 2002, and MTV promptly refused to play the video for its lead single, "Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need," because of its references to Mumia Abu Jamal. That album also included "Son of a Bush," an anti-Bush diatribe: "ain't that a Bush/son of a Bush is here/all up in your zone I told y'all when the first Bush was tappin' my phone/spy verse spy/ can't trust 'em;" it also calls into question the justification for the war in Iraq: "now here's the pitch/high and inside/certified genocide." It's probably not a coincidence that PE didn't even try to make this song the first single.
Mos Def first broke onto the scene as one half of the group Black Star, along with Talib Kweli. But he has since gone on to make a distinguished reputation for himself as a solo artist. On his solo album, Black on Both Sides, arguably one of the most creative hip-hop albums in years, Mos has plenty to say about the world around him. On "Mathematics," he offers a critique of American society that includes both the record industry and the military: "It's a number game, but shit don't add up somehow/Like I got sixteen to thirty-two bars to rock it/but only 15% of profits ever see my pockets/like sixty-nine billion in the last twenty years/spent on national defense, but folks still live in fear." Never one to dwell only on the negative, however, Mos also tells us we can "hip-hop past all your tall social hurdles/like the nationwide projects, prison-industry complex."
In a truly original moment of protest, Mos even attacks the worldwide monopoly of water by American corporations. In "New World Water," he raps, "The type of cats who pollute the whole shore line/Have it purified, sell it for a dollar twenty-five/Now the world is drinkin it."
Dead Prez is one of the most radical hip-hop groups out there. Their debut album, Let's Get Free, protests against so many things that, when writing about their protest songs, it's hard to decide where to start. But MCs Stic Man and M-1 know where they'd start: with a revolution. Stic once told Redeye magazine, "A lot of people say gangs are negative, I say the gangs are soldiers. We just gotta marry the potential that the gangs have with the political struggle of African people. We gotta figure out how to be constructive with that energy." The song "Police State" echoes this idea, brings in an element of socialist theory, and names some of the things that Dead Prez want to revolt against: "Organize the hood under I Ching banners/Red, Black and Green instead of gang bandannas/FBI spying on us through radio antennas/And them hidden cameras in the streetlight watching society/With no respect for people's right to privacy I'm sick of working for crumbs and filling up prisons/Dying over money and relying on religion for help/We do for self like ants in a colony/Organize the wealth into a socialist economy/A way of life based on common need."
In "Assassination," Dead Prez succinctly state their case for why they feel Black people won't get fair treatment without revolution: "The violence in me/ reflect the violence that surround me/A truth that's riling And you can put this on the government's grave/Somebody payin for the way we have to suffer and slave."
M-1 also takes a shot at the record industry in the song "(It's Bigger Than) Hip-Hop." He claims the labels treat hip-hop as nothing more than a commodity, saying, "These record labels slang our tapes like dope/You could be next in line and sign/Then rhyme and you're broke." Because this arrangement isn't going to get the people anywhere, M-1 tries to prod his fellow MCs to action by asking, "Would you rather have a Lexus or justice? A dream or some substance?"
If you want a little more substance, look for a new album from Dead Prez, coming soon, though no definite release date has been set. One thing is for certain: There is plenty more protest to come from M-1 and Stic Man.
If anyone can match the revolutionary intensity of Dead Prez, however, it's The Coup. Consisting of MC Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress, The Coup also calls for revolution, and also sees a necessary component of that revolution as being a change of consciousness among the Black community. The classic track from 1998's Steal This Album, "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night," ends with the lines "I don't think it's gon' end till we make revolution/But who gon' make the shit if we worship prostitution?"
Kill My Landlord. Boots says, in "Dig It," "Never had a dream that was American/There go the 'lectric chair again/Despair again/But that ain't nothin new/Told the streets were paved with gold, whoever paved that shit got minimum wage too." On "Not Yet Free," Boots claims that "Since the days when I was shittin in diapers/it was evident the president didn't like us." Boots, like most of the hip-hoppers making protest music these days, feels that the American system has little use for Black people as anything other than blue-collar workers and prison inmates, and he's committed many rhyming lines to tape in order to speak out against that situation.
Laura McDowell is a senior in high school in Bloomfield Hills, MI. She writes regularly for Sex, Drugs, and Violence Newspaper. She plans to go to college next year to study music and English.
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