In those golden days of uprising and unrest, the 1960s, there was a brilliant soundtrack along with them. Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles all made great songs of resistance and spoke out publicly against the war in Vietnam amongst other political issues. In the 70s, when austerity came along, we had the greatest band of all time (in this writer’s humble opinion), The Clash, leading the wave of punk rock and its angry, subversive sounds. Before then, there were great Irish songwriters making statements against the British occupation, and plenty of other examples. Musicians were rebels, and were taken seriously because, in many cases, they made serious, insightful comments on the world at large.
Then, all of a sudden, the 80s came along and all of that died. Capitalism killed political music as a mainstream thing. Yeah, U2 sang Bloody Sunday, but they were never really underground. Subhumans and Bad Brains were around with hardcore punk, but their message never made it to a wide audience. Live Aid too… wait, there’s no fucking way I’m talking about Live Aid. No. Bob Geldof is evil. End of.
The 90s? Similar story. Brief blips with the arrival of hip hop at the start and Bad Religion getting mainstream success. But honestly, though the latter’s politics are in the right place, the less said about their sound, the better. Only so many “hyuuuuuaaaaaaaaahs” before I lose my mind.
This is not to say that rock music has not had great societal commentators since the 70s: Pulp were and forever will be one of my all-time favorite bands, and Common People is, quite simply, one of the best songs written in the last twenty years. But aside from them, the pickings are thin. No expressly political bands really exist anymore; sure, lots of members in bands talk politics, but their music isn’t political. And even then, those messages are coming from the likes of Bono, Thom Yorke, and those kinds of people. I mean, yeah, I assume a lot of you reading this are big fans of Mr. Yorke and his band of mischievous inventive elves, but they ain’t the 99%. They went to an expensive private school and university and never struggled a day in their lives.
So where has this sentiment gone to, then? Well, the easy answer is the hip hop now holds the torch, more or less alone. It has historically been a politically engaged genre, with Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan in particular making statements about urban life, being black in America, and other social issues. After them, though, like rock ‘n roll, the record industry caught on and coopted the music, spinning out the likes of 50 Cent and other artists who were in it for the money, not the content.
Recently, though, the original underground hip hop ethic has resurfaced. Artists are veering away from corporate labels to a DIY, grassroots business model. For instance Sole, instead of going major, formed his own label, Anticon, that is now home to many up and coming MC’s. Another artist, Ceschi, formed Fake Four, which is an amazing label home to Sole, Astronautalis, and Dark Time Sunshine to name just a few. Then there’s my personal heroes, the Doomtree collective in Minneapolis, who have spent ten years building their entire operation more or less by themselves: they put out their own records, make and send their own merch, set up their own tours, managed only by themselves.
That’s an essential part of protest music, I think; denying major corporations money and status from artists. It’s even more poignant now that these independent artists are getting bigger every year as the mainstream music industry dies. But their messages, too, are just as progressive as their business models. Just listen to Sole & the Skyrider Band’s “A Sad Day for Investors” or Blue Scholars’ “The Ave” or Macklemore’s “Make the Money” for ideas.
This is where the fire of protest music is living now. These groups have got the ethos and the words to soundtrack the revolution, so listen up and give the money you were giving to party rap to these artists. That way, you’re not lining the pocket of the man, but instead helping a movement.