The old face of political music - Bob Dylan with Joan Baez civil rights march on Washington, 1963 ROWLANDSHERMAN/WIKICOMMONS

Music has always been political, and rightly so. In recent years this has been present around the world as protests have erupted and spread through social media and the internet – the same vector by which music has become more available than ever. But the music itself has become increasingly angled towards the political. Not content for their work to act as an escape from the present, artists are attempting to effect political change through their songs. 

This is tied to visual exposure, as seen most clearly in Childish Gambino’s This is America. The attention that this release attracted had at least as much to do with the video, uploaded at the same time as the song’s first public performance, as the record itself. It received 12.9m views in its first 24 hours on YouTube and attracted numerous commentaries. It is quite hard to imagine one without the other. This skilful use of the music video adds immeasurably to the song’s power. Not only are Childish Gambino’s themes explored in further, often disturbing, depth but the video also gave the song even more traction online. This boost in the ability of an artist to convey a political message is very much a project of the social media revolution that has defined the last decade.    

'Protest song’ normally evokes Bob Dylan’s cawing, derisive voice and twangling chords

Though in many ways thoroughly modern, this is the latest phase of the long history of the protest song, something which the current crop of musicians seem well aware of. However, though ‘protest song’ normally evokes Bob Dylan’s cawing, derisive voice and twangling chords, in a contemporary update, artists deploy samples to add layers of meaning to their music. Kendrick Lamar’s empowering ‘I’ is built around an Isley Brothers sample, the band who originally recorded ‘Fight the Power’ among other protest records. This link goes further as the music video features a cameo from Ron Isley who quotes funk legend George Clinton, himself no stranger to politicised music. Particularly when talking about ingrained injustice, this sense of inheritance adds to the strength of the message 

Communal singing has immense power and therefore it is natural that movements from 1960s Civil Rights to 1980s anti-conservatism to 2010s Black Lives Matter have been accompanied by distinctive soundtracks. For instance, Kendrick Lamar’s Alright has become a common chant for the latter movement. A song from an album steeped in politics and meaning, this anthem again demonstrates how the 2010s were a decade in which popular music has consciously been at the forefront of popular politics.

Indeed, it has almost become expected of musicians that they express political opinions or else risk alienating their young fans, as in the case of Taylor Swift. In November 2018, she released a statement endorsing two Democratic candidates in her home state of Tennessee during the midterms. This broke years of silence that had produced headlines such as ‘An envoy for Trump’s values?’. Though she had spoken out on certain issues before she had previously been avowedly neutral on general politics. This shift perhaps suggests that in a world that is increasingly polarised, and with a vocally political music industry, it is not sustainable for artists to avoid going public with their opinions.

In fact, it has almost become a sign of maturity to write a political song or album

The recent increase in political music has also attracted well-established artists, and even some to come out of retirement, eager to use their platforms to exercise influence. A Tribe Called Quest released their first album in almost 20 years in 2016 just days after Donald Trump was elected. The lead single from the album, ‘We the People…’ is staunchly political, featuring parodies of Trump’s campaign, mirroring the themes of the rest of the album. In this country, and arguably on the less visible side of things, veteran ska act Madness have released singles such as ‘Bullingdon Boys’ that call to mind their late 80s campaigning against Apartheid.

In fact, it has almost become a sign of maturity to write a political song or album. Stormzy has always been outspoken and open in his political views. The last twelve months saw this extend as far as ever with Heavy Is The Head following a Glastonbury headline performance which attracted great attention for its themes. His wearing of Banksy's Union Flag stab vest was a highlight for many, emphasising his position as an artistically varied and politically aware performer. Similarly, over the course of the decade Beyoncé became increasingly outspoken on a range of subjects from presidential politics to police brutality in both her music and other statements. This began in earnest midway through the decade and marks a noticeable move away from her earlier style. That all this can occur whilst continuing to produce number ones and working on more classically pop songs speaks to the way in which politics and music can coexist. 

Music and politics are therefore as close as ever

The internet has helped this. With the wide range of channels open to artists it has never been easier for them to broadcast opinions. This has also facilitated discussion of issues that whilst perhaps not strictly political, fall under the umbrella of protest. Here we might look at the dialogue around mental health being encouraged by many musicians. Ariana Grande for instance has entered into candid discussions around depression and anxiety at the same time as continuing to produce essentially apolitical music. Nonetheless, she is still part of the same trend of using her platform to effect change. 

These trends seem to have accelerated towards the second half of the decade. In Britain there was some opposition to austerity from artists such as Sleaford Mods from quite early in the 2010s, but this was nothing when compared to the conversations being had in and around music by the end of 2019. Likewise, the nomination and election of Trump intensified the feeling of an already active political music scene, drawing ever more musicians in.


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Music and politics are therefore as close as ever, certainly closer than they were ten years ago. Not only are musicians seeking to make their voices heard on more traditionally political issues, they are also helping to shape broader conversations about problems such as mental health and climate change. It is therefore possible that we are in the middle of another great era of politically inspired music, where protests and anthems unite to try to bring change.

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