I often hear that music and politics should remain separate. I snigger at such a concept; as if they have ever been separate.
Those proponents may as well take the next logical turn and suggest that drugs and pop have never taken the same fork in the road.
Without some form of statement, music would have become as relevant as the novella, or Spanish mime.
Every turn in society has been reflected in the music of the day, from medieval folk to early jazz and blues, to punk and beyond. In some societies, it is one of the few ways of telling how brutal life is.
It is often to the United States that I look to for examples, and I expect the Trump administration to be fertile ground for an upsurge in angry, potent protest songs. Some have already taken the cue, with hip hop act YG and Nipsey Hussle recording the inane but irresistible “FDT” (the DT is Donald Trump, you can work out what the F stands for).
It has, after all, been a long tradition in the US.
In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit”, a song written by Abel Meeropol after he saw a graphic photograph of two Black men hanging from a tree. His lyrics, and Holliday’s take on it, decried the lynchings and unfettered racist activity taking place in the American South.
The civil rights movement in the 1960s led to Aretha Franklin demanding “Respect” and Curtis Mayfield’s epic song of hope, “People Get Ready”. Bob Dylan wrote one of the greatest anti-war songs of all time with “Blowing In The Wind”. They were just some of the many civil rights and anti-war songs of the decade.
Beyond the US, songs have been the engine behind the great social movements. Nigerian music legend Fela Ransome-Kuti invented Afro Beat as a way to protest Nigeria’s corrupt, oil company-run regime. His febrile 1976 album Zombie railed against his country’s military dictators.
In South Africa, Chile, and Brazil music has been at the forefront of the fight against apartheid, military rule and oppression.
The role of reggae, a soundtrack to fighting injustice, in Jamaica, Britain and around the world, requires a boxset in itself, but here is just one example and it is not a song. At the One Love Peace Concert in 1978, Bob Marley brought the leaders of Jamaica’s two main political parties on to the stage and corralled them into a three-way air-high handshake.
“At that moment, everybody was one,” said Edward Seaga, the then-leader of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party.
Without politics there was effectively no such thing as roots reggae in the 1970s. It shaped the genre and gave it its identity. It is hard to think now of The Wailers without the Marley-written “Get Up, Stand Up”.
In my adopted New Zealand, post-punk outfit Blam Blam Blam exposed the “she’ll be right” head-in-the-sand attitude. “There Is No Depression in New Zealand” was released in 1981, as protests and police reaction raged, as the offensive Springbok rugby tour exposed deep divisions in Aotearoa. The title virtually explains itself.
I could go on. I have not even touched on punk, which produced songs of anger and passion that are heartfelt and challenged a corporate music industry that believed such raw passion doesn’t sell. Just give the masses their fill of sex and more sex and they’ll be happy.
It should also be noted that these weren’t movements and artists that embraced politics for the sake of it, just to be an upstart and get under people’s skin. Politics came to them — if you’re seeing people being bashed or starving, you say something, you stick up for those less lucky than those who can afford a drum set.
Which is not to say that all songs written with a grievance are sublime (let’s not dwell on the stinkers, at least their heart was in the right place). And no-one is as naive to believe that all political expression in music is in support of a just cause. Country music produced Merle Haggard’s 1969 hit “Okie From Muskogee” that set its sights on hippies and anti-war protests, and Britain and elsewhere has seen a fascist skinhead scene.
Personally, as a teenager, I was taken by a Billy Bragg song. The English left-wing folk singer Bragg is often as predictable as the main ingredient in a treacle tart, with his stating-the-bleedin’-obvious go-the-wee-man lyrics, but I love “There Is Power In A Union” — because there is.
The union is the backbone for the downtrodden worker, and Bragg explains why, singing: “The Union forever defending our rights/ Down with the blackleg, all workers unite/ With our brothers and our sisters from many far off lands/ There is power in a union.”
Politics and music finds unexpected connections. Take Bucks Fizz, those archetypical purveyors of glossy, garish New Romantic-era sugar.
“Land of Make Believe” was a number one hit in Britain and across Europe in 1981, with the band performing a well-choreographed routine on Top of the Pops as it blended in with the Festive Season.
The reality behind the song was somewhat different that such garish presentations might suggest. The song’s writer Peter Sinfield later revealed the track was an attack on Thatcher’s Britain and the burgeoning, callous neoliberal politics of the time.
The song declared: “Something nasty in your garden’s waiting/ Patiently, till it can have your heart/Try to go but it won’t let you/Don’t you know it’s out to get you running/Keep on running/They’re running after you babe.”
Dissecting this particular verse, I can imagine the garden being England and that something nasty being all sorts of horrendous policies pushed by Thatcher and other neoliberal governments that destroyed communities across the country.
So, a four-piece remembered primarily for a Eurovision act that involved the skirts of the two female singers being thrown away, were in fact a weapon of insubordination. Fancy that.
[Reprinted from Craig Haggis’s music blog, Porky Prime Cuts.]