Music and radical politics

Saturday, February 16, 2008 - 11:00

Music is an expression of the human condition and human society, so in exceptional moments in history, exceptional music is produced. It is no coincidence that when there is an increased political consciousness in society, new political music and culture accompany it. Whether it's the unemployed workers of the 1930s or the anti-globalisation movements of today, there are always particular musicians that capture the mood of the moment.

Sometimes music can become too powerful, a threat to the status quo, and is silenced, or otherwise dealt with. Some songs have been remembered but with altered lyrics that completely change the message of the song. Musicians that were once very involved with activists have joined mainstream political parties and turned their back on the movements they once embraced. In other cases, musicians have been blacklisted and been systematically attacked.

One Australian band with progressive politics was Midnight Oil. During the 1980s, Midnight Oil wrote songs such as Blue Sky Mine, about workers' exposure to asbestos, and Beds are Burning, which calls for land rights for Aboriginal people. These songs were popular at a time where these issues were getting greater public attention.

When Midnight Oil was making music about the need to protect the environment, the environmental movement in Australia was growing. After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in the North Sea, Midnight Oil held a protest gig at the Exxon headquarters in New York and played under a banner that read "Midnight Oil makes you dance, Exxon oil makes us sick".

Sometimes, these high profile musicians who successfully bring attention to progressive campaigns are co-opted by mainstream politicians, who use their credibility for their own purposes. In 2004 Peter Garrett joined the Australian Labor Party, and recently became minister for the environment. In this position, he has refused to overturn the approval for the Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania, and has approved the dredging of Port Phillip Bay contrary to environmental concerns. All this from someone who once led a band so respected for its strong environmental stance.

Fortunately, not all musicians are so quick to sell out their cause. Since 1991, Rage Against the Machine has been playing music that is motivated by revolutionary politics. RATM has always been involved in campaigns for progressive causes. They have played concerts where the proceeds have gone to the Anti-Nazi League, independent media and US political prisoners.

RATM has been very supportive of the Zapatista uprising in Mexico. Zach De La Rocha from RATM has travelled to Mexico many times to see the Zapatistas, and on returning home held public meetings about what the Zapatista uprising is, and how people outside of Mexico can support it.

The band is also very supportive of the Cuban Revolution. In 2005 several RATM members played a free concert in Havana. They were the first US band to play in Cuba in more than 40, years due to the blockade imposed by the US government.

When radical politics become fused with music it can have a huge effect, and spread a message that people don't normally hear. People look to the message behind the music, and for many, music is their first exposure to radical ideas. While corporate viewpoints dominate the news media, popular culture is harder to dominate, and as long as there are dissidents, there will always be dissident music. But, while political music can inspire people, what matters is what they do with that inspiration: if we are going to create social change, then it is going to take more than lyrics, it's going to take action.

From GLW issue 740