Musical Activism in 2017

by Malcolm Fox

Music has always been a popular avenue for conveying political opinions. In the past few years, there have been several impactful works of art released by American musicians that comment on relevant social and political topics. Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015) discussed the role of black artists in commercial music. Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” (2016) was a personal analysis of the emotions produced by the double-consciousness of being a woman of color. The extreme metal band Brujeria released the single “Viva Presidente Trump” (2016) which called out the at-that-time Republican primary candidate for his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

In the late ‘80s and the ‘90s, politically conscious music gained popularity when artists like the Notorious B.I.G., Public Enemy, Lauren Hill, and Ice Cube were regularly charting #1 on Billboard with socially relevant lyrical themes. According to, politically charged hip-hop fell out in the 2000’s but reached a peak again in 2015. That year, President Obama named “How Much a Dollar Cost” by Kendrick Lamar as his favorite song of the year, influential rapper Killer Mike endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, and the movie “Straight Outta Compton,” about the infamous and controversial rap group N.W.A. topped the box office for four weeks straight.

With this uptick in socially relevant releases, are we about to see a prosperous year for politically charged music?

The United States is undoubtedly at a point of unprecedented division, with a record high of 77% of Americans perceiving the nation as being greatly divided. Given this atmosphere, it is not surprising that the popular and underground music scenes could reflect this division in the coming year. To understand this trend, consider 2016. In February of last year, Kendrick Lamar performed at the 58th Grammy Awards and stunned the audience with a shocking and electrifying performance of his songs “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright.” Lamar walked onto the stage with a chain gang with his band locked inside jail cells, then broke free of his shackles to begin rapping in front of a giant bonfire. The performance ended with never-before-heard verse that referenced the murder of Trayvon Martin, delivered in front of an image of Africa emblazoned with the word “Compton.” With lyrics like “you hate me, don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture. You’re evil I want you to recognize I’m a proud monkey,” Lamar points out the emotional turmoil that prejudice causes for people of color. This public display of sharp rhetoric was a pivotal point for the social consciousness of popular music.

It shows that the current mainstream music industry isn’t afraid to endorse controversial and relevant opinions through the artists’ perspectives. Another artist that caught the nation’s attention with a politically charged song was the rapper YG, who’s song “FDT” (F*** Donald Trump) was described by the Los Angeles Times as “the most prophetic, wrathful, and unifying protest song of 2016.” Hip-hop as a genre and a cultural force rules the music industry, and thus makes it an obvious platform for political music. This is especially relevant given the way the genre has been and is being influenced by the black community, who in 2017 faces a Republican federal government that does not appear to have their interests in mind among countless other issues.

One realm of music that has historically been at the forefront of politicized music has been the heavy music scene; that is, hard rock, metal, and punk. Whether it was through punk acts like Black Flag, the thrash band Megadeth, the legendary death metal band Death, or alt-metal acts like Rage Against the Machine, heavy music has always been an outlet for politicized messages to be delivered to music fans. 2016 saw the formation of a supergroup called Prophets of Rage made up of members of Audioslave, Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, and Cypress Hill, who described their musical direction as: “an elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.”

At the Woodford Folk festival in Australia at the end of 2016, American musician Amanda Palmer said that she believed through leading an administration that ignores the needs of women, minorities, gays, and artists, “Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again.” While Prophets of Rage and other artists (grunge legend Chris Cornell recently helped reunite the band Audioslave at the Anti-Inaugural Ball event this January) displaying resistance to Trump’s administration are signs that there is some interest in heavy political music, punk today is not the cultural force that it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s when punk and hardcore were emerging and gaining mainstream and underground popularity. Therefore, it’s unlikely that a wave of political music in the near future will take the form of punk or hardcore as it has in the past.

The presence of politically charged music in the mainstream over the past year indicates that people are interested in consuming music with some sort of societal message.

Hip-hop seems to be an obvious genre for future political music to take root in, considering how widely it’s consumed – making up 22% of music sales in 2015. For example, if Kanye West puts out music in the near future, his lyrics may take any number of angles, especially considering his recent cordial meeting with President Trump and apparent support for the politician. Outside of hip-hop, however, rock legends U2 plan on releasing a new album in the context of the current state of global politics. Political music appears to be on the rise in the U.S., and the current division in the country as well as a controversial and unpopular presidential administration will likely add to that trend. Creative inspiration comes from many places, and it remains to be seen if the music industry as well as the underground will reflect the political division and unrest that the American public currently feels. If the state of political music leading up to 2017 is any indication, however, then musicians will have countless opportunities for political critique in the coming year.

Malcolm Fox is a first year at Trinity University from Everett, Washington. He’s pursuing a Religion major at Trinity and is interested in a career involving the protection of human rights. He’s passionate about human rights, civil liberties, cultural heritage and political discourse. In his spare time he enjoys working out, listening to extreme metal, and spending time with friends in and around South Central Texas.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The graphic above is in the public domain.

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