The Politics of Music
A form of expression, a method of storytelling, a voice for political change: all of this and so much more is categorized through the rhythms and intonations that fill our lives. Just how much influence does music really have over social infrastructure and the political landscape?
Music. There isn’t a culture that hasn’t incorporated it in the fabric of their lives.
Music allows us to be whoever we want. The simple acoustics of a shower allow us to be James Brown or a soprano diva at the Met Opera House. The right tune and the privacy of a bedroom give us the courage to be the featured dancer in the naughtiest burlesque. Studies have shown that music incorporated into school curricula shows students to thrive in other subjects.
Music pervades every turn of our lives from infancy to death. It is the glue, the salve and the frosting that placates our solitude and emboldens the intensity of concert halls and protest rallies.
The command of music is so particular that we use it to get married, pray, make love, grieve, sashay down a runway, sell soda pop, strip, exercise, teach nursery rhymes, learn how to count, commemorate a birthday, and to go to war.
Music has the power to keep marriages together and give women the courage to leave unfulfilling and dangerous relationships. Music bridges classes and crosses cultural lines.
The newest crop of music boasts a vast fusion of the best elements of hip hop, rock, country, jazz, neo soul, spoken word, Latin, Arab, gospel and folk and has thrust artists like Shania Twain, The Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Garth Brooks, Kirk Franklin, Andrea Bocelli and Charlotte Church - - historically bound to their own genre - - into the mainstream.
Because music is with us every step of the way, it begs the age-old question; does art imitate our lives or do our lives dictate art? Clearly every song does not move mountains or make a vast change in the lives of every person on the planet. Sometimes it’s just background on the lift to get us from the lobby to a 21st floor job interview. Even still, a rousing Ike and Tina Turner version of Rollin’ on the River might give you the pep in your step to win over a potential boss during your meeting.
The evolution of music is exhaustive and permutations of classic genres have had their definitions challenged. Still, in all, this progression of music has shown where our society has come from. Much of the music of the Renaissance and Victorian eras featured classical music that glorified political leaders. Many artists were commissioned by the rich and their patronage was the main source of their income.
Even during this time when artists knew where their bread and butter were coming from, music expressed dissent. Beethoven removed a dedication to Napoleon from his Third Symphony to protest Napoleon's crowning of himself as emperor in 1804. Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, often sarcastic and frustrated with government restrictions, said he slept by his door, ready to be deported to Siberia without waking his family because he often had issues with censors that required music of the time, to end in a major key and be uplifting. During the 1800s, particularly in the United States, political campaigners composed songs praising their favorite candidate, or criticizing their candidate's opponent. This practice gradually died out during the twentieth century. Today, American and British candidates have used popular music with catchy and feel good choruses to connect not only with their constituents’ tastes but also to reach youthful and swing voters.
Recently, such artists pumped out of speakers at national campaigns have been Stevie Wonder, Black-Eyed Peas, Melissa Etheridge, Luther Vandross, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Boyz II Men. Politicians in Haiti have made music an integral part of their campaigns, using jingles to connect with voters because of a low literacy rate. Information on candidates’ platform and social promises that voters cannot read are incorporated into songs that voters can remember. Music has become the vehicle to not only incite a particular agenda but to jolt a young society into caring about voting at all. Hip-hop mogul Sean “P-Diddy” Combs' t-shirt campaign, promoting no particular party, simple said “Vote or Die.” In the United States during the 2000 elections, there were a reported 17 million younger people who could have voted and did not. Music-centered groups like HeadCount, PunkVoter, Music for America and Vote for Change, comprised of musicians including Dave Matthews, Bruce Springsteen, Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Patti Scialfa of the E Street Band campaigned to recruit youth voters with pop music tours.
Before music was so staunchly used to promote the messages of other agendas, it existed to express the condition of its composers and purveyors. Much of western popular music has its origins in black music. The sonnets of pain, injustice, hope and happiness have infused gospel, soul, blues, jazz, country, reggae, hip-hop, R&B, pop, rock n roll and modern rock music.
Spiritual and political concern is a long-standing tradition in black American music and since the days of slavery, black cultural expressions have incorporated irony, humor, and double meanings not always understood by white society.
Black folklore, storytelling, and song offered furtive resistance in the bondage of slavery. Slaves also brought to their spirituals the musical traditions of Africa. Ironically, it was the teachings of pro-slavery Christianity, counseling passivity and servitude in this world in exchange for everlasting life in the next that slaves embraced to mask messages of struggle and empowerment. While looked upon as a sign of contentment, gospel music expressed sorrow, anger, and a fighting spirit.
The Bible’s Old Testament inspired many early black spirituals and references to such stories can be found in the lyrics of "Go Down Moses," "Joshua Fought The Battle Of Jericho," "My Army Cross Over," and "Singing With A Sword In My Hand." Where whites heard songs like "Steal Away To Jesus" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" as flights of fancy, blacks imagined and plotted a life on the free soil of Canada, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Before the easy listening and mellow Kenny G and Norah Jones became the new standard for contemporary jazz music, it was a gymnastically challenging art form that harkened blues and gospel music. Before it became a white middle-class fascination, it was rooted in a vivid, socially motivated call for change.
When bebop was born, it was the voice of black Americans calling for freedom, and jazz expressed it in a way that allowed artists to be liberated within the music. Charlie "Bird" Parker composed “Now's the Time,” insisting the moment was right for social change. Charles Mingus composed “Fable of Faubus” in response to Orval Faubus's racism as governor of Arkansas. John Coltrane recorded “Alabama” after four black girls died in the Birmingham church bombing. The American jazz community of both whites and blacks backed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign for Civil Rights.
The American and British occupying forces in Germany also brought American popular music with them; during the Third Reich, many Germans found it exhilarating after May of 1945 to listen to jazz music. They saw American tunes that could be heard in all occupation zones as a symbol of more general liberation from Nazi oppression. The consciousness and spirit of jazz influenced the development of “Swing,” ”Dixieland,” “Free Jazz,” “Modern,” Fusion,” and “Latin Jazz.”
The ills and injustices of urban hardships can so clearly be heard from the powerful delivery of the Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith to the rawness of the Queen of hip hop soul Mary J. Blige. Blues, soul and R & B music captures the ills of contemporary urban America: racism, drug abuse and economic adversity as well as the vitality, creativity, intelligence, and relentless spirit. Artists like Nina Simone and landmark albums like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions” built some of the most intimate portraits addressing American life and opposition to the Vietnam War.
Like many other music forms, country music is an amalgam of influences. Its sound, structure, and lyrical text reveal a heavy debt to African American musical styles, particularly blues and gospel. The music as storytelling has roots in southern Protestant sermonizing, bar room sadness, front porch chillin’, and the general character of regional oral traditions.
Country music often suffers from a double-edged sword in that its call for simple living and traditional values often harkens past images of southern ignorance, racism, slavery, Civil War, and the Ku Klux Klan. Even though country music has always been a voice for small farmers, factory hands, day laborers, the displaced and unemployed, carrying an implicit critique of capitalism, it still tends to support God, the American flag, and the agenda of protecting it at all costs. Women tended to make the biggest shift in country music as they stepped forward with songs displaying tougher attitudes.
Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Tammy Wynette started achieving record sales and stardom rivaling country men. Loretta Lynn also became the first popular country singer to publicly advocate for birth control. These attitudes and Lynn's reputation for gearing her shows toward women, earned her a legion of devoted fans.
Reggae music has made its way into hip hop as a dancehall sensation, in Ska with a souped-up beat, as well as in Latin with the now explosive “Reggaeton”: Spanish reggae. This all tends to be very feel-good music but Reggae’s origins developed in Rastafarians bringing Jamaican culture, politics, religion, a social message and music together. To the Rastafarian in reggae, ultimate social change can only occur with the end of the Babylon System.
Babylon is a Rastafarian term referring to western society oppression, where blacks cannot gain power and advance as a race of people. Early political Rastafarian music places the focus of the music on the structure of this society.
The ambassador of Reggae music, Robert Nesta Marley, known to us affectionately as "Bob," and his Wailers would be proud to know that in the many realms of reggae today, along with the ‘rude boy’ image, defining an era of social instability, it still calls for social change as is what is needed for blacks within Jamaica and the rest of the world to succeed.
Hip hop/rap music has seen over 25 years of skeptics, onlookers, self-made moguls and worshippers. Hip hop music emerged in New York City, specifically the Bronx, in the early 1970s.
Pioneers like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaata, with Jamaican influences, developed its energy from parties, the element of the live show, using spontaneous ‘toasting’ (making up short raps to the beat of music) over vinyl tracks, offering a call and response from the D.J. to the M.C., and the use of turntables to cut and mix over the main piece of music creating “break beats,” mixing lead guitar riffs and drum beats at the breaks. This music that came from the streets spoke directly to the condition of New York’s economy and took storytelling of the social condition to another level.
Rap too, has infiltrated the mainstream and hip hop culture not only speaks to a black urban audience, but also the world. Rap music is used to tell the stories of youth in Europe, Australia, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America. Through the gangstas, hotties, hoochies, bling bling, and reaction to incidents like the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, hip hop, in the year 2001, emerged with a mission of peace.
Although politically, hip hop has rarely been on the positive side of politics, the hip hop community decided it needed to make a strong political statement and presented a Hip Hop Declaration of Peace to United Nations leaders. The declaration contained 25 paragraphs of thought and opinion from leading rappers about the socially conscious direction they believe rap needs to take to continue on a path to social change and empowerment.
Rock N Roll is probably the most loosely defined of genres, as the influence of rock n roll is far-reaching. Rock N Roll started off in the U.S. in the early-to-mid 1950s. African American artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino played a rousing brand of dance music predominantly to African American crowds. While these key early rockers were indisposed to racism, local authorities and dance halls were very much divided upon racial lines. Mainstream acceptance of rock n roll came shortly after when white artists signed to major labels and started covering their material.
Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Ritchie Valens, one of the few Latino mainstream popular artists of the time, often toured and played together in dance halls and clubs across the U.S. and Britain.
The original artists began to get a bit more of the respect they deserved by the end of the 1950s. Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” was played to “chessboard" crowds (both black and white patrons). What is now known as the “British Invasion” followed shortly after, with the Beatles leading the way. There are offshoots of rock and roll in surf music, psychedelic rock, folk rock, soft rock, classic rock, hard rock, grunge and the list goes on.
With the promise of sex and the reckless abandon of drugs, rock n roll speaks on many levels. Where country music calmly asks the listener to contemplate compromised freedom and justifies war, rock has traditionally saved the rage for the war not fought for emboldening its music. O
ne of the most defining sounds of this era is Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar riffs and heavy feedback as he satirized the U.S national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," as a protest against the Vietnam War. Artists like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Janis Joplin, and Simon and Garfunkel used rock n roll as their platform to sing out about war, justice, peace, free love and the occasional LSD trip.
If Rock N Roll was rebellion, then punk rock begged for a scolding. Originally a reaction to the lush, producer-driven sounds of disco and the perceived commercialism of progressive rock, early punk borrowed heavily from the garage band ethic, which did not require excellent musicianship.
Punk was stripped-down, three-chord music that could be played easily. Many of these bands also intended to shock mainstream society, rejecting the “peace and love” image of the prior musical rebellion of the 1960s which punk thought had degenerated into mellow disco culture. CBGB is to punk what Studio 54 is to disco. Artists like Richard Hell, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Talking Heads and others took to the stage at this clearinghouse of underground rock in New York’s lower east side, changing music for years.
The punk movement was born out of an intellectual movement, then spread to Britain, where it became a more violent form of expression with the proto-typical band The Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols chose aggressive stage names ("Johnny Rotten" and "Sid Vicious") and did their best to live up to them, deliberately rejecting anything that symbolized the establishment in Britain when they toured. Their first two singles, "Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen" got folks talking and, despite an airplay ban on the BBC, the record rose to the top chart position in the UK. The Sex Pistols paved the way for many other political bands like The Clash, whose approach showed less anarchy but was more overtly political and idealistic. Artsier bands like Wire and The Fall gave punk another side.
Top 40/Pop music salutes artists from every genre and each side of the middle. Pioneers like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince have revolutionized the genre with the inclusion of dance and video as staples in the production. Who even dares produce a song without a video in this day and age? Even they are not without their platform, be it children’s rights, sexual freedom, free speech or artistic liberties. Pop music is a catchall net that leaves room for fun, creativity, tradition, and even error.
Music will continue to tell the story of our lives. The story of our lives reflects the journey of the man, the woman, and the child. This journey is reality as we see it. We recognize the deepest part of our own existence in music and our existence is continually validated in it.
Reality and interpretation of it is dictated by the human condition, it serves as a mirror of what we want and do not want to see.
The beauty, rage, greed, compassion, hatred, recklessness, devotion, giddy delusion, success and perversion all exist in soul, jazz, hip hop, punk, blues, reggae, gospel, rock n roll, pop, country and folk music and everything in between. Some of the most recognizable people in the world are musicians because they have made a living out of holding up that mirror.