Although in his July 12 speech at the memorial for the five recently slain Dallas police officers, President Barack Obama offered a glimmer of hope to a nation still reeling from a week of deadly violence and protest following the police-involved deaths of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, there’s reason to believe that this country is perhaps more divided now along racial, political and social lines than at any other time in the past half century – perhaps since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
During that movement 50 years ago, images of mostly black, everyday citizens dying at the hands of authorities, while civil rights leaders were gunned down in broad daylight, played out against the backdrop of a musical soundtrack containing songs that eloquently captured those moments and became forever linked with the protests that marked the mid-to-late 20th century.
That historical perspective begged this question: where are this generation’s protesters in song?
Remember when Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Joan Baez and others gave us a soundtrack for the ’60s with songs that spoke out about and against racism? Dylan’s “The Death of Emmett Till” and “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” were just some of the many great examples of the day.
Or in the ’60s and ’70s when arguably the second-most polarizing conflict in our history, the Vietnam War, was the target of protest songs by many artists, like John Lennon (“Give Peace A Chance”), Pete Seeger (“Bring ‘Em Home”), Edwin Starr (“War”), Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On?”), Freda Payne (“Bring the Boys Home”), Barry McGuire (“Eve of Destruction”) and many others?
Even Motown records, one of the most successful and blatantly pop-oriented song factories in American music history, got into the act with the aforementioned tunes by Marvin Gaye and Edwin Starr, as well as politically motivated songs by Stevie Wonder (his 1974 hit single “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” was boldly directed at President Richard Nixon and released just days before his resignation; while its flip side, “Big Brother” – originally contained on Wonder’s Talking Book album two years earlier – addressed the overly intrusive acts of government and politicians in general).
Counterculturalism found its way into the sound of even younger America when rap music began to explode in popularity in the 1980s. During the early days of the hip-hop era, before it became mostly misogynistic and materialistic in its content, rap often touched on the sensitive topic of race relations and black oppression, a notion that notoriously manifested itself in songs and albums by Grand Master Flash (1982’s “The Message”), N.W.A. (“Fuck The Police”), Public Enemy (1989’s “Fight the Power” single and 1990’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back album being their best examples), along with other ’80s-era rappers.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some rappers today – even superstar ones – who are more than willing to set their current frustrations with government, with society and with worldwide conditions in general to music. A recent education came from Kanye West, whose Grammy-winning “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” protested conditions in West African countries where children were forced to mine diamonds and then died in civil wars financed by them.
The outspoken West may rant and rave about nonsensical things at times, but – like him or not – his work often touches on sensitive (and often important) subjects that others in his field wouldn’t have the balls or even the awareness to address.
Then there are perennial rock gods like Bono (of U2) and Bruce Springsteen who’ve lent their names and their music to many causes including those addressing racism, homophobia, war veterans and poverty.
Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” in 2001 addressed the killing of Amadou Diallo (a black man downed at the hands of Bronx police who were later acquitted), while his 1993 single “Streets of Philadelphia” was the theme from the motion picture Philadelphia, in which Tom Hanks starred as a homosexual man dying of AIDS.
And, lest we forget, The Boss’ “Born In The U.S.A.” is not a song of patriotism, as many (like the late former President Ronald Reagan) would have liked to think. Instead, it protested the treatment of war-torn veterans in this country as they fought a Vietnam war that many back home didn’t support.
Even the previously punkish ’90s party rock act, Green Day, changed their tune slightly and released American Idiot in 2005, an album that contained protest songs like “Holiday” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” the latter song being a veiled reference to the never ending war in the Middle East that ensued after 9/11 (7/14 editor’s note: a reader pointed out that “Wake Me Up…” was actually inspired by leader Billie Joe Armstrong’s father’s death).
Rage Against the Machine is a ’90s-born rock-rap hybrid that built its name on anti-political, anti-governmental counterculturalism with powder-keg anthems like “Killing in the Name,” an in-your-face little ditty that protested police brutality.
But those names (Bono, Bruce, Green Day and RATM) as well as the others I’ve mentioned are more old-school than they are contemporary. As far as “new school” artists go, there aren’t many examples that jump to mind when pondering this subject.
Indeed one could argue that, with the post-9/11 war on Iraq (and Afghanistan), the much criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, and current issues with police brutality and race in America, there are more reasons for today’s artists to emerge from the shadows and address society’s ills than there were 20 and 30 years ago, when Bono, Bruce and the others were mostly doing it.
Even the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, and the various other similarly named protests that ensued, would seem to have been a perfect breeding ground for artists – particularly liberal ones – to lend their singing talents to the various causes for which Occupy purportedly lobbied.
So all of this begs the question: where are they? Where are today’s socially conscious musical artists when it comes to incorporating important messages in their songs?
Arguably the two biggest artists in their respective fields today, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar, are making cases for themselves and their respective works: Beyoncé with African-American themed songs from her latest album, Lemonade, and Lamar mostly with socially conscious tunes from his Grammy-winning and critically lauded album-before-last, To Pimp a Butterfly.
Both “Alright” and “The Blacker the Berry” from 2015’s Pimp/Butterfly directly addressed the plight of black people in America as it relates to their white counterparts or society in general.
“Alright,” with its uplifting refrain, may be this generation’s version of Mahalia Jackson’s more spiritual rendering of “We Shall Overcome,” while “The Blacker the Berry” could easily be compared to a previous generation’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” by James Brown.
In the latter comparison, Lamar may be a little more graphic in describing the things black people should be proud of (and in his interpretation of white people’s visceral reaction to those things), but his message is similar to Brown’s and is made clear nonetheless.
Beyoncé’s “Freedom” and “Formation” from Lemonade are that album’s best examples of self-affirmation and protest, with each, however, coming across as being slightly less about protest and more about affirming one’s self – something at which Beyoncé has excelled over her nearly 20-year professional career. Recall her pro-feminist past with tunes like 2001’s “Independent Women, Pt. 1” (with Destiny’s Child) and 2011’s “Run the World (Girls).”
Beyoncé’s music is seemingly just now growing in its consciousness of the larger issues that affect society – particularly those affecting her own people – this perhaps in her recognition of the fact that she has the unending ability to grab the world’s attention with her every move (and every album release), and of the fact that she can capitalize on her fame with minimal career implications.
Hate her if you will for doing it – and believe me there are those out there who now do – but Beyoncé, like many of us, can’t ignore what’s going on around her. And now she’s leveraging her deity-like status to say and do something about it, at least with her music and their accompanying videos, despite the inherent career risks that would likely doom an artist of lesser stature.
Unfortunately, she’s one of only a few of today’s superstar artists (Lamar and West being among the others) that I can readily cite as examples when answering the question I posed as the title and premise of this article.
Sure, you could scour Twitter and find many sound bites and tweets (each 140 characters or less) from today’s musicians in almost real-time response to the atrocities that have dominated news and social media during the past few years.
You may even hear or see a public service announcement or two by said artists as they marry their star power with the age-old media of TV and radio to bring their messages to the masses.
And maybe those are still the most effective ways of getting one’s message across in today’s world.
But finding that contemporary musical protest “soundtrack” consisting of songs by artists too many to name as was so easily the case 40 and 50 years ago?
Or finding today’s Bob Dylans, Bob Marleys, Mahalia Jacksons, Joan Baez’s and Marvin Gayes of the world, who put their protest words where their music was?
Now that’s a different story altogether.
P.S., I can be proven wrong and I welcome readers to provide comments with examples of today’s artists who are rising to the occasion.