Which musicians get to be political and what is at stake when they do?

Music has the magical ability to evoke every emotion under the sun, it can uplift us, calm us down, move us with resonance of the highs and lows of life. Arguably, it’s most powerful in its capacity to convey purposeful messages that generate awareness of, and challenge the status quo of prominent social issues that plague our society. From racism, gender inequality, poverty, war, homophobia… the list goes on. The relationship between politics and music is an age-old one. Just as each and every one of us has a myriad of reasons that shape our perspectives of the world and the issues at play within it, informing why we wish to engage or disengage from politics, it’s no different for musicians. 

London native and rapper Enny, recently said in a +44 podcast that she was scared to call her breakout song ‘Peng Black Girls’ as she didn’t want to be perceived to be preaching. She didn’t want it to be political. She uses the same reasoning to justify why she doesn’t always wear her natural afro hair - because it can be perceived as a political statement. She’s not the first artist to dissociate from politics. In conversation with Brown University, Princess Nokia said in response to her music being deemed political, “You never heard me talk about no politics, my music is principle, culturally, core driven”. Yet ‘Peng Black Girls’ celebrates Black womanhood in all its diversity, in a world that facilitates the mistreatment and devaluation of Black women. NME heralded the song ‘a rallying cry for Black women to assert control over their lives’ - an irrefutable political proclamation. While Princess Nokia has been a prominent activist for women’s, LGBTQ+ and ethnic minorities’ rights, most recently marching and speaking of her experiences at an Abortion Rights rally in NYC. Both artists are evidently solid in their moral positioning in regard to socio-political conversations, but want their music to remain apolitical. Belonging to a minority or marginalised community means by virtue of identity, some artists are involuntarily part of socio-political conversations. This can generate a blurred line between what constitutes politics and what is simply your reality. Where you do not have the privilege to participate as you please, but rather these social issues shape your everyday experiences, and that of your community. So arguably, the politicisation of marginalised artists’ identities inevitably spills over into their art, whether this be consciously or subconsciously. 

British popstar Paloma Faith advised that musicians shying away from politics was down to fear of backlash and abuse. A fear that didn’t faze her as she brought out left-wing activist and Guardian columnist, Owen Jones, to introduce a series of her shows with some light words on social injustice, the NHS and immigration. She puts her vocality down to being raised in a politically active household, attending anti-Thatcher marches from a pushchair, which has informed her “confidence to have a voice, [and] to believe it could count”. Upbringing aside, Paloma Faith’s political empowerment can be attributed to the fact that she does not belong to a minority group in her home country, the UK. In western societies where whiteness is the norm, whiteness grants the privilege of engaging in politics from an objective moral standpoint, whereas for marginalised people, politics becomes a defining factor, not only of their identity but their art too. This considered, as women of colour, Enny and Princess Nokia’s scepticism is fair. Avoiding political intentions enables them to create art for art’s sake, and more so, erases risk of any unwarranted judgements. It makes sense that they resist having their art narrowly defined, or even engaging with a system they distrust as historically, they have not respected voices like their own.  

Video: YouTube/HipHopDX

The threat of backlash looms when you find the courage to ignite political conversations. Kendrick Lamar is one artist applauded for conscious lyricism and a smart-witted approach to rap. But his grand denunciation of the overturning of Roe v Wade at his Glastonbury set has faced criticism for being merely performative, given Kodak Black’s feature on his latest album, who only last year pled guilty to the assault and battery of a teenage girl. The same hypocrisy tainted ‘Donda’ as Kanye chose to feature accused rapist and abuser, Marilyn Manson. The choice to associate with these denounced artists tacitly implies that musical collaboration trump women’s rights. Yet neither artist and the corresponding albums experienced any impactful retaliation. Mumford & Son’s Winston Marshall realised a different fate after tweeting admiration for a book by a right-wing figure, he found himself under fire for endorsing fascism, and consequently ‘cancelled’. The controversy led the banjoist to resign from the band after 14 years. In these instances, it appears that public opinion weighs heavier on stances on partisan party politics as opposed to tacit actions relating to social issues.

Artists endorsing political ideologies, parties and candidates isn’t a rarity, JME, Billy Bragg, The Clash, and Cardi B are just a few. Higher engagement coincides with heavily polarised party politics, where there is greater responsibility for those with a platform to utilise it as a tool for social activism, although transparency isn’t always appreciated. Late last year Cardi B took a political hiatus after the bullying she encountered from both Republicans and Democrats. Attacks included comparison to Melania Trump, ridicule by right-wing critics branding her as ‘illiterate’ and ‘dumb’, and a questioning of her integrity as a role model due to the sexually-empowered music she creates. This is a case in point of how politics can be elitist, undermining the opinion of those from underprivileged backgrounds regardless of their current status. More so, the potential for the political to become personal when you are a woman who fails to meet projected standards of womanhood. 

Kanye is another artist unafraid to indulge in sharing his political views regardless of how provocative they are.  Despite the relentless criticism he received since he declared his support of Trump’s presidency, in that same period he was the most commercially successful he’s ever been. In 2019, he was even the highest paid hip-hop artist globally. Perhaps the crème de la crème calibre of artists, the pioneers, most critically acclaimed, and ‘voices of a generation’, receive immunity by default. Just like the banks in the 2008 global financial crisis, they are simply ‘too big to fail’. Diehard fans will profess their unwavering love and support no matter how much they disagree with their idol’s politics. 

Protest music has always been a longstanding and forceful instrument in exerting political opinion. ‘Born in the USA’ by Bruce Springsteen, is not a patriotic anthem as the name indicates but rather a condemnation of the war in Vietnam from the perspective of a veteran. ‘Killing in the Name’ by Rage Against the Machine is a call for revolution against abuses of power, inspired by the case of Rodney King. Notably, both songs set out to challenge social injustices the artists were witness to, as opposed to their own lived experiences. 

Arguably, the founding essence of hip-hop was protest - a vessel for narratives of racism and poverty, highlighting socio-political and economic issues through lived experiences. N.W.A.’s ‘Fuck the Police’ - was born as a weapon of defence against racial profiling and police brutality. The track was met with threats of legal action pre-release and a complaint from the FBI post-release, reflecting a desire to silence and diminish the group’s perspectives. In contrast to Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine, N.W.A.'s music mirrored their very own experiences. Far from just voicing an opinion, they quite literally become a megaphone to wider society on problems that detrimentally impacted their lives and their communities. There’s an irreplicable power in defiant music straight from the source; within its rawness it’s dangerous, as it holds a mirror to the ugliness which prevails in our society, and threatens institutions which refuse to accept accountability in their role to play. But ultimately, its beauty lies in the fact it transcends time. Socio-political issues do not dissolve overnight but take generations to tackle, and so defiant anthems will continue to be championed until they no longer serve their purpose. 

It’s not always necessary, and at times misguided for musicians to declare their political views, but it remains indisputably gutsy to share these views with the world, risks knowingly calculated. It’s apparent that the political sphere is not an even playing field, with identity playing a huge role in determining whether musicians want to be politically active, and more so, the reception of their activism when they do. Still it remains that politics subconsciously drips into every facet of life, every day acts correspond to our belief systems – where we buy from, what we eat, the art we appreciate. In the very same notion, whether or not musicians desire to be political, politics can manifest itself within the art they create, and it’s our responsibility as the listener, to read between the lines.   

Article written by Jessica Rogers


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