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Just Because Bands Aren't Singing For Miliband, Doesn't Mean The Protest Song Is Over

The world has moved on since 1987, and so too has music.

by Josh Hall
05 May 2015, 2:23pm

Last month, the Guardian political columnist Owen Jones wrote the latest in a long tradition of articles demanding to know what has happened to protest music, inspired by his experiences supporting Paloma Faith on tour. On the face of it, it was a strange booking - the country's most prominent leftist commentator evangelising to arenas full of people waiting to see a former cabaret performer. According to Jones, though, the booking worked - but he still took the opportunity to put the boot into contemporary musicians, asking the age old question: where are the protest songs?

At first glance you could forgive Jones for presuming that the art of the protest song was dead, and he isn’t exactly alone either. Music journalist John Harris, who has built a career out of whingeing that there are no new Dylans and nothing has been the same since the end of Britpop, wrote in the Guardian that it "too often feels like the spirit of dissent is the preserve of past generations”. Add to that Cian Ciarán who, again in the Guardian, bemoaned the idea that "British musicians lack political motivation”. Fair play to them, there are certainly no credible performers pumping out "Masters Of War" 2.0. But look a bit closer, and it soon becomes clear that protest music isn't dead at all - it has just taken on a different form.

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For many people, Billy Bragg is the first point of reference when thinking about protest music. In 1985, Bragg launched Red Wedge, a campaigning organisation that hoped to oust Thatcher in the 1987 election. The group put on tours featuring acts including The Style Council, Elvis Costello, and The Smiths and, while it wasn't officially part of the Labour Party, the two were so closely linked that Red Wedge had an office in the Labour headquarters.

The project ultimately failed, with the Conservatives winning the election. But Red Wedge remains the template for many people's vision of music's political responsibility. Billy Bragg is as outspoken as ever (today, his favoured topic is a seriously dubious assertion that we must 'reclaim' patriotism from the right), and his legacy can be seen clearly in explicitly political contemporary artists like folk singer Grace Petrie, but the world has moved on since 1987, and so too has music.

Billy Bragg in the 80s, when he provoked MP Teresa Gorman to walk out of their debate on Channel 4's 'After Dark' (via)

First, some political background. In this election, politicians of every stripe are aiming to persuade us that theirs is the best vision for the future of the UK. But in fact, it's pretty difficult to tell the difference. Try finding a sentence that's come out of any major politician's mouth during the campaign that wouldn't sound out of place coming from one of their opponents. They might wear different colour rosettes, but that's about all that separates them. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a broad consensus in global politics which, in the last decade especially, has led to major parties copying rather than challenging each other's policies. Most of them agree on the basics now: capitalism, free markets, and a liberal state - and that's why Clegg, Miliband and Cameron all promise spending cuts, low-taxes and pro-business politics.

Some theorists refer to this view of the political landscape as 'post-politics', and they don't think it's a good thing. They reckon it stops us thinking critically about the world we live in, and hides the negative impacts of capitalism. But, in a slogan popularised by the now-defunct London propaganda outfit DSG, many people now assert that "the post-political is the most political." There are still huge injustices in the world - murders by police, benefit sanctions, child poverty, drone strikes - but it's regular people, not big parties or pressure groups, who are fighting against them in their day-to-day lives. Think about Focus E15, fighting to keep their homes, or the 2010 student riots, or the hundreds of food banks that have sprung up autonomously around the country.

So what does this mean for music? Well, when people like Owen Jones say there is no more protest music, what they mean is that there is no music that fits our old notions of what politics might be. It's difficult to imagine Red Wedge happening again, mainly because it's difficult to imagine anyone mustering that much interest in the Labour Party - or, indeed, in any party. But, in the run-up to the most important election in recent history, music is just as political as it ever has been - it's just that now, it explores politics through artists' own lived experiences, rather than by replicating the staid traditions of the past.

Grime is a good example of this. The genre, which is currently enjoying a new phase in the media spotlight - thanks, in part, to a new wave of instrumental grime and a series of collaborations between UK and US artists - is often preoccupied with the black UK experience. While the lyrical scope of grime is broad, much of its imagery is based on the oppression that the black community endures at the hands of the police. You only need to look at Skepta's (above) latest single "Shutdown" to find centrepiece lyrics like, "Me and my Gs ain't scared of police / We don't listen to no politician." They sum up much of grime's engagement with formal politics: there is a deep mistrust of the state, and an ongoing antagonism with the police. In the video for Krept and Konan's (lyrically dodgy) recent single "Don't Waste My Time", meanwhile, a perfectly peaceful gathering of young black people is split up by a cavalcade of police vans. As anyone who has ever spent some time on JME's Youtube channel knows, the police continue to antagonise grime artists, and you can hear a pretty clear response in their music.

In the States, young hip-hop artist Tink recently released the Timbaland-produced single "Tell The Children", a response to the recent spate of police shootings in the US. "Police be telling us it's nothing but their job," she raps, "They profile us / Then they wonder why he grow up being prejudiced and so violent." The song echoes Killer Mike's verses on Run The Jewels' recent single "Early", which imagines the rapper being arrested in front of his wife, who is then assaulted by police. Similarly, themes in recent albums from Kendrick Lamar and D'Angelo both explore what it is to be black in the US. This is made most explicit in D'Angelo's Black Messiah, the liner notes to which read: "[This album is] about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen." On J. Cole's "Be Free" (below), which features recordings of eyewitness Dorian Johnson recounting the Mike Brown shooting. "At no time the officer said that he was going to do anything until he pulled out his weapon," Johnson says, "His weapon was drawn and he said 'I'll shoot you,' and in the same moment, the first shot went off." These songs aren't calling for the listener to vote one way or another, or to support one political faction over the next. Instead, they are representing the daily, grinding horrors enacted by police - and, by extension, supported by politicians.

But it's not just grime and hip-hop that deal with this type of lived experience. Sleaford Mods write consistently about the cruelty of poverty, while new Matador signings Algiers adorn their website with protest imagery and literature. "If we want justice more than assimilation," one quote reads, "we must join...activists and critics who are no longer focused on moving our communities from unacceptable to acceptable, but are instead challenging the terms of our acceptability." Algiers might be sonically familiar, but their politics are radical and liberatory.

Similarly radical and liberatory is the upsurge of women in punk we've seen over the last five years. Perfect Pussy, Speedy Ortiz, White Lung, Joanna Gruesome and hundreds of others all deal directly with women's issues, women's experiences, and sexual politics. Feminism, sexism, and patriarchal values have all been hot-button topics over the last few years and that has been actively driven by punk. And let's not forget that Against Me! put out Transgender Dysphoria Blues - which is, for obvious reasons, one of the most important records of the century. Harriet Harman may not have sat down and listened to Say Yes To Love before she decided to embark upon her "pink bus tour", but Perfect Pussy's presence in contemporary music and the far-reaching influence of their vocalist, Meredith Graves, contributes to a culture that now refuses to accept gender inequality as norm.

Even in the seemingly hedonistic world of dance music, producers are exploring explicitly political themes - most prominently DJ Sprinkles, an alias of producer and selector Terre Thaemlitz. The artist, who lives in Japan but travels extensively, has long rejected the misconception of the dance music arena as one that is apolitical and purely pleasure-seeking. Instead, she sees the club as a site of radical struggle, still linked to its roots in the transgender, queer, and sex worker communities. Her 2009 album Midtown 120 Blues is seen as a classic in the deep house genre, and engages with acutely political themes throughout. In a monologue at the beginning of the record, Sprinkles says: "The contexts from which the deep house sound emerged are forgotten: sexual and gender crises, transgendered sex work, black market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction, loneliness, racism, HIV, ACT-UP, Thompkins Square Park, police brutality, queer-bashing, underpayment, unemployment, and censorship – all at 120 beats per minute.”

This January, Thaemlitz released a collaboration with producer Mark Fell. Here, the pair pit a recording of a famous speech from late Labour MP Tony Benn against a thudding deep house instrumental. It is the second release in a series, recalling a previous instalment which gave the same treatment to miners' strike leader Arthur Scargill. For Thaemlitz and Fell, dance music cannot be separated from its radical history, and today they fly the flag for a renewed political dimension not only to the club but to the music played in it. Then there are artists like Lotic, whose work is fundamentally linked to dance music's queer roots, or nights like London's BodyParty, which aims to provide a safe space for queer, black, and brown party-goers.

Sometimes, these political angles emerge not from the music itself, but from the response to it. "Blurred Lines", for example, was certainly not intended to be a 'political song' (although, of course, celebrating rape culture is intensely political), but it became a rallying cry for feminist groups across the country. More than 20 campuses banned the song, much to the delightful ire of predictable libertarian reactionaries like Spiked. There is, of course, a hefty overlap in the Venn diagram showing those who complain that young people are apathetic, and those who reject their right to oppose a rape anthem.

Clearly, music with a political dimension is alive and kicking. When Owen Jones and John Harris write that there is no new protest music, they really mean that there are no new singers rehashing tired old party political themes. Instead, there is something far more mature, and far more radical: a wealth of vital new music screaming about what it is to be young, black, working class, or simply alive in the world today.

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