The heritage of protest music is nothing like its legacy. Recently, a BBC Radio 1 article asked ‘Is Protest Music Dead?’ listing the likes of Bombay Bicycle Club, Enter Shikari and Hozier as just some of the acts still dedicated to inspiring social change through their music. But where was Pussy Riot? The punk girl group from Moscow who were sent to jail in 2012 on charges of hooliganism for performing a 40 second anti-Putin song in a cathedral. What about Kendrick Lamar? His track ‘Alright’ from the 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly was chanted by crowds at Cleveland State University in response to police brutality against the black community. And where is Beyoncé on this list? Even before the release of the overtly political ‘Formation’ last week, she has been creating space for black women in her celebration of womanhood. The lack of inclusion of these groups says one thing – protest music can only be made by white, mostly heterosexual men. But this isn’t the 1960s any more, we don’t need another Bob Dylan.
Artists in positions of political and cultural privilege like those the BBC listed have the choice of making protest music, even as they claim the nature of their songs isn’t “immediately obvious because they didn’t set out to be protest songs”. But artists who aren’t white or male or Western or straight don’t possess that choice. The music being made by these marginalised groups is inherently political because it’s creating a direct channel between the artist and an oppressed group, overtly or covertly. When Beyoncé sings “My daddy Alabama/ Mamma Louisiana / You mix that n****o with that Creole/ make a Texas b**a” in ‘Formation’ she isn’t saying it for a bunch of white kids to sing in a club.
It’s a statement that claims her identity and says fuck you to anyone that thinks they have a right to control it. ‘Formation’ reaches the grass roots and can only be truly appreciated by those it’s intended to empower. VV Brown, whom this week premiered her video for ‘Sacrifice’ is part of the resurgence of protest music. In ‘Sacrifice’, Brown imitates ‘blackface’ by donning ‘whiteface’ as Martin Luther King’s words hang over her, “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the colour of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips”.
to suggest that protest music is dead or being sustained by a list of privileged musicians isn’t honest
It’s not just black female artists who are using their music as vehicles for political change, the entire #BlackLivesMatter movement has been encompassed by musicians from all walks of life, including Pussy Riot. It speaks volumes that the duo’s first release in English was in response to the death of Eric Garner who was killed after being put in a choke hold by a policeman in NYC. The title of the song, ‘I Can’t Breathe’, refers to the last words spoken by Garner and played over and over as the song ends. Pussy Riot are also known for speaking out for the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community in Eastern Europe.
In the 2016 release ‘Chaika’, the girls playfully sing “I love Russia/ I’m a Patriot” as they beat up a series of men replicating the corrupt politics practised by the current Prosecutor General of Russia who the song is named after. Protest music isn’t just a performance to groups like this, it is a way of life. Pussy Riot were willing to go to jail because of the politics they proudly wore in their music. Isn’t that a much better representation of the state of protest music in 2016, with artists not only writing songs that have political implications, but as musicians who live those implications?
That’s not to say that the BBC’s selected choices like Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’ or Enter Shikari’s ‘Anaesthetist’ aren’t empowering and important songs. But, those factors don’t necessarily mean that they should or can be classed as protest music. The artists really using their music to make political statements and support oppressed groups are being invited to universities to hold talks and discussions around that oppression. They’re joining the public on political protest marches, as Killer Mike of Run the Jewels did following the Ferguson Riots in 2014. Protest music is music that resonates with people; it’s not merely a statement that makes its listeners question a stereotype or a law though it may instigate that. Protest music is a weapon. So to suggest that protest music is dead or being sustained by a list of privileged musicians isn’t honest. Protest music is about to have its biggest year since the 1960s and this revolution isn’t going to be led by the same people as before.