For as long as anyone can remember people have written songs. Songs of love, songs of hate, sadness, and even political protest. And while songs of protest aren’t as loud as they were in the 20th century, artists can still be seen to use their platform to start a conversation.
Singing about anything other than love can be seen as a risk. Tackling a complex issue like race, class, gender, or the environment in a song can be especially hazardous. But whether a protest singer writes primarily and overtly about politics, or a pop artist sprinkles cultural commentary in with more traditional subject matter, music can be a powerful conversation starter.
We live in a time of intense national debate with social issues driving the news cycle, and art that dares to dive into these deep waters is more vital than ever.
Adam Briggs, an Indigenous Australian from the Yorta Yorta nation, uses his music to bring important home-grown issues to the conversation. A band called The Herd recently created a cover of Wafia's ‘Bodies’ to make a statement regarding refugees being held in detention centres on Nauru and Christmas Island. The song opens with a sound bite from the documentary ‘Breaking point: Australia under pressure to evacuate sick children from Nauru'. The clip is froma young girl who has spent nearly half her life in detention on Nauru “It’s not a place for kids to see this. It’s not where it – we’re in a zoo. They have fences all around is. Five years is too long.”
Missy Higgins wrote a song titled ‘Oh Canada’ inspired by the Syrian boy Alan Kurdi whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015. Choosing not so much to point fingers concerning the political issues of Syrian refugees, the song reflects rather on the hope of the family as they attempt escape a war-torn country.
However, it isn’t just smaller artists that use their music to shed light on political and social injustices.
John Legend has repeatedly used his music to spotlight racial oppression, making reference to the civil rights movement. Kendrick Lamar, NAS, Mary J Blige, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, and Jamie Foxx have all used their song lyrics to highlight racial discrimination, poverty, and other social issues.
Michael Jackson started making a plea to save the planet back in 1995, with his song 'Earth Song'. The lyrics “What have we done to the world? Look what we’ve done” highlight humanity’s effect on the planet. Truer words have never been sung nearly 25 years later as we hear the warnings of climate change and televised scientist “Bill Nye the Science Guy” appearing on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to warn viewers that “The planet is on F***ING fire”.
In 2017, Eminem made headlines for lashing out against Donald Trump in a freestyle rap that was played at the BET Hip Hop Awards. The rapper unloads on everything from the tweet-happy president's disrespect of the military to his ineffectiveness in Puerto Rico to his attacks on Colin Kaepernick. Eminem then draws a line in the sand against his fans who are Trump supporters and ends the verse with a call to action: “The rest of America stand up/ We love our military, and we love our country/ But we hate Trump.”
Mona Haydar raps about the loaded questions that are often asked of the Syrian-American “What that hair look like/ Bet that hair look nice/ Don’t that make you sweat/ Don’t that feel too tight?” Haydar claps back quick, singing, “Not your exotic vacation/ I’m bored with your fascination/ I need that PayPal, PayPal, Paypal/ If you want education,” noting that she isn’t responsible to teach you about her culture.
P!nk paints a grim picture of a broken America, with the song "What about us?" a rallying cry against “broken promises” that zero in on the current presidential administration following Trump’s election.
Singer-Songwriter MILCK eloquently summarises the subtext after #METOO started trending in a few words “I won’t keep quiet”. The impact came unexpectedly, as the artist shared sheet music with her fans and invited them to join her in singing it a capella at the Women’s March on Washington. All rehearsals for the flash mobs were done online, only meeting in person two days prior to the performances, which would be recorded and eventually reached viral fame. The “one-woman riot” which MILCK sings of was anything but, as hundreds of thousands, even millions, have heard her emotional plea. “Quiet” easily sums up the sentiment of so many political movements of today: the time to speak out, to take action, is now.
During the Women’s March in New York artist Halsey read a poem that she wrote sharing experiences about her own rape, and sexual assault while protesting against Trump. Lady Gaga uses the song ‘Until it happens to you’ to communicate the experience of sexual assault and its victims.
While expressing emotion and thoughts through songs is nothing new, the platforms that allow these messages to be spread instantly around the world are still novel. The lyrics may have changed over the years from “Give peace a chance” but the message of protest still exists in music, allowing the listener to become socially aware of those current issues begging for change.