Music Is Still A Powerful Political Tool

There are many who believe that the role of a musician is to entertain, certainly not to get involved in politics. They see artists such as Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Pharrell Williams publicly endorsing Hillary Clinton in last year’s US Presidential Election and groan. It is true that often musicians try and use their influence without much insight or knowledge of the issues. Sometimes they even stand for office (with varying levels of success). Wyclef Jean attempted to run for the Presidency of Haiti, but embarrassingly failed to meet the residency requirement of living in Haiti for 5 years before the election. More successful attempts to move into politics came from artists including Sonny Bono (who was Mayor of Palm Springs, California, and a member of the US House of Representatives until his tragic death), soul legend Jerry Butler (Commissioner for Cook County, Illinois), and, perhaps more bizarrely, Rhys Hutchings of Welsh comedy rap group Goldie Looking Chain (Newport City Councillor 2012-2017).

Who are these musicians to tell us how to vote or how to live? Why were Oasis invited to Downing Street in 1997? How did a ska song denouncing Theresa May as a ‘Liar, Liar‘ reach number 4 in the UK Singles Chart? What’s grime got to do with it all?

Music and politics are among the most ancient of arts. Kings and nobles would often commission musical numbers to be written and sponsor composers. Bach & Handel both served as ‘Kapellmeisters’ to nobility, the latter for King George I. His composition ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks‘ was written under instruction from George II to celebrate the end of the War of Austrian Succession. Here music was used to create a sense of national pride, to display the devoutness of the composer’s patron, to be anthems of success and good fortune.

Moving forward in time it was music which helped give voice to the repressed through protest songs. From ‘No More Auction Block‘ and ‘We Shall Overcome‘ to ‘Strange Fruit‘ and ‘A Change Is Gonna Come‘, the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements in the USA were iconic in their use of music. Music brought people together, it inspired hope; it allowed a shared expression. Having a shared expression is vital in the relationship between music and politics. Because music and lyrics can be interpreted differently by different people, it is possible for individuals with different experiences to all share in their resonance with a particular song or piece of music. Shared expression can most obviously be seen through national anthems. Take, for example, the passion with which a Cardiff crowd belts out ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau or the celebration of diversity that is the multilingual South African National Anthem which flows wonderfully from the hymn of pan-African liberation ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ through the Rainbow Nation’s 5 most common languages, including the old Afrikaans anthem ‘Die Stem van Suid-Afrika’.

Just like anthems are used to evoke a sense of national pride, other songs can help create a common purpose or identity amongst a group or movement. Russia is a great example, as music has been used quite extensively in both opposition to and support for the current regime. The feminist punk band Pussy Riot were arrested in 2012 for a guerilla performance in a Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow and pop star Valeriya has been a vocal supporter of the country’s annexation of Crimea. Russian authorities are also thought to be behind recent music videos ridiculing opposition protesters and were outraged when Ukraine banned their 2017 Eurovision entrant Yulia Samoylova from entering the country due to a previous tour of Crimea. Ukraine’s controversial winning song in 2016 was about the deportation of the region’s Tatar people by Stalin in the 1940’s and did little to improve relations between the counties..

All art forms can be subject to use by those in politics. Campaign posters are often used inventively to create an image or aura about political leaders or parties such as Obama’s iconic ‘Hope’ posters in 2008 or the Conservative’s famous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster from 1978. Likewise music has become very important in political campaigning. Nowadays you can’t go to a political rally or party conference without hearing some kind of entrance music, and that itself isn’t as simple as it may seem. In the US Presidential races over the years we have seen the likes of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop’ for Bill Clinton, U2’s ‘City of Blinding Lights’ for Barack Obama and more recently by John Kasich, and, in a bizarre twist, ABBA’s ‘Take a Chance On Me’ was used by John McCain.

These songs are not chosen by chance or just because they sound a certain way; they are used to convey a message. It is also now not uncommon for musicians to send a message by prohibiting certain politicians from using their music. Bobby McFerrin objected to George HW Bush’s use of ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ and Keane drummer Richard Hughes tweeted that the Conservatives had not asked permission to use the band’s song ‘Everybody’s Changing’ in 2010 and that he would not be voting for the party. Multiple artists, including Adele, Queen, Neil Young, R.E.M, Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones, demanded that the Trump campaign stopped using their music at rallies and events (John Oliver did a great segment on it which you can watch here).

Musicians are as influential as ever, they, just like Trump, are able to express their views to millions through social media. So while some may see the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Jay Z on stage with Barack Obama at political rallies and roll their eyes, the ability to emanate into pop culture (like Obama has managed to do) can help create a positive image while bypassing the press. In 1997 Tony Blair’s New Labour rode the wave of ‘Cool Britannia’ to a landslide electoral victory. Their endorsements from the likes of Oasis’ Gallagher brothers and their campaign song ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ by D:Ream (probably the most typically 90’s campaign song they could have chosen) made the party look like a fresh and positive alternative after 18 years of Tory rule. This is now beginning to be mirrored in the appeal of Corbyn’s Labour.

This year has seen one of the most interesting grassroots political movements of recent years: Grime4Corbyn. Grime is a genre which developed in London in the early 2000’s with influences from garage, hip-hop, jungle and dancehall. Today it is one of the dominant urban music scenes in the UK and is incredibly popular with young people with artists such as Skepta, Stormzy & Wiley breaking into the charts with increasing regularity over the past decade. In 2016, grime artist Novelist declared public support for Jeremy Corbyn and was followed later that year by Stormzy, who referred to Corbyn in an interview as “my man, Jeremy”. Early in this year’s election campaign influential artist JME recorded and interview with Corbyn for Vice, where the man who said he had never voted as it hadn’t been able to see where it would make a difference for his life was visibly won over by Corbyn and also endorsed the Labour leader. Soon more and more elements of the grime scene came out to back Labour and Corbyn in particular. Many cited his personability, his consistent record of standing up against issues like the Apartheid and the Iraq War, and his campaign to help the disadvantaged in society  as reasons for their support. As far as unofficial campaigns go, the Grime4Corbyn movement was incredibly successful in mobilising young voters who had long been absent at the ballot box. They made their own merchandise and even mixed one of Corbyn’s speeches into its own grime track.

While the youth turnout is estimated to be lower than the initial 72% figure that was floated about in the wake of the election, it is still thought to be somewhere in the 60/-70% range, a huge surge from the 43% of 18-24 year olds who voted in 2015. The use of shared expression gave a voice to disenfranchised and often ignored young voters.

Music has become more and more intertwined in the world of politics and shows no signs of letting go. Whether it is used in protest, to mobilise voters, or to ridicule opposition, music is an effective way of inspiring support or expressing criticism or dissent. From Pete Seeger’s ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’, to ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, to Captain Ska’s ‘Liar, Liar’, it is clear that nobody should expect music or art to stop being a part of politics anytime soon.

You can find any of the songs or artists mentioned in this article in this YouTube playlist.

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