By: Sam Kayuha, In The Record Store staff writer.
Political statements manifest themselves differently in art, music especially. Whether it's inspired directly by politics are simply created in a charged atmosphere, there has never been a shortage of social commentary in popular music.
Matt Monta joined In The Record Store recently and discussed the inspiration for his song “I Won’t Be Scared.”
“This was a song I wrote back in 2008,” he said on the podcast. “To me, (the 2008 presidential election) was kind of a turning point where you have to look at the situation that you’re in and tell yourself you won’t be scared."
Artists took political initiative during times that demanded it as far back as recorded music exists. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” from 1939 hauntingly alludes to lynching, and “This Land is Your Land” was Woody Guthrie’s 1940 socialist reaction to “God Bless America.”
But it was the 60's — a decade practically required to be preceded by “turbulent” — when popular music was imbued with political and activist language.
Bob Dylan, the most prominent protest singer of the era sung protest songs for only about five or six years of his now decades-long career. But those years, the first half of the decade, were wrought the early stirrings of war in Vietnam and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Dylan’s poetic dissertations on war and peace were a young man’s searching for answer for the world’s ills, but only finding one blowing in the wind. By the end of decade, the United States and the world had endured its turbulence, and was defined by Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” performance at Woodstock. Hendrix playing that song in front of a mass gathering of like-minds wasn’t so much a rebuke against the past or present, but a co-opting of patriotism from those in power, a reassurance that there was a better way.
While rebellion was ingrained in rock — a metaphorical middle finger in Elvis Presley twirling hips and a literal one from Johnny Rotten — its political standing wilted as the cultural power of rap expanded.
Even when it wasn’t directly political, politics were inherent in rap, influenced by the communities from which it originated — communities that exist now as they have for decades because of social inequalities. The art that comes from them is acutely aware of this fact.
So, while the genre may be implicitly political, there are rappers whose politics color their work distinctly. The group Public Enemy were almost solely political, with a philosophy stemming from activists and organizers like Malcolm X and Huey Newton. Its influence has flowed and contributed to the philosophies of Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco.
Today, protest remains in the air among musicians, a reflection of the nation. Some are more direct than others — YG’s “FDT (F**k Donald Trump)” comes to mind, as does another song I’ve suddenly seen popping up, Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F**k Off,” both required listening. But no matter the intensity, there seems to be a cohesive sentiment among musicians and artists that there is no better time to take a stand with one’s work than when threats to liberty and justice arise.
“That was lightweight stuff. I mean 2008, those seem like the good old days compared to what we’re living in now,” Monta said on the show. “And we have this choice now to do something about it or indulge in it.”