By Mike Vinti
Protest and pop are unusual bed fellows. The noisy, often chaotic world of protest can often seem like the antithesis of the sleek, PR heavy world of modern pop music. However, the two have a long a history together. Whether it’s Punk, the Rock Against Racism movement or afro-beat pioneer Fela Kuti running for President of Nigeria, there are plenty of instances where protest and pop music have joined forces to fight injustice. This is happening again today, not only with the renewed attention on feminism as we discussed two weeks ago, but also with the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The relationship between black culture and pop music has always been a complex one and many of the challenges facing black people in day to day life have been replicated in the realm of popular music. Black musicians have found themselves excluded from the charts, had their movements hi-jacked by white artists, and sometimes even had their music stolen by them, looking at you Led Zeppelin. Simultaneously however, the work of black artists and musicians has had an enormous impact on popular music and its associated culture, from the days of segregation and the blues to today, and grime.
many of the challenges facing black people in day to day life
have been replicated in the realm of popular music.
Yet while black culture has often been sidelined, and its impact downplayed by dominant forces in the music industry, the prominence of hip hop, and now, house, in the charts means that the issues that shape aspects of black culture can no longer be kept out of pop music.
As we’ve discussed time and time again here in our little music focused corner of the Radical, culture is not created independently of circumstance, it is a reaction to it. As so much of popular music today is influenced either by hip hop or by dance music, the most prominent forms of which were crafted by black and LGBT artists in the ghettos of Chicago and Detroit, it stands to reason that the messages of the Black Lives Matter movement would find themselves replicated in the realm of pop.
Stands to reason, sure, but the impact Black Lives Matter (BLM for the sake of brevity from here on out) is having on popular music goes beyond merely having its message replicated in song. Take, for example, Kendrick Lamar’s latest album To Pimp a Butterfly. Not only is it one of the best selling albums this year, and one of the greatest hip hop records of the decade, its very being is shaped by the BLM movement.
Songs like the confrontational ‘The Blacker the Berry‘ or the defiant ‘King Kunta‘ are where this is most apparent, with the former containing lyrics such as “you hate me don’t you? You my hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture” and “it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society, that’s what your telling me, penitentiary would only hire me.” The importance of TPAB is widely recognised and the lyric sheet to the entire album is well worth a read, however its relationship with the BLM movement goes beyond a similarity of sentiment. At a protest at Cleveland State University back in July, activists responded to being pepper sprayed by police by chanting the refrain to Kendrick’s song ‘Alright’, cementing the albums relationship with the movement. This may not seem like anything special at first but considered in the context of modern pop, its huge.
Earlier this year, I wrote for this very website that it was difficult to imagine Kanye West fans being incensed by his music enough to take to the streets, in the way punk inspired many people to do back in the 70s and 80s. It would seem, to some degree I was wrong, and thank God. Of course, to say that TPAB or ‘Alright’ in particular are the reason these protesters decided to take action would be a gross overstatement and highly insulting to the incredible work done by the movements organisers and those taking part across the US, however the fact that the lyrics to a number one selling album were being used to motivate protesters in the face of heavy handing policing highlights how pop music can act in a political manner.
And To Pimp a Butterfly is just one example of how BLM has found a voice in pop music. Vince Staples’ Summertime 06 was hailed as a timely and insightful reminder of the struggles many black people face in North America today, and last year’s Run The Jewels 2 drew heavily on similar themes, with EL-P and Killer Mike donating the proceeds from their remix album Meow The Jewels to the families of Mike Brown and Eric Garner; the two unarmed black men whose deaths at the hands of police ignited the protests from which Black Lives Matter was spawned.
The trend is not just confined to the US either, with famed Russian punks Pussy Riot releasing a single entitled ‘I Can’t Breathe’ in response to Garner’s death in February and Manchester based newcomer, Gaika dropping début single ‘Blasphemer’, which references both the ‘hands up don’t shoot’ and ‘I can’t breathe’ motifs of BLM, at the end of October. Similarly, New York via London-based singer and producer, Blood Orange just released ‘Sandra’s Smile‘ a sombre tribute to Sandra Bland who was found hung in her cell after being arrested for a traffic violation.
While the need for the Black Lives Matter movement is a tragedy,
the fact its message is being heard not just on the streets
or at presidential debates but in popular music, is a triumph.
While the need for the Black Lives Matter movement is a tragedy, the fact its message is being heard not just on the streets or at presidential debates but in popular music, is a triumph. As long as the black community in the U.S, and the UK, or anywhere in the world for that matter, faces discrimination from the police and wider society, the presence of these voices in popular culture is vital to getting the message out. Something as important as Black Lives Matter cannot be confined to street protests where it can be kettled, kicked and ultimately ignored; its message much be present throughout culture, black and white, until it is heard, and until black lives actually matter in the eyes of all those in power.