Rap battle: can music instigate political change?


Music and politics often prove to be a volatile mix, but can political music be transferred into action?

For (Stephanie Ho)

Can popular forms of art merge with politics? It has become increasingly difficult to separate politics from everything else in our lives. Politics seems to go with just about anything, or rather, many people find it easy to incorporate into other elements of everyday life: breakfast, social media, interpersonal relationships. What about music?

Rap, for example, often features lyrics that highlight sociopolitical issues in addition to other common themes of love and sex.

The recent Occupy Wall Street movement had its own musical moments in which folk singers performed and contributed to furthering the cause through their art form. Occupy Wall Street protested social and economic inequality worldwide, topics central to much political debate. It was essentially a response from the public and ‘the 99%’; As historically a medium of public expression, it is not surprising that folk music has been used to further political horizons by such a public protest. A more obvious example can be found in Barack Obama’s first campaign: his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan served as a positive representation of how group feelings of cohesion can be expressed through a simple chant or song.

There are a number of other musical styles and groups that support the fact that social and political issues can be expressed lyrically. A politician’s speech cannot be compared to when the same speech is taken and performed in conjunction with music. Music’s diverse effects on people, and especially people within a group, effectively leads to the creation of unparalleled moments in which simply listening to a particular song can enhance feelings of unison and camaraderie.

Aside from usage in political protests, music has also been appropriated throughout history by political organizations or governments to disseminate their own ideologies. ‘National’ music in China, for example, clearly strengthened the communist government’s control in the country and served as a constant reminder that is more subtle than any other display of public power.

Music can broaden other political horizons that are separate from the typical issues related to governments. Sexual, social, gender, and identity politics have at some point or another been the focus of musical performance and creation. Given music’s capacity to be a forum of mediation and negotiation, it is unsurprising that these types of politics also demonstrate that music can, in fact, merge with politics.

Against (Ashley Cooke)

I don’t believe music can change the political horizon. Protest music does not instigate change, it harnesses preexisting popular, or, indeed, unpopular, opinion and processes it into short soundbites that capture the sentiment of a movement, serving as an anthem for the campaign. That’s not to say recording the aims of a campaign in a popular song doesn’t expose many more to an idea than would otherwise encounter it. It can capture the popular imagination, but it only articulates preexisting ideas. Without the direct action that precedes and leads any attempt to change the political horizons, music is powerless.

When one thinks of politically inspired music, Dylan and the 60s springs to mind. In 1963, when Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech, as the global anti-nuclear movement reached its peak and as Kennedy began to increase troop numbers in Vietnam, Dylan released The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. ‘Masters of War’ decried the US military-industrial complex that saw the mass stockpiling of weaponry in the arms race with the Soviet Union, and ‘Oxford Town’ spoke of James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi whose enrollment was met with violent rioting on the campus. Dylan’s performances at rallies inspired the assembled masses and supplied the soundtrack to a generation, but it was their popular campaign that effected social change. By 1964, Dylan was tired of being the folk-singer poster-boy of the protest movement, and ‘Maggie’s Farm’ was his cry for artistic autonomy as he distanced himself from the lobby, but direct action continued and the political horizon was altered without him.

Chico Hamilton, the brilliant jazz drummer who played with jazz royalty from Billie Holiday to Count Basie, said of popular demonstrations: ‘There’s a hell of a lot of grounds for protest, but you don’t do it through music,’ I think this can be applied to Billy Bragg, the British folk punk musician with a social agenda. I can’t name a single one of his songs, but I know he is a leftwing activist who regularly appears at anti-fascist demonstrations and has attended the Occupy Movement, which suggests it is through direct action that he channels his protest.

Earlier this year, Steve McQueen, the Turner Prize winning visual artist who released his brilliant portrayal of sex addiction last year titled Shame, was interviewed by The Guardian. After talking about the taboo that sex addiction is, and the unjust sentences delivered after the riots last summer, he was asked, “Can art address these questions?” I will frame my argument with his response: “Art can’t fix anything. It can just observe and portray.”


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