Throughout history, politics has occupied an important space in the world of music. Music allows artists to channel their emotions and voice their opinions through rich sounds and lyrics. Listeners have often taken songs and used them to represent entire movements.
Although music has always been used as a platform for social discourse, the past year has seen growth in artists using their talent and celebrity to speak out about issues of racial injustice, police brutality and the stigma surrounding mental health.
As more figures have become involved in politics in the past year, there has been a rise in political albums.
Professor David Molk, who teaches in Georgetown’s music department and also works as a DJ, explained what motivates artists to release politically charged music.
“You can come out with an overt political album with maybe one of two hopes,” Molk said. “You are looking to convince other people that your point of view is the right point of view. The other side of that would be creating a source of strength for people who already believe in what you believe in, and so those seem like they sit on opposite ends of the spectrum.”
Whatever the reason, these albums serve to bring about some type of change.
A Tribe Called Quest released “We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service,” the group’s sixth and final album, just three days after the 2016 presidential election. It felt especially timely, touching upon issues of economic and racial inequality.
The first single from the album, “We the People…” references the first three words of the Constitution, often regarded as a symbol of the United States as a land for everyone.
The song pushes back against this notion and exposes policies of intolerance and discrimination. The hook of the song alludes to the surge of racism, xenophobia, homophobia and Islamophobia in the United States: “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways / So all you bad folks, you must go.”
Besides speaking candidly on these injustices, the album also serves to honor one of the members of the group, Phife Dawg, who died in March 2016 due to complications from Type 1 diabetes.
Turning in a different direction from his previous albums, Childish Gambino released “Awaken, My Love!’ in December 2016. The album is made up of rhythm and blues, soul and rock tracks.
In “Boogieman,” Gambino takes a well-known mythological monster and uses it to illustrate the stereotyping of blacks in America. Gambino refers to himself as the “boogieman” because he is the one seen as the threat to law enforcement, even though it is the officers that have the guns. Gambino drives the point home when he sings, “But if he’s scared of me / How can we be free?” While there are laws clearly abolishing racial segregation, there is still fear and prejudice that sustain the cycle of discrimination against blacks and other minority groups in the country.
Among the highest-streaming albums of the year was Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.,” released in April 2017. In a similar way to Lamar’s 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” “DAMN.” explores black culture, racial inequality and discrimination from a more introspective point of view.
Another interesting facet of “DAMN.” is that it incorporates samples from news programs. For example, both “BLOOD.” and “DNA.” feature clips from Fox News in which the commentators criticize “Alright,” one of the most popular tracks from “To Pimp a Butterfly,” for being a song about violence when it was actually intended to be one of hope. The song was also adopted as the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement and has been chanted at protests.
Lamar also responds to the election of President Donald Trump on a few different tracks. In “LUST.,” He highlights the shock that swept the country following the election and the waves of protests in response. But he predicts that as time goes on, these protests will diminish as people begin to accept the political situation: “Time passin’, things change / Revertin’ back to our daily programs, stuck in our ways; Lust,” he raps.
Complacency is one of the problems that Lamar finds in society; activity fades and passivity fills its place, resulting in no actual change.
The election of 2016 has become a prominent theme in recent music because of its divisive effects on American society. People — artists in particular — feel an even more urgent need to speak out and hold the president accountable.
“Trump’s administration has shown a light on many of these problems that have already existed. It is not creating these problems; it’s exacerbating them,” Molk said. “People have been protesting them already, but now it feels like there is more of a platform, so more people pay attention when an album comes out that protests it and there’s this ripple effect. More people hear it, more people want to support it, so more people create art around it, go out and donate, go into the streets, go to trainings, and so on and so forth.”
In May 2017, Maryland-born rapper Logic released his third studio album, “Everybody.” Born to a black father and a white mother, many of Logic’s songs touch upon his biracial identity, as well as tackle issues of mental health and injustice.
One of the songs off of the album that has made waves is “1-800-273-8255,” featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid. The title of the song is the actual phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The lyrics depict someone calling the hotline wanting
to commit suicide, but, after speaking to a representative, deciding to keep on living. These lyrics are framed over powerful music and a rich string instrumentation.
Logic, Cara and Khalid performed the song at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards and were joined on stage by suicide attempt survivors. Following the moving performance, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reported a 50 percent increase in calls.
The albums from the past year have brought an even more intense focus on important social and political issues. Whether it be through the release of albums or through other initiatives, artists have always been involved in the sociopolitical sphere.
For example, throughout 2017, Chance The Rapper has worked to raise money for Chicago Public Schools. Lady Gaga has joined forces with former Vice President Joe Biden in the “It’s On Us” campaign to fight against sexual assault on college campuses, and just Tuesday announced plans to team up to launch sexual trauma centers. Miley Cyrus has started a foundation, the Happy Hippie Foundation, dedicated to helping homeless youth.
Musicians have an incomparable platform that they can use to raise awareness of important issues and spark social and political movement. Some choose to do that and others do not, but those who do have witnessed that all it takes is a single note to spark meaningful change.