Those in power have always feared the radical qualities of music. As early as the 16th Century Queen Elizabeth I banned the Celtic Harp, issuing a proclamation demanding that harpers be hanged and their instruments destroyed. Irish harpers, she believed, were inciting rebellion against the English monarchy; as a result, the ancient tradition had to be put to a stop.
Fast forward a couple of centuries, across the Atlantic it was folk singers who bore the brunt of establishment resentment. In McCarthy era America, Pete Seeger was put on trial as paranoia engulfed the nation, whilst the FBI has always been suspicious of protest singers.
Governments, monarchies and dictators alike have long shared a distaste for music that makes them feel uneasy- and probably for good reason. Throughout history music has helped to empower marginalised communities. Whether it was folk music giving voice to the working class, or the songs of slaves offering hope of freedom, music has always proven to be an effective expression of resistance. Protest music, in particular, has supplied a cathartic outlet geared towards social change.
Today, protest music is resurgent. As centrist politics gives way to radical populism- on both the left and right- it is unsurprising that music is beginning to reflect this change in society. Until recently, protest music was being mourned by those who claimed it was dead. But that is the thing with the protest tradition: it never really dies; rather, it remains dormant until people are frustrated into action. Out of context, protest music can be feebly didactic, or at worst patronising. It is an art of necessity, not choice.
Musicians have again been called to action out of a feeling of necessity. With movements like ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the ‘Women’s March’ reinvigorating grassroots resistance, political music is back in vogue. Furthermore, with the youth contributing to the surprise result of June’s UK election, it appears as though the young have been awakened out of their political apathy. The result is a new brand of protest music that is wide ranging in both scope and form, dealing with diverse issues in a variety of genres. A distinctly millennial form of protest that has proved popular is that of parody and satire. Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impersonation, for one, has shown how humour can be weaponised. Yet musicians, too, have made use of sarcasm and irony to make a mockery of their foes. Captain SKA’s ‘Liar Liar GE 2017,’ ridiculing British PM Theresa May, was especially scathing. In a an act suggesting that the group must be doing something right, BBC radio 1 refused to play the song in spite of the fact it reached #4 of the UK singles chart. Moreover, through sampling May’s own voice, the band crafted the song in such a way that the PM’s own words were literally used against her. A similar technique was employed by Fiona Apple in ‘Tiny Hands,’ released following Donald Trump’s derogatory remarks about women.
All this brings to the fore how protest music works in the age of social media. Going viral makes it possible to quickly disseminate a message, whilst making it impossible for the establishment to control as it spreads like wildfire. For something to really catch a spark, however, it typically needs to cause controversy or at least a bit of a shock. As such, many new protest songs are more direct than those we’ve grown accustomed to. YG & Nipsey Hussle’s ‘FDT’ (Fuck Donald Trump), far from being ambiguous, leaves little room for interpretation. Indeed, most of these new protest songs are hardly the unifying anthems of old. As for the explicitly anti-Trump tracks, well, they are most likely to add to his appeal.
‘Musicians have again been called to action out of a feeling of necessity. With movements like ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the ‘Women’s March’ reinvigorating grassroots resistance, political music is back in vogue.’
Perhaps, then, the future of political music resides in the personal. Many of our favourite protest songs infuse a personal narrative with a political message, and even music that is not explicitly political can become politically charged in the right context. MILCK’s ‘Quiet’ is undoubtedly very personal, yet the song resonated with the prevailing mood and became something of an unofficial anthem at the Women’s March in January. ‘One woman’s riot,’ as the song puts it, soon became the rallying cry of a coherent and united protest movement.
But what, if anything, can protest music actually achieve? We love to look back on our favourite protest songs in fond recollection of how they defined the times. But when it comes to the concrete realities of influencing government decisions and policy, can we really say that protest music has ever achieved anything? Especially in our age when information and entertainment are consumed in fast-food fashion, it is dubious as to whether a protest song can have any lasting effect. But perhaps that is beside the point. Political music has long served to document the opinions and experiences of marginalised voices, offering an alternative perspective on accepted historical narratives. This may be important when future generations look back on our current political climate. As Phil Ochs, one of Greenwich Village’s most sharp witted protest singers in the 1960s, once put it: ‘in such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.’ That these words still resonate says a lot about today.