Every few years the old “I don’t want my musicians to be political” rant crops up, almost always from conservatives. Songs are essentially poetry set to music, and like any form of writing, many of the best and most endearing songs have something to say. Of course, only in our modern polarized political climate would art with a social message be “political.” If the present Covid-19 crisis has taught Americans anything, it’s that “wearing a mask during a pandemic” is somehow political.
Songs with social messages go back at least as long as audio recordings opened the possibility of a message reaching a mass audience. Just like there wasn’t much use in writing essays critiquing social structure before the printing press allowed you to reach people outside your immediate social bubble, mass distribution of music made it possible for original art to spread to a broad audience. The 1960s and 1970s saw the creation of some of the most timeless songs of women’s empowerment, from Aretha Franklin’s Respect to Helen Reddy’s I am Woman. Songs of acceptance and love took many forms, from the simple beauty of Harry Belafonte’s Turn the World Around, to the more subversive Lola by The Kinks which got many in the 1970s to sing along to transgender acceptance. I personally can’t think of protest music without Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth popping into my head, and those lyrics have come to me a lot these days.
Unsurprisingly, the blues genre has a long history of speaking about black oppression in America. Billie Holiday’s song Strange Fruit, based on a poem by a Jewish civil rights activist, brought a lot of heat down from white audiences in the 1940s, and even from the US Federal Government. Holiday’s clean tones and passionate singing evoke a strong poetic image.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
There is presently an explosion of social messaging across all music genres, which is undoubtedly a reflection of our times. Childish Gambino’s This is America, and the music video that goes along with it, is a masterpiece. Janelle Monáe’s albums contain a wealth of social messaging (one of the many reasons I love her work), and one of my favorites is Americans with this amazing stanza
I like my woman in the kitchen
I teach my children superstitions
I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand
A pretty young thang, she can wash my clothes
But she'll never ever wear my pants
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite modern artists who was taken from us at the height of his career by stomach cancer. Charles Bradley was heavily inspired by funk, in particular James Brown. In The World (Is Going Up in Flames) he desperately asks the listener who is to blame for all the world’s troubles. “Is it you? Or you?” before turning to himself and asking “Me?” then cries at the implication that it is his fault, representing the blame that a black man carries in America.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.